Ethiopia’s bid to become a renewable energy powerhouse

Ethiopia’s bid to become a renewable energy powerhouse

Ethiopia is set to become Africa's main producer of renewable energy, betting that its vast hydroelectric, geothermal, solar and wind power generating potential will not only allow it to become energy self-sufficient, but also export substantial amounts of electricity to its power-hungry neighbours.

In many ways, renewable energy is one of Ethiopia's most important strategic assets and essential for the government's internal and regional politics. Ethiopia has only very limited traditional energy sources available and now imports most of its fuels via the seaport of Djibouti. This is expensive and creates political dependencies, which the regime despises.

It also limits economic development, with energy prices higher than they need to be. Especially the establishment of a sizeable manufacturing industry (with shoe production showing a lot of promise in this particular case) relies on the availability of cheap and reliable electricity. To that end, the Ethiopian government has grand plans:

Africa's second most populous country - plagued by frequent blackouts - plans to boost generating capacity from 2,000 MW to 10,000 MW within the next three to five years. - Al Jazeera

Centrepiece of this strategy is the Renaissance Dam, a massive project on the Blue Nile close to the Sudanese border, which will provide a massive 6,000 MW once finished. In terms of electricity generating capacity, the Renaissance Dam will be the largest on the continent and rank among the top 15 worldwide. But this is by far not the end of the story:

Experts put Ethiopia's hydropower potential at around 45,000 MW and geothermal at 5,000 MW, while its wind power potential is believed to be Africa's third-largest behind Egypt and Morocco. - Al Jazeera

Recently, the Ethiopian government announced plans to develop a 1,000 MW geothermal plant in the country's south and it just inaugurated the continent's largest wind farm, with 84 turbines churning out 120 MW.

At home, these ambitious plans will increase service delivery to Ethiopian communities and create much-needed jobs. This is important for the government, because given its authoritarian style and allegations of ethnic monopolization of high offices and the army by members of the Tigray ethnic group, the government needs to provide results to limit discontent. Also, energy independence will remove possible leverage from other powers who may want to limit Ethiopia's ambition as a regional and continental power.

Externally, transforming itself from an importer of fossil fuels to the region's powerhouse could prove to be pivotal for the governments regional ambitions. Already, the promise of access to Ethiopian electricity has helped to forge an East African coalition against Egypt's claim over the sole right to decide over the partition of the Nile's water. The Ethiopian government knows that electricity (or the lack thereof) is one of the most potent political leverage in Africa. Providing substantial amounts of electricity to e.g. Kenya or the relatively young nation of South Sudan would make Ethiopia instantly a partner to be respected and potentially feared as well.

Overall, Ethiopia's renewable energy strategy shows that this type of energy production has firmly entered the domain of power politics traditionally reserved for oil and gas. Governments, donors, NGO's and the civil society around the world will need to take note.