Ethiopia is venturing into large-scale wind power generation for the first time as it embarks on an ambitious plan to increase its electrical capacity four-fold by 2015 to meet rising domestic demand and gain export revenues.
While hydroelectric power will remain a predominant energy source, the country is looking to diversify its production of renewable power. Hydro power is vulnerable to the effects of climatic change, and non-renewable fuels such as gasoline and charcoal are polluting and expensive.
The government hopes that its plan will enable it to generate surplus power for export to neighbouring countries.
Wind power has been pursued primarily in Asia, the West and to some extent North Africa. Ethiopia's first steps into this technology call for seven projects as part of the government's Growth and Transformation Plan.
The first is the 120 megawatt (MW) Ashegoda Wind Farm Project, about 760 km (475 miles) north of the capital, Addis Ababa, in Tigray Regional State. It is set to be commissioned in late 2012 or early 2013 after almost four years of work.
The farm will consist of 54 wind turbines with a capacity of 1.67 MW each, and 30 with a capacity of 1 MW. Construction is being undertaken by the French company Vergnet SA at cost of nearly $300 million, with the loan guaranteed by French financial firms.
A further project is the 51 MW Adama I wind farm, located about 95 km (59 miles) southeast of the capital, and the only wind power scheme in the Rift Valley.
The $117 million Adama project is financed through a loan from the Export-Import Bank of China and being undertaken by the Chinese companies CGCOC Joint Venture and Hydro China. The wind farm was slated to be commissioned by June 2012 but is now reportedly due to be finished this month.
Hydro power currently makes up about 90 percent of Ethiopia's total power supply. Officials at the state-owned power utility Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) acknowledge that electricity generated by wind is more expensive, although the cost of hydro power varies depending on factors such as the water flow in rivers, they said.
COPING WITH LACK OF RAINFALL
Nevertheless, officials point out that wind power can complement the hydro supply and serve as a guarantor against power shortages as the demand for electricity rises.
The technologies may be particularly complementary as power production from reservoirs and dams diminishes once the rainy season is over, but winds begin to pick up at the same time, they said.
"The wind power project is cheaper and takes little space to install compared to the (gasoline fuelled) generators that the country uses in times of power shortages," said Gossaye Mengiste, director of energy studies and development follow-up at the Ministry of Water and Energy (MoWE), which oversees the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation.
Mengiste said that power outages are still a regular occurrence in Ethiopia's major cities. About half the area of Ethiopia still has no access to mains electricity.
According to Stephan Willms, a project manager and coordinator for the Wind Energy Public Private Partnership Programme run by European companies Enervest, Consta and Renewco, Ethiopia must do more to use its wind power potential effectively.
According to Willms, whose programme provides training to local wind energy based industries, major challenges include persuading international companies of the market potential for wind power in Ethiopia, as well as getting them to work with local companies.
He added that it can be difficult finding competent local business that can produce the necessary high-technology products.
Fisseha Gebremichael, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation's manager for wind projects, said the new schemes aim not only to generate energy from wind power but also to enhance local expertise and resources.
"Because this is the inaugural project in this sector in Ethiopia, local input is lower," Gebremichael said.
However, he added that the power company expects technology transfer and capacity building of local staff in the Ashegoda project to enable subsequent wind projects to be built mostly with local expertise.
LEARNING FROM CHINA
Willms believes that Ethiopia could learn from the experience of China, which after building up its domestic skills mandated that at least 70 percent of wind energy products be made locally. At present he estimates that Ethiopian companies can make up to 50 percent of the value-added products needed for wind turbines.
Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government is moving ahead with further projects. Officials at the Ministry of Energy and Water said that a feasibility study for a 153 MW Adama II wind farm has been completed, with construction slated to start by the end of the year.
These projects are part of the government's plan to generate 890 MW of wind energy by the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Other projects include a 300 MW Ayesha wind farm, projects at Debre Berhan and Assela, which are set to produce 100 MW each, and a Messebo/Harena wind farm with a capacity of 51 MW.
Ethiopia's Growth and Transformation Plan aims to increase electricity generation from hydro-electric, geothermal, wind and sugar by-products from the current level of about 2,000 MW to 8,000 MW by the end of the plan period in 2015.
The government wants to create a "climate resilient" economy by 2025, with adequate energy for the country's domestic needs even if hydro power runs short because of reduced rainfall.
A recent 17-month study undertaken by Chinese firm Hydrochina Corporation confirmed the high potential for wind power in the northern and southern parts of Ethiopia, particularly in the Somali region, with a huge estimated wind energy potential of 1.3 million MW.
"If Ethiopia is able to overcome (its) challenges, I believe that the economic as well as the societal cost associated with manmade and naturally inflicted power shortages in the energy supply of the country can be alleviated," Willms said.
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.