Power lines on the march as east African grid takes shape

A multinational electricity grid in east Africa is starting to take shape as Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania move ahead with high-voltage transmission lines that will form the backbones of their own domestic systems, and provide export routes to neighbouring countries.

Work on a key part of the system, a 1,045-km line between Ethiopia and Kenya, was started by a Chinese company at the start of this month, in Ethiopia.

China Electric Power Equipment and Technology (CET) officially commenced work on the $1.26bn high-voltage line on 1 August, Chinese media reported.

It will generate foreign currency and it will help our economy to develop– Reta Nigussie, programme officer of Ethiopian Electric Power

The 500kV line, which is being financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB), will be able to carry 2GW of power to Kenya and other east African countries – a significant increase in transmission capacity, since 2GW is approximately equal to the total installed generating capacity of Kenya now.

The project was first proposed in 2006, but has been repeatedly delayed. It is now expected to be completed within 12 months.

Ethiopia, which aims to export power to Africa and even to Yemen, has high hopes for the scheme.

"It will generate foreign currency and it will help our economy to develop," said Reta Nigussie, programme officer of Ethiopian Electric Power.

The "power giant"

Meanwhile, two countries down on the Indian Ocean coast, Tanzania has begun work on its $468m 400kV transmission line, which will run 670km from the southern highlands to Shinyanga in the north. This is set to be finished in the next two years, reports The East African.

It will form the backbone of the domestic system, but Tanzania also wants to sell power to its neighbours.

"Our plan is to make the country the power giant of east Africa," said Sospeter Muhongo, Tanzania’s minister for minerals and energy.

The so-called "Backbone Transmission Investment Project" is getting generous funding from international lenders, including the World Bank ($150m), the European Investment Bank ($134.5m), Japan International Cooperation Agency ($65m), the Africa Development Bank ($65m), and even South Korea’s Economic Development Cooperation Fund ($36m), records the World Bank.

The Tanzanian government is putting up $18m.

To be a power giant, however, the country needs to up its generating capacity. Tanzania hopes to end its dependence on hydropower, which is susceptible to droughts, by building gas and coal plants.

The government last year set a target of increasing its present installed capacity of 1.6GW to 10.8GW by 2025, largely by building coal plants, financed by exports of natural gas.

Ethiopia’s $22bn plan

Ethiopia is further ahead than Tanzania in making itself east Africa’s powerhouse.

It is planning to spend $22bn between 2015 and 2020 on developing energy exports to African neighbours, and even across the Red Sea, to Yemen.

The aim is to make as much as $1bn a year in revenue from this plan.

Alongside its showpiece project, the $3.4bn, 6GW Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile, Ethiopia is planning to exploit a number of other sources, such as geothermal, wind and solar.

The impact of this plan on the national economy has already affected the country’s domestic economy. According to the World Bank, the number of towns and villages connected to grid electricity has increased from 648 to 7,000 between 2005 and 2012, and the number of electricity customers has grown from 800,000 to 2 million.

Image: For illustration – power infrastructure in the Philippines (Wikimedia Commons)

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