Hydroelectric Generation Opportunities in South Africa |

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Hydropower is an underutilized resource in Africa, which accounts for around 10% of the world’s hydropower potential. Tiaan Hendriks, Head of Power Design at SEM Solutions, is exploring small and micro hydropower as an option for South Africa.

People still expect electricity to go out in South Africa due to continual blackouts. Whenever this happens, the possibilities for alternative energy production are discussed, usually with an emphasis on wind and solar power.

What about the water?

Africa has vast resources and the potential of hydropower is one of them. About 10% of the world’s hydropower potential is on the African continent, the majority in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, only 4-7% of this potential has been developed.[1]

Water is generally considered for large installations, but small and micro hydropower plants could be an option for South Africa. It has worked here before. Micro hydropower has a history in South Africa and could potentially make a significant difference in the delivery of electricity – especially in rural areas.

Although there is no internationally agreed definition for the different sizes of hydropower, a generic distinction between “ large ” and “ micro ” hydropower is that micro-hydropower refers generally to installations up to 10 MW of installed capacity.[2]

Over the past two decades, there has been progress in the development of hydropower generation in South Africa.

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There is the Neusberg hydroelectric power station near Kakamas in the North Cape, a new grid-connected micro hydroelectric power station commissioned in the municipality of Sol Plaatje in the Free State and a few other stations in different stages of development.

Eskom operates four large stations (42 MW Colley Wobbles, 360 MW Gariep, 11 MW Second Falls and 240 MW Vanderkloof) and two micro hydropower plants (6 MW First Falls and 1.6 MW Ncora).

The local municipality of Thaba Chweu has one station connected to the grid (2.6MW Lydenburg), while the private sector has four stations connected to the national grid (300kW Clanwilliam, 2MW Freidenheim, 4MW Merino and the 3MW Sol Plaatje mentioned previously).

KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape also have a number of mini and micro hydropower systems that mainly power individual farms, without providing electricity to neighboring communities.

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Cape Town operates hydroelectric turbines in four of its water treatment plants (700 kW Blackheath, 1.475 MW Faure, 340 kW Steenbras and 260 kW Wemmershoek). eThekwini is developing six sites, Rand Water four other sites on its infrastructure and Bloem Water a micro-system to supply its offices.

A 15 kW pilot system has also been installed at the Pierre van Ryneveld reservoir in Pretoria as part of a research project by the University of Pretoria[3].

Micro-hydropower could play a pivotal role in remote areas to provide access to electricity in stand-alone isolated mini-grids or as distributed generation in national grids. Various national governments and donors have also recognized the potential role of micro hydropower in providing access to electricity and eradicating energy poverty.[4]

Micro-hydroelectricity is a proven and mature technology that has proven itself. It has also played a key role in earlier efforts to provide electricity in southern Africa. Unfortunately, interest in micro-hydropower waned as national grids offered cheap and reliable electricity.

A good example is the Pilgrims’ Rest gold mines which were powered by two 6 kW hydroelectric turbines – as early as 1892. A 45 kW turbine was added two years later to support these turbines to power the first path. electric iron in 1894. Various church mission stations in Africa, also used micro-hydroelectric plants.[5]

While people have forgotten about micro-hydropower when the national grid promised cheaper and more reliable energy, the price and the fact that our electricity supply has become unreliable, indicate that communities in South Africa might consider producing their own electricity and that they could be made with micro-energy.

Micro-hydropower in South Africa consists of two main parallel tracks. The first concerns grid-connected projects developed by IPP and supplying the national electricity system and the second is micro-scale systems for private use.

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No support is available for isolated systems for rural electrification purposes at this time, but the government is currently reviewing its rural electrification strategy. In addition, the future of grid-connected systems is closely linked to the government’s policy on the development of renewable energies.[6]

The challenges of hydropower in South Africa

To be realistic, the use of micro-hydropower poses challenges in South Africa. These challenges are:

  • The policy and regulatory framework is unclear or nonexistent with little clarity on issues such as access to water and water infrastructure and payments for water.
  • Funding is a challenge, as hydropower developments have high initial costs and low O&M costs, with most new developments on the continent relying on donor funding.
  • Lack of capacity to plan, build and operate hydropower plants in political, government and regulatory entities.
  • Data on water resources are limited.
  • The policy and regulatory framework is not clear or nonexistent to govern the development of micro-hydropower.[7]

However, research has shown that twice the installed capacity of the current installed hydropower capacity of less than 10 MW can be developed in rural areas of the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu Natal and Mpumalanga.[8]

Example sites would include locations where water from dams is discharged into bulk water supply lines; water treatment works where the inlet water source pipeline may be operated; the inlets of water tanks where pressure reducing stations are used; water distribution networks and at discharge points for treated effluents.[9]

Important factors to consider for a micro hydropower project are determining the project costs and the potential for electricity generation: head, flow rate, penstock length (pipeline) and length of the pipeline. electricity transmission line.[10]

Now for the benefits

However, now that we’ve discussed the barriers, let’s remember the benefits of small-scale hydropower:

  • It is considered a renewable resource;
  • It is installed in the existing man-made infrastructure and only a basic environmental assessment is required and no water use permit is required;
  • In the case of “own use” production, no production license is required from NERSA;
  • Project payback times are relatively short, as little civil engineering work is required and operation and maintenance costs are low;
  • If hydraulic turbines are installed in parallel with existing pressure control valves, it can extend the operational life of the valves;
  • The technology is efficient and durable for up to 20 years.[11]

The cost of a micro hydropower project is made up of civil works, mechanical and electrical components and electrical components such as grid connection and grid infrastructure.[12]

Case studies were carried out on micro hydro projects in South African municipalities, Cape Town, eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality, KwaMadiba, Mhlontlo Municipality and Boegoeberg Municipality! Kheis.

The challenges identified with these municipal projects were that each project had many stakeholders and entities, which introduced challenges in communication, approvals and timelines. It was therefore clear that stakeholders had to agree on clear communication channels at the start of the project.

The site terrain posed construction and access issues, and obtaining stakeholder and entity approval slowed projects. Imports of products not available in South Africa were also high.

Although the implementation was fairly straightforward, legislative procedures and regulations questioned the feasibility of small-scale projects. Preventing theft and possible injury to children swimming in the canal sections was also a major challenge.[13]

While these challenges can be prohibitive, studies have shown that South Africa has good potential for micro and even mini hydropower systems.[14].

Micro-hydropower systems can provide a reliable and continuous supply of electricity less expensive than wind or solar, with the added benefit that these systems are not affected by short-term weather variations. Innovation and growing demand are driving down prices, making micro hydro systems an economically viable source of electricity.[15]

A key element of the Sustainable Development Agenda is to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030, as electricity is needed for almost every part of a modern economy, from cooling vaccines to pumping water. irrigation, from manufacturing to running a business. Micro-hydropower can help South Africa achieve this goal. It’s time to start breaking down barriers to micro-hydropower and put our regulatory environment and funding on track to use this environmentally friendly way of generating electricity.

About the Author
Tiaan Hendriks holds a Masters in Mechanical Engineering in Renewable and Sustainable Energy from the University of Stellenbosch.


[1, 2, 3, 4, 5] Klunne, WJ (2013) SHP in Southern Africa – an overview of five countries in the region. Journal of Energy in Southern Africa. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1021-447X2013000300003 Accessed November 28, 2020.
[6, 7, 8] Kunne, WJ (2012) Small and Micro Hydroelectric Developments in Southern Africa. Energize. Accessed November 28, 2020.
[9, 10, 11,12, 13, 14] (2017) Sustainable Energy Solutions for South African Local Governments: A Practical Guide. Sustainable energy in Africa. Accessed November 28, 2020.
[15] (2019) Micro Inverter Based Hydroelectric Systems Produce Grid Grade Power. Accessed November 28, 2020.

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