Potential Energy

Hopes for Hydropower in Africa

By Ted Nordhaus and Emma Brush

The extraordinarily ambitious Grand Inga project on the Congo River provides a potent symbol of the potential that hydropower holds in Africa. On a continent where vast numbers of people lack access to electricity and rely on biomass as their primary energy source—the ramifications of which range from local pollution to grave health outcomes to gender inequity, not to mention the severe limitations on energy consumption that any use of biofuels entails—the development and generation of clean, abundant, and affordable energy would be revolutionary. And indeed, this is not an idle possibility; while the towering aspirations of Grand Inga, slated to cost around $80 billion as the world’s largest hydroelectric project, may raise more questions than answers, it is nevertheless the case that hydropower stands as the lone clean energy source to rival coal and gas in cost on the continent.

So argues Breakthrough Senior Fellow Siddhartha Shome in a new essay for the Breakthrough Journal that urges us to reconsider hydropower as a source of ready electricity in the developing world and, somewhat surprisingly, a driver of forest conservation to boot. Not only does hydropower supply more than half of the world’s renewable energy, Shome argues, but historically, the need to protect hydrologic resources has also motivated and institutionalized hugely effective conservation measures in countries such as Costa Rica, that gem of green virtue known for its verdant primary forests, wide swaths of protected areas, and abundant renewable power—80 percent, in fact, of the country’s total electricity, and about 80 percent of which comes from hydro.

Of course, Shome has no illusions that hydropower comes without trade-offs, nor without controversy. Environmentally, he acknowledges, dams can hugely disrupt ecosystems and displace species. Hydroelectric projects can and have dislodged humans as well, forcing involuntary relocations and economic burdens borne most heavily by indigenous communities. And as of late, there has even been some discussion in academic circles as to the greenhouse gas emissions that dams, too, likely generate.

But confronting each challenge in turn, Shome ultimately demonstrates that such questions attend virtually all energy development. Social and environmental displacement almost always accompany development to some degree, and forgoing development is not an option for countries in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia looking to achieve modern living standards. Managing those trade-offs well requires wise governance, responsible institutions, and equitable management of complex social and environmental processes.

But again, the example of Costa Rica suggests that good governance of the challenges that attend hydroelectric development remains within the realm of possibility. No indigenous populations have been displaced, Shome shows, by hydroelectric projects in the country’s history. The one dam that did require substantial relocation was largely a success story, with the help of a governmental task force, financial aid, and other forms of institutional support. And since, local communities have largely benefited from the economic and social development that the nation’s hydro developments have made possible.

The exceptional conservation gains that hydropower has generated in Costa Rica are equally important to acknowledge. Thirty percent of its land, we learn, falls under some form of national protection. Fifty percent is made up of forest. We have hydropower to thank, Shome says, for Monteverde, for Corcovado National Park, and for the five percent of Earth’s terrestrial species that make Costa Rica’s tropical rainforests their home.

Those places where deforestation poses the greatest threat today are often also the regions where energy development will and must take precedence. We would be remiss, Shome suggests, to disregard hydroelectricity, a power source with the massive potential, if appropriately harnessed, to address both challenges at once.