Climate change: Africa and South Asia energy research priorities

Many African and South Asian countries are highly dependent on hydropower for electricity generation – climate change threatens their growth potential


As the 25th Conference of the Parties (COP25) to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change gets underway in Madrid, our climate change consultant Ryan Hogarth discusses the climate change related topics that have emerged from the recent scoping studies from OPM-led Energy and Economic Growth (EEG) applied research programme.

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Climate change is a core theme for the EEG programme, and more than one-third of the 25 projects underway are addressing policy questions of relevance to COP25. Topics range from how to accelerate deployment of renewables or energy efficient technologies, to how to optimise the dispatch of power plants – reducing fuel bills, electricity costs, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Alongside these projects, EEG has been conducting scoping studies in several countries to inform the UK Department for International Development’s thinking on possible future research investments. Modelled on the scoping exercises that laid the foundation for the first two EEG country programmes in Ethiopia and Sierra Leone, these studies are identifying potential areas where academic research might help to inform the actions of policymakers, practitioners, funders, and other decision makers.

New scoping studies have already been completed in Nepal, Uganda, and Zambia, and are planned or underway in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and South Africa. They will develop a proposed set of research questions and themes for each country, assembled through stakeholder interviews and workshops. In the three studies completed to date, topics related to climate change were among the top research priorities identified:

Managing the impacts of climate change on hydropower

Like many African and South Asian countries, Zambia, Uganda, and Nepal are highly dependent on hydropower for electricity generation. Hydropower can be a flexible, reliable, cost-efficient, and low-carbon source of energy. However, in many regions, climate change is likely to lead to increased variability in rainfall and hydrological flows and more frequent droughts, which could negatively impact the sector.

Hydropower contributes over 84% of Zambia’s electricity generation and the country’s exposure to rainfall variability is already acutely felt. Water levels in the Kariba Dam, the single biggest power source for Zambia and neighbouring Zimbabwe, have been falling. In 2014-2015, a drought led to a 50% decline of the country’s hydroelectric generation, starting a deficit that is becoming increasingly difficult to manage. Rainfall in the 2018-2019 season has been poor for the Zambezi and Kafue basins, creating a hydrological risk for power generation.

Hydropower accounts for the majority of installed power capacity in Uganda and Nepal (80% and 95% respectively). Given this heavy reliance, it is understandable that stakeholders involved in all three scoping studies see research into the resilience of hydropower systems as a priority.

In all three countries, there is an urgent need for downscaled climate models and hydrological projections to understand how climate change will impact future hydroelectric generation. Zambian stakeholders proposed investigation into the frameworks needed to build an effective climate information management system, and research into how energy resource management can be optimised, in order to promote climate-resilience.

In Nepal, stakeholders stressed the importance of research to address the key challenges faced in managing competing uses for water resources (power generation, irrigation, and drinking water).

Scaling up wind and solar – capital costs, skills gaps, and integration challenges

All three scoping studies yielded research priorities related to scaling up wind and solar.

Uganda was ranked as the ninth best investment destination for renewable energy in developing countries in 2015, and third in Africa. It now has the second most independent power producers in sub-Saharan Africa, after South Africa, with several small hydro, biomass, and solar projects in the pipeline. Despite this success, Ugandan stakeholders felt that research is needed to better understand the actions or policies that could reduce the capital costs of privately generated renewable electricity.

The Zambian scoping study, in contrast, focused on the skills required to build a domestic solar industry. The national energy workforce is still relatively small, with expertise and experience focused on large-scale hydropower. Zambian stakeholders felt that promoting renewable generation and off-grid access will require new skills across a range of functions, from the operation of a power system with high penetration of variable renewables to marketing pay-as-you-go solar home systems. Research could explore the key skills gaps in Zambia’s energy workforce, and the training needed to address these gaps in a growing and evolving energy sector.

Nepal’s stakeholders prioritised research into grid integration of variable renewable energy. The Government’s recent white paper set a target of increasing non-hydro renewables’ share of the electricity mix to at least 10%. Net metering is now being considered as a way to promote more solar. Stakeholders proposed research questions into the challenges of incorporating household and independent power produced solar energy into the grid in terms of safety, harmonics, and synchronisation.

Unlocking energy efficiency

The EEG scoping process in Zambia uncovered significant interest in developing innovations and experimental measures to drive and incentivise energy efficiency.

Zambia’s Government has set a goal of reducing energy usage by 2% per year until 2030. The purpose of Zambia’s energy efficiency drive is not only to reduce emissions, but also to mitigate load shedding during peak hours. The Government is also interested in the potential for energy efficient technologies and practices to increase the competitiveness of the industrial sector by reducing costs.

Future research could potentially investigate whether subsidies, financial instruments, energy efficiency standards, and product labelling could stimulate energy efficiency in the country. Stakeholders also proposed exploring the role that digital technology could play in supporting energy efficiency in Zambia.

With the global focus on climate targets, and sub-Saharan Africa’s and South Asia’s exposure to climate impacts, it is understandable that stakeholders involved in our scoping studies prioritised research into renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate-resilient energy systems. We look forward to continuing to support research projects that can answer these and other critical policy questions.

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