Renewable energy decision support tools and optimal energy pathways for Southern Africa
Background, challenges and context
Hydropower, which provides 70 per cent or more of electricity supply in eight of the 12 mainland member countries that make the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP), is especially vulnerable to climate change. The Southern African region is likely to experience higher temperatures and lower precipitation in the future, which is expected to severely affect electricity generation from hydropower.
Failing to account for the risks of climate change may lead to lower than expected generation from hydropower assets, affecting their economic viability and resulting in costly adaptation measures, such as load shedding or expensive diesel power generation and short-term emergency power imports from neighbouring regions (already seen in South Africa, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe). The risks are likely to be exacerbated by countries in the region continuing to pursue new large-scale hydropower projects without diversifying sources of electricity supply.
Understanding and incorporating the effects of climate change in power sector planning is therefore crucial for ensuring the economic and climate resilience of electricity infrastructure. Yet few studies have examined the impacts of future climate change scenarios on electricity system pathways at a regional level in Southern Africa or identified strategies that could mitigate them.
In addition, optimal energy development pathways should be shaped by goals to protect biodiversity and areas important to local communities. Large-scale deployment of wind and solar power plants and proposed new hydropower dams may directly conflict with biodiversity and ecosystem services and negatively impact local communities. If not addressed, conflicts are likely to result in project delays and cost overruns, and require mitigation and compensation costs that would affect the feasibility of new energy infrastructure that is critical for achieving energy security, economic growth, and climate goals.
Careful planning is important to avoid areas with high conservation and societal value. However, detailed data sets for biodiversity and societal criteria for renewable energy planning in Southern Africa do not exist.
Research overview and objectives
This project aims to inform a collaborative regional approach to electricity infrastructure development to achieve the long-term goals of climate resilience, social equity, and environmental conservation.
It is an extension of the existing EEG project on renewable energy decision support in Southern Africa (REDS), which is mapping barriers to renewable energy development in power system planning, and identifying and prioritising potential renewable energy project areas in the SAPP.
The project extension is examining the impacts of climate change and environmental and social considerations on optimal energy pathways in Southern Africa. The aim is to improve energy planning by identifying which mix of renewable energy technologies, hydropower, and other conventional technology options reflects climate change risk, addresses social impacts, and achieves conservation goals. The project will leverage the Multi-criteria Analysis for Planning Renewable Energy (MapRE) and GridPath models and data being developed and gathered under the REDS project.
The research team will also collate the latest and most relevant spatial datasets on biodiversity, ecologically-sensitive areas, wildlife corridors, community-managed wildlife conservancies, and settlements of local communities (and areas important for these communities, such as agriculturally productive lands). This will allow the team to identify and prioritise potential areas for wind and solar projects.
The team will also model climate change impacts on hydropower (using data to establish a relationship between hydropower electricity output and hydroclimatic conditions) and optimal energy pathways. Energy budgets will be derived for both existing and proposed hydropower dams under projected climate change scenarios. These budgets will be used to explore optimal energy pathways to mitigate climate impacts in the longer term (2040 has been chosen because climate change signals may not be as pronounced in earlier years).
Using data from weather models, renewable energy generation data for potential candidate projects will be simulated. The model will choose optimal energy infrastructure buildouts for various climate and biodiversity protection scenarios, and, crucially, provide hydroelectric fleet power and capacity requirements and operations for each country.
In addition, a multi-objective, multi-criteria model will be used to evaluate the cumulative impacts of multiple combinations of hydropower projects. The model will enable biodiversity, environmental, social, energy production, and financial performance information to be integrated.
The team aims to provide stakeholders with a functional electricity system simulation model for use in investment decision-making that accounts for projected climate change impacts, social impacts, and biodiversity data, and an evaluation of the best strategies. The analysis and models will directly inform dialogue on transboundary water management and hydropower investments.