Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Smart renewable electricity portfolios in West Africa


The worldwide growth of variable renewable power sources necessitates power system flexibility to safeguard the reliability of electricity supply. Yet today, flexibility is mostly delivered by fossil fuel power plants. Hydropower can be a renewable alternative source of flexibility, but only if operated according to adequate strategies considering hourly-to-decadal and local-to-regional energy and water needs. Here, we present a new model to investigate hydro–solar–wind complementarities across these scales. We demonstrate that smart management of present and future hydropower plants in West Africa can support substantial grid integration of solar and wind power, limiting natural gas consumption while avoiding ecologically harmful hydropower overexploitation. We show that pooling regional resources and planning transmission grid expansion according to spatiotemporal hydro–solar–wind synergies are crucial for optimally exploiting West Africa’s renewable potential. By 2030, renewable electricity in such a regional power pool, with solar and wind contributing about 50%, could be at least 10% cheaper than electricity from natural gas.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: West African countries’ power mix and targeted RE generation.
Fig. 2: Example of optimized hydro–solar–wind operation and hydropower rule curves.
Fig. 3: Locations of modelled hydro, solar and wind power plants.
Fig. 4: Total load-following potential and hydro–solar–wind mix.
Fig. 5: Contributions by country and RE resource in the power pool scenario.
Fig. 6: Illustration of how the necessary prioritizations of RE sources in West Africa differ from those implied by current policy plans.

Data availability

The ERA5 reanalysis data were downloaded from the Climate Data Store at The data from CORDEX-Africa framework are available at EWEMBI forcing data can be accessed at Shapefiles for rivers and climate zones, used in Fig. 3, are available in the ECOWREX database60 at Country border shapefiles, used in Figs. 3 and 6, are available in the GADM database73 at The maps in Figs. 3 and 6 were created using QGIS74, which can be downloaded from Grid load data from Ghana are available at Grid load data from Burkina Faso are available upon request, as are the data on the LCOE of existing and future hydropower plants in West Africa. LCOE data for solar and wind power in West Africa are available in the IRENA report referenced in Supplementary Note 9.4. The SWAT+ simulation results are available from Zenodo75. All other plant-level data used in the simulations are available and fully referenced in the WARPD database, provided as Supplementary Data to this paper. The data points behind the data plotted in the Figures can be found in Figshare76.

Code availability

The REVUB model code (version 0.1.0) is available at under the MIT license, for Python as well as MATLAB. Datasets to run a minimal working example are available in the same repository.


  1. Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2018 (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2019);

  2. Engeland, K. et al. Space-time variability of climate variables and intermittent renewable electricity production – a review. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 79, 600–617 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Welsch, M. et al. Incorporating flexibility requirements into long-term energy system models – a case study on high levels of renewable electricity penetration in Ireland. Appl. Energy 135, 600–615 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Poncelet, K., Delarue, E., Six, D., Duerinck, J. & D’haeseleer, W. Impact of the level of temporal and operational detail in energy-system planning models. Appl. Energy 162, 631–643 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Kozarcanin, S., Liu, H. & Andresen, G. B. 21st century climate change impacts on key properties of a large-scale renewable-based electricity system. Joule 3, 992–1005 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Zeyringer, M., Price, J., Fais, B., Li, P.-H. & Sharp, E. Designing low-carbon power systems for Great Britain in 2050 that are robust to the spatiotemporal and inter-annual variability of weather. Nat. Energy 3, 395–403 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Sterl, S., Liersch, S., Koch, H., van Lipzig, N. P. & Thiery, W. A new approach for assessing synergies of solar and wind power: implications for West Africa. Environ. Res. Lett. 13, 094009 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Power System Flexibility for the Energy Transition, Part 1: Overview for Policy Makers (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2018);

  9. Planning for the Renewable Future: Long-Term Modelling and Tools to Expand Variable Renewable Power in Emerging Economies (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2017);

  10. Gonzalez-Salazar, M. A., Kirsten, T. & Prchlik, L. Review of the operational flexibility and emissions of gas- and coal-fired power plants in a future with growing renewables. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 82, 1497–1513 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Kuramochi, T. et al. Ten key short-term sectoral benchmarks to limit warming to 1.5C. Clim. Policy 18, 287–305 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Hirth, L. The benefits of flexibility: the value of wind energy with hydropower. Appl. Energy 181, 210–223 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Olauson, J. et al. Net load variability in Nordic countries with a highly or fully renewable power system. Nat. Energy 1, 16175 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Mitchell, C. Momentum is increasing towards a flexible electricity system based on renewables. Nat. Energy 1, 15030 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Gernaat, D. E. H. J., Bogaart, P. W., van Vuuren, D. P., Biemans, H. & Niessink, R. High-resolution assessment of global technical and economic hydropower potential. Nat. Energy 2, 821–828 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Waldman, J., Sharma, S., Afshari, S. & Fekete, B. Solar-power replacement as a solution for hydropower foregone in US dam removals. Nat. Sustain. 2, 872–878 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Hart, E. K. & Jacobson, M. Z. A Monte Carlo approach to generator portfolio planning and carbon emissions assessments of systems with large penetrations of variable renewables. Renew. Energy 36, 2278–2286 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jacobson, M. Z., Delucchi, M. A., Cameron, M. A. & Frew, B. A. Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 112, 15060–15065 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Zarfl, C., Lumsdon, A. E., Berlekamp, J., Tydecks, L. & Tockner, K. A global boom in hydropower dam construction. Aquat. Sci. 77, 161–170 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Falchetta, G., Gernaat, D. E., Hunt, J. & Sterl, S. Hydropower dependency and climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: a nexus framework and evidence-based review. J. Clean. Prod. 231, 1399–1417 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Conway, D., Dalin, C., Landman, W. A. & Osborn, T. J. Hydropower plans in eastern and southern Africa increase risk of concurrent climate-related electricity supply disruption. Nat. Energy 2, 946–953 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Schmitt, R. J. P., Kittner, N., Kondolf, G. M. & Kammen, D. M. Deploy diverse renewables to save tropical rivers. Nature 569, 330–332 (2019).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Wang, X., Mei, Y., Kong, Y., Lin, Y. & Wang, H. Improved multi-objective model and analysis of the coordinated operation of a hydro-wind-photovoltaic system. Energy 134, 813–839 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Yang, Z. et al. Deriving operating rules for a large-scale hydro-photovoltaic power system using implicit stochastic optimization. J. Clean. Prod. 195, 562–572 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Wang, X., Chang, J., Meng, X. & Wang, Y. Short-term hydro-thermal-wind-photovoltaic complementary operation of interconnected power systems. Appl. Energy 229, 945–962 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Ming, B., Liu, P., Guo, S., Cheng, L. & Zhang, J. Hydropower reservoir reoperation to adapt to large-scale photovoltaic power generation. Energy 179, 268–279 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kern, J. D., Patino-Echeverri, D. & Characklis, G. W. An integrated reservoir-power system model for evaluating the impacts of wind integration on hydropower resources. Renew. Energy 71, 553–562 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. François, B., Hingray, B., Raynaud, D., Borga, M. & Creutin, J. Increasing climate-related-energy penetration by integrating run-of-the river hydropower to wind/solar mix. Renew. Energy 87, 686–696 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Gebretsadik, Y., Fant, C., Strzepek, K. & Arndt, C. Optimized reservoir operation model of regional wind and hydro power integration case study: Zambezi basin and South Africa. Appl. Energy 161, 574–582 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Planning and Prospects for Renewable Power: West Africa (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2018);

  31. ECOWAS Master Plan for the Development of Regional Power Generation and Transmission Infrastructure 2019-2033. Final Report Volume 0: Synthesis (Tractebel Engineering, 2018);

  32. ECREEE. Country documents. ECOWAS SE4All Network (2015).

  33. Oyewo, A. S., Farfan, J., Peltoniemi, P. & Breyer, C. Repercussion of large scale hydro dam deployment: the case of Congo Grand Inga hydro project. Energies 11, 972 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Cole, M. A., Elliott, R. J. & Strobl, E. Climate change, hydro-dependency, and the African dam boom. World Dev. 60, 84–98 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Bogdanov, D. et al. Radical transformation pathway towards sustainable electricity via evolutionary steps. Nat. Commun. 10, 1077 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  36. Barasa, M., Bogdanov, D., Oyewo, A. S. & Breyer, C. A cost optimal resolution for Sub-Saharan Africa powered by 100% renewables in 2030. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 92, 440–457 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Jacobson, M. Z., Delucchi, M. A., Cameron, M. A. & Mathiesen, B. V. Matching demand with supply at low cost in 139 countries among 20 world regions with 100% intermittent wind, water, and sunlight (WWS) for all purposes. Renew. Energy 123, 236–248 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Jägermeyr, J., Pastor, A., Biemans, H. & Gerten, D. Reconciling irrigated food production with environmental flows for sustainable development goals implementation. Nat. Commun. 8, 15900 (2017).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  39. Perez, M., Perez, R., Rábago, K. R. & Putnam, M. Overbuilding and curtailment: the cost-effective enablers of firm PV generation. Sol. Energy 180, 412–422 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Stanzel, P., Kling, H. & Bauer, H. Climate change impact on West African rivers under an ensemble of CORDEX climate projections. Clim. Serv. 11, 36–48 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Moran, E. F., Lopez, M. C., Moore, N., Müller, N. & Hyndman, D. W. Sustainable hydropower in the 21st century. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 11891–11898 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Adeoye, O. & Spataru, C. Sustainable development of the West African power pool: increasing solar energy integration and regional electricity trade. Energy Sustain. Dev. 45, 124–134 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  43. Russo, D. & Miketa, A. Benefits, challenges, and analytical approaches to scaling up renewables through regional planning and coordination of power systems in Africa. Curr. Sustain. Renew. Energy Rep. 6, 5–12 (2019).

    Google Scholar 

  44. Yang, W. et al. Burden on hydropower units for short-term balancing of renewable power systems. Nat. Commun. 9, 2633 (2018).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. Zhang, M. et al. Dynamic model and impact on power quality of large hydro-photovoltaic power complementary plant. Int. J. Energy Res. 43, 4436–4448 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Mentis, D., Hermann, S., Howells, M., Welsch, M. & Siyal, S. H. Assessing the technical wind energy potential in Africa: a GIS-based approach. Renew. Energy 83, 110–125 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Spyrou, E., Hobbs, B. F., Bazilian, M. D. & Chattopadhyay, D. Planning power systems in fragile and conflict-affected states. Nat. Energy 4, 300–310 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Innovation Landscape for a Renewable-Powered Future: Solutions to Integrate Variable Renewables (International Renewable Energy Agency, 2019);

  49. Mathiesen, B. et al. Smart energy systems for coherent 100% renewable energy and transport solutions. Appl. Energy 145, 139–154 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. The Ghana Renewable Energy Master Plan (Energy Commission, accessed 14 February 2019);

  51. Ceesay, K. K. Sustainable Energy Action Plan for The Gambia (ECREEE & SE4All, 2015);

  52. Plano de Investimento Para Energia Sustentável da Guiné-Bissau (UNIDO, GEF & ECREEE, 2017);

  53. Evaluation et Analyse des Gaps par Rapport aux Objectifs de SE4All - République de Guinée (UNDP & SE4All, 2014);

  54. République du Niger. Contribution Prévue Déterminée au Niveau National - CPDN (INDC) du Niger (UNFCCC, 2015);

  55. Previsic, M. et al. The Future Potential of Wave Power in the United States (US Department of Energy, RE Vision Consulting, 2012);

  56. Oyerinde, G. T. et al. Quantifying uncertainties in modeling climate change impacts on hydropower production. Climate 4, 34 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  57. ECOWAS Renewable Energy Policy (ECREEE, 2015);

  58. Kappiah, M. et al. Baseline Report on Existing and Potential Small-Scale Hydropower Systems in the ECOWAS Region (ECREEE, 2012);

  59. GIS Hydropower Resource Mapping and Climate Change Scenarios for the ECOWAS Region - Technical Report on Methodology and Lessons Learnt for ECOWAS Countries (ECREEE, 2017).

  60. ECOWREX. Map Viewer (2018).

  61. ECOWREX. Projects (2018).

  62. Liersch, S. et al. Water resources planning in the Upper Niger River basin: are there gaps between water demand and supply? J. Hydrol. Reg. Stud. 21, 176–194 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Bieger, K. et al. Introduction to SWAT+, a completely restructured version of the Soil and Water Assessment Tool. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 53, 115–130 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  64. Farr, T. G. et al. The shuttle radar topography mission. Rev. Geophys. 45, 183 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  65. Hurtt, G. C. et al. Harmonization of land-use scenarios for the period 1500–2100: 600 years of global gridded annual land-use transitions, wood harvest, and resulting secondary lands. Clim. Change 109, 117 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  66. Leenaars, J. Africa Soil Profiles Database (Version 1.1): A Compilation of Georeferenced and Standardised Legacy Soil Profile Data for Sub-Saharan Africa (With Dataset) (Africa Soil Information Service, ISRIC - World Soil Information, 2013).

  67. Lange, S. EartH2Observe, WFDEI and ERA-Interim Data Merged and Bias-Corrected for ISIMIP (EWEMBI) (GFZ Data Services, 2016);

  68. Vanderkelen, I., van Lipzig, N. P. M. & Thiery, W. Modelling the water balance of Lake Victoria (East Africa) – part 1: observational analysis. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 22, 5509–5525 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  69. Ndiaye, A. Long Term Evolution of Temperature and Heat Waves and Impact on Electricity Consumption over West African Cities: Comparative Study Between Dakar (West Coast) and Niamey (Central Sahel). MSc thesis, Univ. Abdou Moumouni (2015);

  70. Kouadio, N. A. E. J. Impact of Climate Change on Electricity Consumption in West Africa (A Case Study of Côte d’Ivoire). MSc thesis, Univ. Abdou Moumouni (2018);

  71. Ta, S. et al. West Africa extreme rainfall events and large-scale ocean surface and atmospheric conditions in the tropical atlantic. Adv. Meteorol. 2016, 1940456 (2015).

    Google Scholar 

  72. Toktarova, A., Gruber, L., Hlusiak, M., Bogdanov, D. & Breyer, C. Long term load projection in high resolution for all countries globally. Int. J. Electr. Power Energy Syst. 111, 160–181 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  73. Global Administrative Areas Version 3.6 (GADM, 2018);

  74. QGIS Development Team QGIS Geographic Information System (Open Source Geospatial Foundation Project, 2019);

  75. Chawanda, C. J., van Griensven, A., Thiery, W., Sterl, S. & Vanderkelen, I. SWAT+ simulation result used in ‘Smart renewable electricity portfolios in West Africa’ (Zenodo, 2019);

  76. Sterl, S. Figure data used in ‘Smart renewable electricity portfolios in West Africa’ (2020).

Download references


This work was performed under the project CIREG (Climate Information for Integrated Renewable Electricity Generation in West Africa), which is part of ERA4CS, an ERA-NET Co-fund action initiated by JPI Climate, funded by BMBF (DE), FORMAS (SE), BELSPO (BE) and IFD (DK) with co-funding from the European Union’s Horizon2020 Framework Program (Grant 690462). The study further benefited from financial support by the EU Horizon2020 Marie-Curie Fellowship Program (H2020-MSCA-IF-2018, proposal number 838667 – INTERACTION). We thank A. Miketa (IRENA), G. Dekelver and J. Dubois (Tractebel Engie), C. Nicolas and P. Lorillou (World Bank), S. d’Haen (formerly at Climate Analytics), A. Adebiyi (ECREEE), G. Falchetta (Fondazione Eni Enrico Mattei), P. Donk (N.V. Energiebedrijven Suriname), J. Jurasz (Mälardalen University), M. Howells (KTH), S. Far (formerly at the University of Bonn), G. Vulturius, R. Masumbuko, M. Ogeya and D. de Condappa (SEI), S. Liersch and H. Koch (PIK), S. Salack and S. Sanfo (WASCAL), and M. A. D. Larsen and L. Svenningsen (DTU) for their comments and suggestions. We acknowledge the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) for providing the ERA5 reanalysis. In addition, we thank the World Climate Research Programme (WRCP) for initiating and coordinating the CORDEX-Africa initiative and to the modelling centres for making their downscaling results publicly available through ESGF.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



S.S. and W.T. designed the study. S.S. developed the REVUB model, set up the WARPD database, performed the simulations and analysed the data. I.V. generated the climate change scenarios. C.J.C. and A.v.G. developed the SWAT+ simulations. D.R. provided the LCOE data. S.S. wrote the paper and designed the figures with contributions from I.V., C.J.C., D.R., R.J.B., A.v.G., N.P.M.v.L. and W.T. All authors proofread and commented on the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sebastian Sterl.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes 1−10, Figs. 1−14 and Tables 1−8.

Reporting Summary

Supplementary Data 1

The WARPD database referenced in the text (see Methods).

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Sterl, S., Vanderkelen, I., Chawanda, C.J. et al. Smart renewable electricity portfolios in West Africa. Nat Sustain 3, 710–719 (2020).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing