Ethiopia plans to begin exporting renewable energy to a broader range of neighboring nations by 2018 as part of a cross-border effort to meet regional energy demand and limit increases in climate-changing emissions.
The Eastern African Power Pool (EAPP) initiative aims to create or expand clean energy transmission lines among about a dozen countries in the region. Ethiopia, which has plans to dramatically scale up its production and export of hydroelectricity, would take on a bigger role as a regional power exporter under the plan.
Currently, Ethiopia exports power to parts of Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti, but it has signed deals to send power to Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan and Yemen as well, particularly from hydropower.
The new $1.8 billion Gilgel Gibe 3 dam on the Omo River is set to begin power production as early as June.
Mekuria Lemma, head of strategy and investment at Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, the state-owned sole provider of electricity in the country, said the regional power pool aims to boost economic growth in power importing nations, increase Ethiopia's export earnings and bring grid electricity to millions without it.
Push at Paris?
The clean energy advances could help East Africa push for global cuts in climate-changing emissions at U.N.-led climate talks in Paris this December, said Negash Teklu, executive director of PHE (Population, Health and Environment) Ethiopia, an NGO consortium.
The region faces worsening impacts from climate change, including stronger droughts and more unpredictable planting seasons. "Even though Ethiopia isn't a big emitter it has been disproportionately affected by climate change," Teklu said.
With many East African nations, including Ethiopia, pushing ahead with renewable energy projects, countries in the region may have a stronger position to call for a goal of zero net carbon emissions by 2050, Teklu said.
Need for power
Ethiopia is home to nearly 100 million people, about a quarter of the total population of the Eastern Africa Power Pool region, which would stretch from Egypt in the north to Tanzania in the South, and from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the west to Djibouti in the east.
Just 20 percent of Ethiopians have access to the country's electric grid, a percentage even lower in rural areas. Those without power often cut wood for cooking, increasing deforestation and hurting water availability.
A surge in the use of reliable renewable energy could both provide employment for Ethiopia's large number of young people through small renewable energy businesses and protect the environment, Teklu said.
The government says in its latest Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) that by 2020 it aims to reach 15,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity, including 1,500 MW from wind energy, 11,000 MW from hydropower, 1,200 MW from geothermal, 300 MW from solar and 600 MW from co-generation.
Currently it has an installed electrical capacity of more than 2,200 megawatts. The Democratic Republic of Congo also has significant hydropower potential in the region, but that country's political instability and weak infrastructure has meant that Ethiopia is the regional leader in exporting electricity.
Deal on the Nile
In March, the leaders of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan signed a "declaration of principles" on the use of the Blue Nile, the Nile's main tributary, for a $4.7 billion, 6,000 MW hydropower project Ethiopia is constructing on the river, near the Sudanese border. The principles call for sharing of data and commit Ethiopia to working to avoid harm from potential changes in water flows to Egypt and Sudan. It also gives first rights to electricity exports from the hydropower plant to those two countries.
Egypt and Sudan, both largely desert nations, depend heavily on the water of river Nile for drinking water, agriculture and industries, and plans to dam the river for power have been hugely controversial.
President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt said at the March signing that the dam remains "a source of concern and worry" for Egypt.
But Teklu said that with both Egypt and Sudan facing electricity shortages, exports from Ethiopia could help both nations achieve their development needs more cleanly, while reducing potential future political flashpoints. "If 12 of us members of EAPP sit down and agree on fair distribution of electricity needs it can support and compliment each country's development initiative, contribute to regional unity" he said.
"Energy integration has happened before in the European Union, different states of the United States and parts of Asia, so there is no reason EAPP's goals can't be met while addressing climate concerns," Teklu said.