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Bringing power to all of Africa’s people

Grand Inga scheme takes a step forward.

CAPE TOWN  In June the Democratic Republic of the Congo deregulated its electricity industry in a bid to bring the world’s most ambitious hydroelectric power scheme to fruition.

The power sector in this notoriously volatile region in central Africa is now officially open for business. The government of Joseph Kabila is betting that private sector expertise and funding, coupled with legislative support, could result in the first phase of the world’s most ambitious hydropower schemes breaking ground next September.

The scheme – all seven phases of it – promises about 44 000 MW of electricity generation capacity which is about half of the African continent’s installed power capacity and is twice that of the world’s current largest hydroelectric project, China’s Three Gorges Dam.

In recent years the DRC government has been campaigning actively for the development of this project – it has completed a feasibility study; it has set up project management teams; and it has three pre-qualified bidders in line – Chinese, Spanish and Canadian/South Korean consortia.

But first the DRC needs support from South Africa – and for this reason the governments of both countries are pushing their respective ministers to get their ducks in a row.

That the DRC’s Minister of Water Resources & Electricity, Bruno Kapandji Kalala and his contingent was able to apply for visas on Monday this week and fly the same day – suggests a degree of high-level support that would have most business people in Africa drooling.

The team was gathered to sign a co-operation agreement, ahead of the ratification of the Grand Inga Hydropower Treaty, which was approved by Cabinet in late August.

The treaty commits South Africa to procuring 2 500 MW of the first 4 700 MW of hydropower generated by the Grand Inga Project. It also gives South Africa the first right of refusal on power generated in the four subsequent stages of the grand project.

“The DRC needed a reliable purchaser to make the project bankable,” Kalala said at the signing ceremony. South Africa was selected ahead of Nigeria and Egypt because of the countries’ close historical ties and the good relations between presidents Kabila and Zuma, he said.

In addition the DRC would like to take advantage of the extensive body of knowledge built up by South African officials during the planning and subsequent rollout of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer (REIPPP) programme. This saw 66 renewable energy projects banked inside of 24 months, at a project value in excess of R150 billion.

The success of REIPPP can be attributed in large part to the policy and regulatory certainty created by government, the well-formulated bidding process and strong contractual framework – which the DRC would be wise to take heed of.

“There is much that South Africa can share with DRC ahead of this project,” said Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson at the signing ceremony. “South Africa is not just an off-taker. We are also a development partner.”

She urged South African companies to take advantage of the opportunities the project could present. “This could be a catalyst for the industrialisation of the region. I don’t think we realise the potential of this project.”

The plan to build the Inga hydropower scheme has been in the cards as far back as the early 1950s. Most of these dreams are gathering dust on the shelves of planners and politicians. Just two power stations were built, one in 1972 and the second in 1982. Collectively they have the potential to generate 2132 MW of power, but are old and poorly managed and generate less than half of this capacity.

Inga Three, near the estuary of the mighty Congo River, is the beginning of a new effort to harness the power of the river. But it won’t come cheap. It is estimated to cost between $8 billion and $10 billion and would produce 4800 MW of power.

This is a fraction of the $80 billion it is conservatively estimated to build the project in its entirety.

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