Powering Uganda: the quest for universal electricity access and sustainability

Although access to electricity is gradually increasing in Uganda, in 2021 coverage reached only 42 % of the population. Remarkably, 98% of electricity is generated from renewable sources, and indicate significant potential for further growth. So why doesn’t everyone have access to electricity? Sarah Helen Rüdenauer explores this question and examines the main challenges of over-reliance on hydropower, the lack of a diverse energy mix and the high costs for consumers.

Both grid and off-grid connections account for 42% of access to electricity in Uganda. The term grid connection refers to access to power through the national electricity grid. The Uganda National Household Survey 2019/2020 states that the Ugandan electricity grid reaches 18.9 % of Ugandans, mainly in urban areas. Off-grid access describes alternatives to the national grid, such as Solar Home Systems, Mini grid systems, or smaller power-generating devices. As describes in a prior blog article, the per capita electricity consumption in Uganda was only 75 kWh/a in 2019, while in Germany it is 6787 kWh/a.

Notably, Uganda’s power sector is primarily driven by renewable energy sources, accounting for an impressive 98% of electricity generation. Fossil fuels contribute only 2% to the electricity mix, reflecting a strong commitment to sustainability as well as a high potential of resources.

However, a significant challenge within the electricity sector is its heavy reliance on large-scale hydroelectric power. Over 85% of the electricity generated in the country is derived from a limited number of hydroelectric power plants situated along the River Nile. As of 2021, among the remaining 10% renewables not generated by hydro power plants, 3% is sourced from solar energy, and 7% comes from bioenergy. The sector’s heavy reliance on hydroelectric power increases vulnerability to the impact of droughts and environmental issues. This vulnerability is particularly evident when there are malfunctions caused by reduced water levels or challenges related to invasive plants like water hyacinths. The example of water hyacinths are especially relevant in the case of Nalubaale hydro power station, which is most critical plant for Uganda’s power generation. The power station is disrupted by water hyacinth that clogs the water intake. While the water hyacinths are a problem in this case, they are a potential input material for biogas plants.

Diversifying Uganda’s electricity sector is absolutely essential. An energy mix plays a central role in improving energy security and ensuring a reliable supply of electricity. An overdependence leaves a nation vulnerable to supply disruptions, price volatility, and geopolitical instability. Examples such as the energy situation in last year’s winter season in Germany, have shown how risky it is to rely on one (imported) energy source or a limited number of sources.

Furthermore, different energy sources have unique characteristics and vulnerabilities. By incorporating a variety of renewable energy sources into the electricity generation portfolio, Uganda can fortify its resilience against disruptions triggered by factors such as severe weather events, natural calamities, or technical glitches within a specific energy sector. This diversification not only ensures a more reliable electricity supply but also promotes sustainability and mitigates the environmental impact of energy production.

Especially since the potential for an increased mix in electricity generation in Uganda is high. The solar resources are enormous and are delivering access to electricity for 38% of the population throughout the country. Besides the high potential of solar irradiation, photovoltaic (PV) technology is widespread in Uganda and many people are familiar with it. This benefits of PV systems offer solutions in particular for remote and rural areas. As another critical challenge is the distribution of the electricity grid. Given that a significant portion, over 70%, of Uganda’s population resides in rural and remote areas, the existing grid infrastructure doesn’t reach them, resulting in a substantial portion of the population being without access to electricity.

Expanding the grid to cover these remote areas is a complex endeavor, plagued by both affordability issues and logistical challenges. In such cases, alternative off-grid solutions, such as Solar Home Systems and Mini grid systems, might present a more practical and cost-effective choice for extending electricity access to these underserved communities.

Mini grid system in Northern Uganda. Credits: Sarah Helen Rüdenauer.

Mini grid systems can be based depending on the location on several sources. Even though PV mini grid systems are the most common in Uganda, there is also options for hydro, wind and bioenergy systems.

In addition to the challenges in the generation and distribution of electricity, there are significant hurdles on the consumer side. A substantial portion of the Ugandan population are having limited financial resources, 60% of Ugandans earned 200,000 UGX (50 €) per month in 2022. The tariffs for electricity are based on consumption, the first 15kWh per month can be bought for each 250 UGX (~0.06 €), every additional unit costs 747.5 UGX (0.18 €). Besides the tariffs, monthly standing costs of around 1-2 € accrue. Thus the cost of energy, especially electricity, are high expenses. Additional, the bureaucratic processes and associated expenses of connecting a house to the national grid can be formidable, presenting a significant barrier to access.

Electricity pole residential area in Kampala. Credits: Sarah Helen Rüdenauer.

For those living in areas where the grid doesn’t reach, the upfront costs of adopting solutions like Solar Home Systems (SHS) or similar alternatives can be prohibitively expensive. Fortunately, there is a growing trend of private-public sector programs and businesses offering innovative solutions, such as Pay As You Go systems and loans to customers. These initiatives make electricity access more affordable and accessible, allowing more Ugandans to benefit from modern energy services and improved living standards.

Despite remarkable progress, addressing these challenges of energy mix, grid extension and off grid solutions and especially providing electricity affordable to the population remains essential for achieving universal and sustainable electricity access in Uganda. The biggest challenge is still getting investments for both grid extensions as well as off grid mini grids and home systems.


Sarah Helen Rüdenauer is a renewable energy engineer. She works as a consultant and energy advisor in Kampala, Uganda. Her focus is on renewable and sustainable energy in sub-Saharan Africa. She formerly worked as a project assistant for the Energy Transition Blog.

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