The creation of a 40 GW hydropower complex on a stretch of the Congo river in west Africa has been contemplated for decades, although it has never got beyond the discussion phase. But a meeting in London of financiers and politicians initiated by the World Energy Council may finally lead to meaningful action.
According to the World Energy Council there are 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without access to electricity, a state of affairs that has contributed to the continued poverty and underdevelopment that has ravaged the continent. Sustainable development is the answer, and availability of electrical power provides a bridge to that state, not a solution on its own but a pre-requisite for one.
The enormous attractiveness of Grand Inga, which would exploit the potential of a stretch of water where the Congo, the world’s second largest river by volume falls 100 m in 13 km, lies in the fact that it represents a way of achieving that ideal in almost a single stroke. And, more importantly, because richer countries, banks and private companies have found they can earn high returns from the emerging global carbon offset market and UN climate change credits
Sadly, press reports of Grand Inga having been significantly advanced by the London meeting in April are too optimistic. Project finance and Congolese instability remain huge obstacles and securing the co-operation of many different companies, multinationals and national governments will be a mammoth task. Yet the WEC and many of the delegates at the London meeting seemed convinced by the plans and successive feasibility studies have concluded that the venture is technically and economically viable.
Grand Inga would be the fourth phase in the overall vision for development of the Congo’s hydro potential, which, in rather halting progress, has to date seen the completion of Inga I and Inga II, and the start of Inga III, all in the Nkokolo valley SW of Kinshasa. The 351 MW Inga I was commissioned in 1972, Inga II (1424 MW) in 1982, while the 3.5 GW Inga III (Figures 1 and 2) is in the design engineering phase. It is part of the Western Power Corridor and is owned by the joint venture Westcor. However all these are hobby dams by comparison with Grand Inga, a 40 GW monster with a capacity equal to Three Gorges and Itaipu combined. It would generate more power then is currently generated in all of sub-Saharan Africa (leaving aside South?Africa), a third of the total currently generated in the continent, and could result in a surplus for export to southern Europe.
But the disadvantages of the project are fairly obvious. Mega dams lead to mega problems and such a vast enterprise is bound to become a magnet for corruption. Its output would need to be sent all over the continent, necessitating many new distribution networks and transmission corridors. Without it, power would be delivered only to the existing towns and high volume industrial consumers that already absorb most of Africa’s power output while hundreds of millions are without a supply of any kind. But advocacy groups say the plans do not address this but ignore local people and could leave Congo with massive debts rather than a sustainable industrial base.
Since its inception the project has been hampered by political instability in the Congo region as well as the difficulties usually associated with getting dozen or more independent states to agree on an action plan that requires overall co-operation. Meanwhile the existing dams are suffering – Inga I and II have been performing well below capacity owing to maintenance and other problems and are now undergoing major rehabilitation with financial assistance from the World Bank, European Investment Bank and African Development Bank. Inga II is also undergoing rehabilitation through a partial privatisation scheme and financial support from South Africa’s International Development Corporation. But the poor maintenance and financial problems of Inga I and II are raising concerns about the risks of Inga III and Grand Inga. Meanwhile Inga’s displaced communities have been struggling since the 1960s to obtain fair compensation and have received nothing to date.
A pre-feasibility study funded by the African Development Bank was carried out?between 1993 and 1997 within a study of the interconnection of Inga to Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Egypt through Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad. A further study was carried out in 1997 by a consortium of EdF and Lahmeyer which thoroughly assessed the development including environmental impact, power plant development, and construction of transmission lines from Inga to Egypt, and concluded that it was technically feasible and economically viable. In 2007 the African Development Bank provided US$14 million for another Grand Inga study which included US$12million to support the Inga III/Westcor project. A feasibility study of Inga III by SNC Lavalin was presented to the DRC authorities in February. A 3.5 GW run of river plant is envisaged, costing US$3.5 billion and built in stages between 2008 and 2021.
Three major HVDC interconnection corridors were envisaged in the feasibility studies (Figure 3) namely the Northern Highway (between Inga and Egypt) the Southern Highway (to South Africa) and the Western Highway, to Nigeria. At present, HV lines transmit the output of Inga I and II to Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Brazzaville in DR?Congo.
Although the cost of Grand Inga is put at around US $80 million (about $40 billion for dam construction, power plant development and associated reservoir costs and a further $40 billion for the transmission infrastructure) the WEC estimated in 2005 that the price of electricity generated at Inga and transmitted to the Italian border would have been less than the market price in Italy at that time. But despite the favourable auguries it has never been possible to get any meaningful action started, mainly because of the high risks of investing in such an unstable region.
The WEC has now decided that the time is right to seriously reconsider the venture and there are several reasons to support this view. First, the security situation in the Lower Congo has improved steadily in recent years and while there is ongoing fighting between the Congolese army and Hutu militia in the east, the most infamous of the remaining rebel leaders, General Nkunda, signed a peace agreement with the government in January. The economy of DR Congo remains in dire straits but the political situation is at least calmer.
Secondly, the international community’s willingness to promote African economic growth is increasing and secure power supplies are one of the biggest deterrents to increased investment across most of the continent. It is important not to overestimate the potential impact of Grand Inga in terms of lifting people out of poverty but it can at least be a small part of the solution.
At the same time, promoting cross-border trade in electricity can be one of the best methods of encouraging more general cross-border trade in Africa. Regional power grids are emerging at different rates in north, west, east and southern Africa, but Pan-African power grid integration is dependent upon the construction of transmission links through the Congo Basin at the heart of the continent. This has not been possible until now but could be achieved through the Grand Inga project, as it would only be economically viable if power could be exported to north, west and southern Africa.
Finally, global concern over climate change has made mega hydro schemes such as Grand Inga more internationally acceptable. Funding the project could boost African power supplies and therefore promote African development without greatly contributing to carbon emissions.
The WEC sponsored ‘How to make the Grand Inga hydropower project happen for Africa’ forum in London in April brought a variety of participants together, including Congolese ministers, representatives of the World Bank, International Finance Corporation and European Investment Bank, and African power company executives. Previous studies have proposed the installation of 52 turbines each with generating capacity of 750 MW, giving a total capacity of 39 GW, but there is a long way to go before the final size of the venture is determined.
The project’s estimated cost of $80 billion would make it by far the single biggest infrastructural venture in African history. The WEC is aiming at a three phase approach: gaining wide ranging international support for the venture, so that a full feasibility study can be undertaken; setting up a project framework; and then raising the required finance. Construction work on the project could begin as early as 2014, with first electricity sometime between 2020 and 2025.
The secretary general of the WEC, Gerald Doucet, said: ‘It is the greatest sustainable development project, offering Africa a unique chance for interdependence and prosperity. It’s much more feasible now than ever. There is a peace settlement in Congo, and economic and technical studies have all shown it is possible.’ He added: ‘The banks and the City of London see that Grand Inga is serious. The G8 countries are behind it because they can get UN clean development mechanism (CDM) credits. Chinese, Brazilian and Canadian dam building companies, as well as the World Bank, are all interested.’ The feasibility study will encompass a technical study; environmental impact assessment; social impact study; cost estimates; implementation schedule; financial and economic evaluation; co-operation agreement; and sustainable management plan for the construction and operation phases.
Given the huge generating capacity on offer, the scale of the planned dam and reservoir is not great. The 205 m high dam would be substantial but not among the world’s highest. In addition, the 15 km long reservoir pales into insignificance in comparison with the Three Gorges dam project in China and the Volta River scheme in Ghana.
Doucet commented: ‘We have to raise the level of access to commercial energy all through Africa and other parts of the world, where this poverty is faced. We can’t do it without building these projects, but of course, on a sustainable basis that takes into account the social, civil and environmental issues. And I can say that in the past, mistakes have been made, but WEC is here to make sure those mistakes are not repeated.’
It has been suggested that electricity from Grand Inga could be exported to Europe and the Middle East but it remains to be seen whether such a scheme would be economically viable.
South Africa’s state utility Eskom is still backing the project, partly at least because of the power shortages that are currently plaguing the country. The company plans to import electricity from new hydro schemes in Mozambique as well as from Inga. The company’s chief executive, Jacob Maroga, said: ‘Given the inter-national climate change imperatives, we plan to reduce the coal component of our optimised portfolio to 70% by 2025.’ At present, coal fired plants contribute almost 90% of the company’s power production.
Inga III ‘pilot’
The London delegates also considered the results of a new pre-feasibility study on Inga III that was completed in February by SNC Lavalin. The 4320 MW Inga III run of river scheme could certainly be used to drum up interest in Grand Inga. It is not often that a 4 GW scheme can be described as a pilot project but Inga III could serve in this role to prove the ability of DR Congo and funding organisations to support the tremendous outlay required for Grand Inga.
Inga III would produce more electricity than DR Congo could absorb and so new cross-border transmission lines would be required to make it economically viable. Any interconnectors developed for Inga III could also be utilised by Grand Inga, thereby reducing the costs per megawatt-hour at the Inga site as a whole. In addition, the Inga III dam would be constructed on a different section of the Inga rapids to Grand Inga and so it is hoped that the two projects can be developed to complement each other, rather than in competition. Combined output from Inga III and Grand Inga is estimated at 320 TWh/year, with production costs of 2.1 US cents per kWh and 1.1-1.4 c/kWh respectively. Average annual flow rate is put at 42 000 cubic metres a second.
Westcor, set up to develop Inga III, is owned by Eskom and Botswana Power Corporation, Empresa Nacional de Electridade of Angola, NamPower of Namibia and SNEL, all of which stand to benefit from the project. While the focus of Grand Inga will be on the export market, there is a strong possibility that much of the output from Inga III will be dedicated to the Congolese market. Doucet commented: ‘The Congo owes it to its people and will be required in my view by its people to improve the access to electricity in Kinshasa and in the neighbouring areas of Inga. There definitely is a growing desire to use Inga III electricity in the Congo itself.’Only further hydraulic and geological studies are required before construction work on Inga III can begin, possibly as early as next year. It will be built on run of river, which should reduce environmental impact, at average rate of water flow of 6680 m3/s. The internal rate of return is estimated at 18.4%. The turbines would be brought on stream between 2018 and 2012, with development costs of $3.5 billion for the power side of the project and at least $1.5 billion in transmission infrastructure. BHP Billiton’s aluminium smelter at Moanda, which is about 150 km from Inga, has been mooted as a likely customer for electricity from the project.