Renewable Energy: A Clean Solution?

Somewhere in the world, a green energy revolution is occurring. New renewable energy projects hold the capacity to sustainably generate around half of a country’s electricity, vastly improving its citizens’ quality of life. Wind, thermal, and—maybe most importantly—hydropower serve are green alternatives to fossil fuels, that can greatly enhance a country’s industrial capacity and creating a realistic and maintainable trend of economic development.

So, who is this revolutionary innovator, leading the charge in green energy and sustainable development in a world still heavily reliant upon fossil fuels and antiquated patterns of development? Is it Germany, with its engineering expertise and (successful) political action of its Green Party? No. How about the United States, who has historically lead the world in engineering feats and is a developed country now expressing (some) political concern to environmental issues such as climate change and sustainable development? Nope. Well then, it must be China, whose massive hydro-electric dam projects have shown national initiative in creating sustainable sources of energy. Close, but still, no.

Ethiopia has invested over a billion dollars into its green energy plan—which includes solar, hydropower, geothermal, and wind-energy projects—in an effort to provide electricity to 47% of its nation still in the dark. Beyond providing sufficient electricity to citizens, Ethiopian authorities plan to sell electricity generated by renewable energy projects—funded primarily by Chinese, French, and Italian donors—to its neighbors, further generating economic revenue that could continually spur statewide, economic development.

Ethiopia’s green energy plan aims to expand its generating capacity—primarily from renewables—from 2,000 MW to 10,000 MW in three to five years. Nearly 6,000 MW of annual generating capacity is projected to come from the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile (currently under construction). The new, 210 million euro (289.68 USD) Ashegoda Wind Farm—constructed by French firm Vergnet SA and financially backed by French Development Agency—will contribute to the projected 800 MW/yr. of electricity generated from wind power. Furthermore, the Ethiopian government has signed a preliminary contract with a U.S.-Icelandic construction firm for a four billion dollar private sector investment targeting Ethiopia’s immense geothermal resources (which are, are maximum predicted capacity, able to produce 5,000 MW of electricity annually).

But just what are the political, economic, and environmental implications of such rapid and massive development? Does the development of a green electric industry imply that an entire nation will undergo sustainable development?

Well, in the case of hydropower, no.

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While hydropower is a fantastic alternative source of electricity generation when compared to industrial age coal-fired power plants, and has the capacity to generate significantly more power than other renewable energy sources, it comes with an acute set of environmental, political, and social consequences.

Mega-dams have the potential to cause great environmental harm to the river ecosystem in which they are implanted. The implementation of most hydropower projects in developing countries is seldom determined by the outcomes of an EIS—given that one is even conducted—and thus the projects often become result in environmental degradation. Consider the Merowe Dam in Sudan, for which no EIS was conducted prior to construction. The dam (and its reservoir) acts as a major sediment sink, accelerates bank erosion rates downstream, limits fish habitats in producing anoxic water conditions, and disrupts aquatic biodiversity. Similarly, a mega-dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia has the potential to severely reduce water levels (~80%) and fish populations of Lake Turkana (located in Kenya). Clearly, with both of these cases, it is apparent that acute negative environmental externalities exist that challenge the notion the hydropower is a viable solution for environmentally sustainable development.

Mega-dams also have a tendency to exacerbate political and social tensions found within and shared between affected countries. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (which, as I mentioned earlier, is projected to generate ~6,000MW of electricity/yr. for Ethiopia) is being constructed in close proximity to the Sudanese border. This will undoubtedly aggravate political tensions over water-scarcity, as the dam will utilize large amounts of water that usually flows into Sudan (a downstream riparian). Ethiopian authorities are having to finance this project in the absence of international aid, which clearly indicates the political volatility and fragility of the project. Additionally, mega-dam projects are generally associated with the mass-displacement of large groups of people. The Three Gorges Dam in China is estimated to have displaced 1.2 million people; similarly, the Merowe Dam in Sudan has displaced over 50 thousand people from the fertile lands of the Nile valley to the arid desert. Here, we can see that the social injustices produced by mega-dam projects—along with a project’s capacity to negatively influence fragile political relationships—further assert that hydropower may not be a viable vehicle for achieving sustainable development.

The question surrounding hydropower and sustainable development is a difficult one, given that hydropower is—technically—a cleaner and greener method of generating electricity vital to spurring economic development. Needless to say, this topic will become increasingly contested in the coming decade, as traditional Western donors become more involved in implementation through heightened investment.