An ambitious hydro electric plan


The Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) has a 25 years future plan which look very ambitious. If the plan goes well Ethiopia will generate 37,000 mega watts (MW) of electric power from its rivers in 2037.

Well, Ethiopia had less than 500MW of electric power 21 years ago. Currently, at this time it produces 2,000MW from the hydro electric sector. Mathematically, the increase in output over the past 21 years is a mere four fold. At this rate, it may be difficult to arrive at over 18 fold in the coming 25 years. But when we look at the facts on the ground it gives more of a complex mixture. Let me start with the plus side.

EEPCo is a national governmental body responsible for  providing electric power to the people since its establishment in 1955. Two of the major challenges faced by the organization since its inception are financial and political. Other African countries have often intervened when EEPCo tried to use its rivers for hydro electric power. In this regard, direct intervention by Egypt concerning damming the Blue Nile is a case in point. In addition, the Kenyans are being pushed hard by the NGOs to strongly intervene in stopping the Gilgel Gibe III project. In short, the company has not been allowed to construct dams for hydro electric power for many years.

Breaking this long held tradition began in the early 60s during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie. When the Yugoslav engineers constructed the hydro electric power that produced about 43 MG on Tis Abay, on the River Nile, the Egyptians were so furious. (Now it is providing 70 MW.) The Tis Abay hydro electric power was inaugurated in 1966. Following this further confrontation was avoided using both diplomacy and resilience. It was the diplomatic brilliance of the leadership at the time that kept the country away from possible military confrontation. The current All Ethiopian Unity Party President, Hailu Shawl was a junior engineer who worked on the dam built on Abay at that time. That was the first big successful project constructed on Abay.

And now after 46 years EEPCo is trying to construct the big Renaissance hydro electric dam on Abay defying the pressure of Egypt. This time EEPCo is lucky because Egypt has been entangled with its own internal problems. Even if things are normal, the Ethiopian government is determined to go ahead with this huge project. The new dam is expected to produce 6,000MW when it is completed ten years from now. EEPCo did and does that to fulfil its early mission, serving the Ethiopian people.

Above all the achievements of the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation in the last 21 years, this will be the most extraordinary. Jumping from less than 500MW to 2000MW is remarkably a break through. The Corporation spent billions of dollars for the construction purposed in a magnitude unseen in the past. In most cases the money is raised from the local source. Taking loans from the Ethiopian banks for useful purpose is surely a sign of greatness.

Although, it is bad to run a lavish life with credit, in EEPCo’s case the credit by far and large has been spent on something substantial. Considering this the corporation gets loans from big local and international financial institutions. In connection to this Mihiret Debebe, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of EEPCo said recently, “We hope that we can get sufficient finance for the work we want to start soon.” From the total investment, power generation will consume the major amount.

It is equally true that EEPCo is one of the gigantic power generating institutions in Africa. No other African Electric agency is engaged in such high scale. Now the corporation is engaged outside of its original sphere of serving the Ethiopian people. Producing power for export is just becoming one of its new missions. In line to this, EEPCo has already begun exporting power to Djibouti and other neighbouring countries. Very shortly Ethiopian power will enter in to the territory of Kenya. To be fair, all these are on the plus side.

Let us look at the end of the other spectrum. The country has the potential to generate 45,000MW from its water sources. Other renewable energies such as wind, solar and geothermal also have the potential to produce over ten thousand MWs energy.

According to studies, the country has great geothermal potential in the Great Rift Valley area with 5,000MW geothermal power. The energy production expected to generate from wind and solar is 10,000MW. By any estimate, it is difficult to produce 37,000MW from the 45,000MW potential in 25 years.

Other drawbacks are bound to support this argument. When the Tekeze hydro electric dam was inaugurated two years ago it was officially announced that it would produce 300MW. Tekeze consumed over five billion birr. Considering the magnitude of its power production many thought that the cost was reasonable.  But now officials admit that it only produces about 70 MW. Bearing this in mind, an exorbitant sum was wasted for too little power.

The same was true for Tana Beles Dam. During the colourful inaugural ceremony it was announced that the dam would produce 450MW. At the initial stage, the problem of a distribution line was the major cause for failing to meet the actual production level. After the distribution line was completed, the dam failed produced close to the power it was supposed to. The Gilgel Gibe II project also faced different and severe problems. The main tunnel was badly damaged, rather collapsed, a week after it was inaugurated. In the inaugural ceremony high profile guests including the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi and the Italian Foreign Minister were in attendance. This demonstrated that the country has a serious problem with construction.

Other hydro electric dams are not free from problems. Almost all of them produced much less power than it was originally announced. Almost all dams have not been completed as per the plan of the project. No single project ended in accordance to the set date. Delay seems the order of day. These are all on the minus side.

If we combine the two, the plus and minus sides, it is possible to conclude that the 25 year plan of producing 37,000MW is too ambitious. Rather a dream plan hard to make come true, if we go opposite to this conclusion, we raise one question. If the plan of EEPCo is successful, do we have the capacity to consume what is produced by the corporation? Or do we become dependant on Export?