Ethiopia produces its first electricity at the GERD mega-dam

Ethiopia has started supplying electricity from a 375 MW turbine to its flagship 5.15-GW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on February 20, marking a milestone for the project that could become Africa’s largest hydropower producer.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Dr Abiy Ahmed inaugurated the project at a widely publicized celebration in the East African country. Officials hailed the project’s first power as a pivotal achievement that took more than a decade to deliver.

The GERD is located on the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the Nile, in the northwestern region of Ethiopia. Benishangul-Gumuz-Gumaz, about 500 kilometers (km) northwest of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa and 15 km from its border with Sudan. The project is being built by WebuildGroup, a subsidiary of Italian construction giant Salini Costruttori SpA, for state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power. When completed, it will include a main roller-compacted concrete dam with two powerhouses installed on the left and right banks of the river.

According to Webuild, original plans called to equip GERD with 16 Francis turbines of 375 MW. However, while originally envisaged as a 6.4 GW project, Ethiopian officials in 2019 would have reduced the number of turbines to 13, bringing the total capacity of the dam to 5.2 GW, and its perceived annual production to 15.76 TWh.

The 5.2 GW project will include 375 MW Francis turbines. Source: Twitter: @AbiyAhmedAli (February 20, 2022)

A controversial triumph

However, Ethiopian officials have not announced a definitive timeline for bringing the full 5.15GW project online. Dr Sileshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s former Minister of Water and Irrigation, who in October was appointed chief negotiator and adviser on transboundary rivers and the GERD, told reporters in November that the overall advancement of the construction of the dam had then reached 82%.

The nation marked its second year of filling the dam’s massive reservoir in the summer of 2021, incur the wrath of Egypt and Sudan, its neighbors down the Nile.

Sudanese authorities have said the GERD could help regulate the waters of the Nile and reduce the risk of flooding, but the country has raised concerns about the project’s impact on the efficiency of its 280 MW Roseries dam. , and he strongly denounced Ethiopia’s unilateral action to fill the GERD reservoir. Egypt, meanwhile, has similar fears over its water security, particularly over its 2.1 GW Upper Aswan (HAD) dam, which is now Africa’s largest hydropower facility. . The dam also critically serves Egypt’s agricultural, municipal and industrial water needs with regular annual discharges of 55.5 billion cubic meters.

The hydrology of the Nile, studied for decades, is characterized by strong interannual variability, strong geographical and climatic differences, and flows modified by natural characteristics and hydraulic infrastructures. Source: Wheeler, KG, Jeuland, M., Hall, JW et al. Understand and manage new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Nat Common 11, 5222 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19089-x

As comments about the GERD’s first power continue to circulate, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry has so far issued a statement castigating the “unilateral” inauguration of the dam. The ministry claimed that the project violates a statement of principles signed in 2015 in which Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt describe the appropriate use of the dam.

But Bekele in a Twitter thread on Sunday said the start of GERD power generation had been achieved “in tandem with construction progress.” Electricity generation has so far “proved that the water flowing downstream was uninterrupted and flowing steadily because hydropower does not consume water,” he said.

“Ethiopia’s approach to filling and operating the GERD is designed based on the boundaries of the agreed Declaration of Principles (DoP) and rules and guidelines subsequently negotiated between downstream countries,” said he added. “When completed, it also provides a water bank for regular renewable energy generation in Ethiopia, improved power generation in downstream countries at existing dams, guarantees against floods and droughts.”

Bekele added that The GERD is set to be “instrumental for clean and renewable energy”, as it “creates access for 65 million people without electricity”. He also noted that the project being built through “direct contribution” and bond purchases by Ethiopian citizens will provide “meaningful” interconnection with neighboring countries. Kenya, in particular, is said to be exploring a power purchase agreement with Ethiopian Electric Power, a deal that could in the next weeks.

Webuild Head: Ethiopia’s ‘white oil’ is a divine gift

Pietro Salini, CEO and Founder of Webuild, during a speech at the inaugural ceremony, suggested that the project was a turning point for Ethiopia. “We did a lot of projects together. We have changed the ability of this country to use water,” he said. “God gave a special gift to Ethiopia. No oil, no gas, water,” he added. “It’s the white oil from Ethiopia.” Salini also highlighted the sustainability attributes of the project. “When we talk about sustainable goals of the United Nations, here they are,” he said.

The project has been fraught with difficulties due to international pushback, Salini noted. “There were so many enemies against him, it’s even so hard to find money, because it’s easy when you have money,” he said. “It’s much more difficult when you have to ask people to take something out of their food to help their country and think about the future.” Salini hailed success for the first power. “We can say the first step is done,” he said.

Photos from the opening of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on February 20, 2022. Source: Twitter: @seleshi_b_a

Sonal Patel is associate editor of POWER (@sonalcpatel, @POWERmagazine).

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