Photos courtesy of UGECL.

Uganda’s Renewable Energy Ambitions

In an attempt to convey its beauty, abundant wildlife, and natural wealth of the land, Winston Churchill, an early explorer of Uganda, called it the “Pearl of Africa” in his 1908 book, My African Journey.

“The land of rolling hills, fertile valleys and meandering rivers,” is how Ugandan author Jennifer Makumbi describes it in her novel, Kintu.

Known for its breathtaking lush green hillsides and expansive savanna grasslands, Uganda is also rich in a diverse mix of renewable energy sources including solar, wind, hydro, bio energy and geothermal power, although these remain largely untapped.

With a high energy demand catering to a population of some 47 million people, 25 percent of which reside in urban centers, the East African nation has embarked on initiatives to promote the development of its abundant renewable energy resources for reliable, accessible electricity and modern energy to fuel social and economic development.

Uganda boasts of an immense renewable energy potential, including an estimated 2,000 MW of hydroelectric power, 450 MW of geothermal energy, 1,650 MW of biomass, an average of 5.1kWh/m2 /day of solar energy, and about 250 million tons of peat, according to the Energy and Minerals Ministry. Government estimates indicate that the potential of renewable energy power generation is at 5,300 MW.

The Government of Uganda has expressed a commitment toward transforming the country from an agrarian low-income country to a modern upper middle-income status country by 2040, through development of energy sources that will deliver modern sustainable energy for all.

Uganda continues to have one of the lowest electrification and clean cooking rates in sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2022, around 20 percent of the Ugandan population had access to electricity from the national grid; meanwhile, the government continues to spend colossal sums on importation of petroleum products that most small and medium scale businesses rely on for power as well as transportation.

According to Central Bank data, Uganda imported $1.6 billion worth of petroleum products in 2022. The country has a medium-sized economy, with the agricultural sector accounting for the largest source of export earnings and employment. The services sector, especially tourism, contributes the biggest share to Uganda’s GDP with approximately 53 percent. The official estimate for Uganda’s GDP was $114 billion at the end of 2023.

Renewable energy sources currently contribute up to 92 percent of Uganda’s 1,402.0 MW of installed power capacity. Hydroelectricity contributes the highest with 1,099.6 MW, which constitutes 78.4 percent of the total capacity from a string of hydro plants along the world’s longest river Nile. Thermal and bagasse cogeneration electricity, each contribute a proportion of 9.7 percent and 7.2 percent respectively, and 4.5 percent by solar PV plants, according to state regulator Electricity Regulatory Authority.

Last year, Uganda commissioned one of its largest hydroelectric projects, the 600 MW Karuma Dam across the River Nile, built with Chinese loans, which is expected to raise power generation capacity to nearly 1,900 MW at full capacity. However, significant reliance on hydropower has had implications for energy security, particularly due to uncertainties surrounding future climate change impacts on Uganda’s water resources.

The government is also promoting solar energy through tax breaks and consumer subsidies as well as rural electrification projects. More than 200 companies, including foreign investors, are active in the PV and solar thermal field. Solar data shows that average solar radiation is 5.1kWh/m2 /day, which is high throughout the year. In 2007, the government introduced public purchase agreements with feed-in tariffs for renewable energy projects under 20 MW. However, the market for solar home systems and components remains significantly undermined by faulty installations, importation of substandard systems and poor after-sales service.

Several suitable locations have been identified and singled out for geothermal energy exploration. Micro-grid systems and off-grid systems provide a solution in the rural areas where the electrification rate is very low at around 38 percent.

Bioenergy, through biomass, is the most commonly used source of cooking energy. Charcoal is mostly used in urban areas while firewood, agro-residues and wood are generally used in rural areas, which has resulted in the depletion of the country’s forests, woodlands and related health hazards from indoor air pollution.

In the past 25 years, Uganda has lost 63 percent of its forest cover due to tree-cutting for firewood, timber and charcoal, according to the National Forestry Authority. The loss of these fragile ecosystems compromises the ability of the country to cope with the reality of climate change.

Uganda has experienced increased adverse weather patterns such as devastating floods, landslides in the east, and prolonged drought in the north, which have led to loss of livestock, crops and human life.

As an intervention, the government is increasingly promoting the use of climate-friendly energy in the form of renewable energy for its energy needs and to power the long-term growth of its economy.

The Renewable Energy Policy of 2007, the regulatory framework for renewable energy in the country, is intended to increase the share of renewable energy in the national energy mix.

Uganda also subscribes to legal and policy frameworks of both regional and international scopes, such as the sustainable development goals and the Paris Agreement, which requires parties to develop climate change policies, strategies and plans promoting adaptation and mitigation. Priority adaptation actions for the energy sector considered in Uganda’s Nationally Determined Contribution Plan include improving access to electricity to reduce dependence on traditional biomass and promoting the use of renewable energy sources.

While the country is set to begin production of its oil reserves currently at 6.5 billion barrels, concerns have been expressed by international and local campaigners about the environmental impact of oil projects. However, officials say that most of the oil revenues will be deposited in the Petroleum Fund and channeled toward development of the country’s renewable energy sector.

Last year, during COP28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Uganda’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development unveiled the energy transition plan which lays out a roadmap for Uganda to sustainably develop its renewable energy sector, meet its climate targets and deliver universal energy access for widespread economic benefits.

Uganda’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Development, Hon. Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu.
Uganda’s Minister of Energy and Mineral Development, Hon. Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu.

The major goal of the plan is expanding low-emissions electricity across the country. According to Hon. Ruth Nankabirwa Ssentamu, Uganda’s energy minister, strong partnerships between the government and the private sector will be key in the implementation of the energy transition strategy. The plan lays a roadmap for Uganda’s major energy advantages to be leveraged to meet development objectives.

Diana Taremwa Karakire is a Ugandan freelance journalist with over seven years of experience writing about renewable energy, extractives, climate change, Indigenous peoples and human rights. Her work has featured in publications like Equal Times, Ubuntu Times, Biofuels International, Petroleum Economist and African Business Magazine.

Photos courtesy of UGECL.

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Diana Taremwa Karakire

Diana Taremwa Karakire is a Ugandan freelance journalist with over seven years of experience writing about renewable energy, extractives, climate change, Indigenous peoples and human rights. Her work has featured in publications like Equal Times, Ubuntu Times, Biofuels International, Petroleum Economist and African Business Magazine.

In 2022, Karakire received Uganda’s National Population Council's Journalist of the Year award for coverage of population and development issues. She is a 2021 gender justice fellow with the International Women’s Media Foundation and a 2022 grantee of Indigenous stories with the Earth Journalism Network. Her stories promote Indigenous peoples’ rights, environmental conservation, and inform policy debate in Uganda and Africa.

Connect with Karakire on LinkedIn and X (Twitter). Read more of her work on her blog.

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