With the funding commitment, the feasibility study should be set to start alongside plans for an aluminium smelter, the company said in a statement.

The firm said that initial concept studies for the scheme on the Congo river have been completed. However, further details regarding the procurement of consultant services and schedule for the report were not available, and neither was there information on the anticipated construction programme.

BHP Billiton agreed to fund the hydro power study upon signing an agreement with DRC government to jointly investigate the development of a world-class smelter to be located in the Bas Congo region of DRC.

The smelter is budgeted at US$3B to output approximately 800,000 tonne/year in its first phase. BHP Billiton said that the required power requirement from the hydro power scheme is 2000MW.

Earlier this year the World Bank approved a grant of almost US$300M to boost the power market in DRC in line with efforts to rehabilitate the existing Inga hydro power schemes. The bank said that the works on the plants – Inga I and Inga II – would see capacity increased from 700MW to 1300MW of reliable production.

The plants had combined capacities of approximately 1700MW (Inga I with six 52MW units, Inga II with eight 172MW units), but falling demand and poor maintenance budgets reduced output and capability. Inga II is being refurbished in stages by Canada-based MagEnergy under a public-private partnership (PPP).

In 2003-4, South Africa utility Eskom was involved in investigating the development of Inga III with 3500MW at an estimated cost of US$4B. Back then, the scheduled completion date was around 2010-12 and the project was seen as the first phase of the long conceived 40GW Grand Inga hydro power scheme.