Public investment in mega dams has been a bold attempt to make up for Africa’s power deficit. But despite some impressive achievements, doubts remain about the efficiency of those schemes, as the government leaves its comfort zone to try and attract private capital into renewable energy projects.
By William Davison, September 5
The stink of garbage and sheen of steel at the Reppie site on the edge of Ethiopia’s capital reflects the nation’s troubled past and, the government hopes, its gleaming future.
Addis Ababa’s open dump was the scene of a tragedy in March as a chunk of the unmanaged landfill collapsed onto shacks killing over 100 people. The incident exposed maladministration by city managers and a historic absence of vision for how to dispose of waste.
But on the other side of the site, beyond the locals still doggedly scouring the garbage for scraps of value, two giant chimneys loom over a stretch of the city’s ring road. These are the flues that will treat remaining noxious gases after garbage is incinerated at 1,000 degrees Celsius for two seconds in a state-owned Waste-to-Energy plant set to open this year.
As well as disposing of 1,400 tons of rubbish a day in an eco-friendly fashion, two turbines will also produce electricity from pressurized steam. Reppie, which can power 6 million light bulbs for 8 hours a day, should act as a “stand-by generator 24-7” for a city that suffers regular outages, said Samuel Alemayehu, the managing director of co-contractor Cambridge Industries. The $120-million incinerator is built to the same specifications as a scheme near London, according to the charismatic Stanford University graduate.
“There are many who questioned the decision to design the facility with full European Environmental Standards,” he said. “However, we didn’t want to build a plant for now, but a facility for the future.”
Such ambition is matched by the government of Africa’s second-most populous nation, which has been engaged in a bold energy development program over the last decade anchored on building large dams to generate electricity from hydropower.
International attention has often focused on the dams’ potentially negative downstream impact, particularly for vulnerable minority groups in southern Ethiopia, and Egyptians that rely on the Nile. But the government has been resolute in arguing that schemes like the much-criticized Gibe III will benefit Ethiopians overall, and that an ancient nation has long been denied the right to utilize the Nile waters that flow mainly from its soil.
Yet, while there are indeed reasons to defend and praise the state-heavy mission to make Ethiopia a regional powerhouse, much like at Reppie, eye-catching advances mask a murky reality of politicized choices that affect project efficiency and the strategy’s comprehensiveness. As major dams reach completion, the next few years will therefore reveal whether the multi-billion dollar investments become the catalyst for industrialization. Or whether that cash was in fact sunk into superficially impressive vanity projects that will act as a drag on economic growth. Much also depends on the fate of a so far stuttering effort to attract private capital into the sector, as an increasingly indebted government begrudgingly seeks more sustainable ways to fund power plants.