KU Leuven: Solar and wind energy can prevent conflict in northeast Africa

A new study shows that a massive expansion of solar and wind power in northeast Africa could ease several tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt around Africa’s largest hydroelectric power station, the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Adapting the operation of the GERD to support grid integration of solar and wind power is delivering tangible energy and water benefits for all countries involved.

“Our results call for integrated hydropower, solar and wind energy planning in the GERD negotiations,” said Sebastian Sterl, energy planning expert at KU Leuven and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature Energy .

The mega-dam is located in Ethiopia, close to the Sudan border. It is the largest hydroelectric power station in Africa. | © Google
For several years now, political tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have been escalating due to a conflict surrounding the near-completed GERD on the Blue Nile. Ethiopia says it needs the dam’s electricity to lift millions of its citizens out of poverty. But Egypt is very concerned about the impact of the mega-dam on the Nile, as agriculture is completely dependent on Nile water. Sudan, meanwhile, seems to be trapped between both parties. The ongoing brokerage talks led by the African Union on an agreement on the long-term operation of the dam have so far yielded little fruit. Some tongues have even speculated about a possible “water war” between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

Seasonal synergy
Sebastian Sterl, energy planning expert at VUB and KU Leuven and lead author of the study, explains: “The Blue Nile is a highly seasonal river. The GERD reservoir is so large that it covers the entire peak flow of the river. can store and provide year-round hydropower, eliminating the seasonality of the river. From an Ethiopian perspective, this makes great sense, but it completely changes the natural timing of the water reaching Sudan and Egypt. the question of who should exercise such control over the Nile, and whether such control is desirable at all. ”

A group of Belgian and German researchers, led by Sterl, recently found a method that could offer a solution to those geopolitical tensions: the massive use of modern, clean solar and wind energy to supplement the hydropower of the GERD. The researchers propose that Ethiopia and its neighboring countries set up large-scale solar and wind farms, work on a regionally integrated electricity grid, and agree that Ethiopia will exploit GERD in conjunction with solar and wind energy. That way, less water is turbulent on sunny and windy days, and more water during cloudy, windless periods and at night, to support the ever-fluctuating solar and wind energy.

The researchers realized that in many regions of Ethiopia, Sudan and their East African neighbors, sun and wind have opposite seasonal profiles to the Blue Nile current. In these places the sun shines brightest and the wind blows hardest during the dry season. This “seasonal synergy” between water, sun and wind is at the heart of the researchers’ findings.

Regional cooperation for a common East African electricity grid can be crucial.

The study found that if GERD were to work year-round – both hourly and seasonally – in conjunction with solar and wind power, this would automatically mean less hydropower production during the dry season, and even more so during the dry season. the wet season. This would not negatively impact the average annual power output of GERD. The water flowing out of the dam would then have a seasonal character, somewhat similar to the natural river flow, with a marked peak in the wet season.

According to Sterl, if GERD were operated in this way, Ethiopia would have “all the expected benefits of a large dam – but to Sudan and Egypt, it would appear that the Ethiopians have built only a modest reservoir. There are already many such reservoirs on the river. Nile, so the countries downstream from Ethiopia could not really object to this. “

Regional cooperation
The researchers identified five concrete benefits of such an integrated water-solar-wind planning. First, Ethiopia could become Africa’s largest energy exporter while reducing its reliance on hydropower and lowering its long-term electricity generation costs. Second, Sudan and other East African countries could replace polluting fossil fuels with solar and wind power, backed by GERD. Third, the proposed mode of operation of the GERD would allow Egypt to receive more water during dry years without altering the exploitation of its own high Aswan dam. Fourth, Ethiopia could make more efficient use of its mega-dam’s many turbines by regularly producing at peak power when solar and wind power are not available. Finally, the new dam will have less of an adverse effect on the ecology of the Nile in Sudan, as flow seasonality is an important component of the ecological sustainability of rivers.

According to the authors, the entire East African region can contribute. “Ethiopia could theoretically use the GERD to support its own solar and wind energy,” says Sterl. “But it would work much better if, say, Sudan were in the game – it has better solar and wind resources than Ethiopia, enabling better synergies between hydropower, solar and wind power and lowering the overall cost of renewable energy generation. Egypt also has a promising solar and wind energy potential, as do Djibouti, South Sudan and other East African countries. Regional cooperation for a common East African electricity grid can be crucial. “

The results of the study also suggest that integrated water-solar-wind planning is an interesting option for the ongoing GERD negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. “You could call it a win-win situation,” says Prof. Wim Thiery, climate expert at the VUB and co-author of the study. “The whole region would benefit.”

Fashion model
The researchers obtained their results using a special, detailed computer model designed to simulate the operation of hydropower dams alongside other renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power.

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