Did the almost-mythical Grand Inga project come any closer to realisation this week?

Political support matters, but the viability of the power plant that could change Africa’s economic prospects rests on finding the money to pay for it.

The Grand Inga hydroelectric project on the Congo River ‘has been in the pipe-line for a very long time’ South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma said in Kinshasa on Tuesday as his energy minister Ben Martins and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) counterpart Bruno Kapindji signed yet another treaty confirming South Africa’s participation in the development of the mega-power plant.

To say the project has been in the pipeline a very long time was an understatement. Grand Inga has been a case of near-terminal constipation. Or to use a less distasteful metaphor, it has, for a very long time, been a mirage ever shimmering just out of reach. Should we now believe it’s really starting to happen? Did the treaty signed this week bring it any closer? It’s rather hard to say since officials don’t seem eager to publish the actual treaty.

The various phases of the Grand Inga project are eventually supposed to generate over 41 000 megawatts (MW) of clean electricity, as Zuma said, ‘enough to supply the African continent and possibly, with the potential for export to southwestern Europe. The project has the potential to change the economic prospects of the DRC, the region and the continent. I must convey how particularly pleased and excited I am by the progress taking place towards (its) realization’. He added, ‘As South Africans, we are proud that we will be partnering with the people and the Government of the DRC in the development of this Project’.

But has there been real progress? Inga 1, built in 1972, and Inga 2, completed in 1982, have the capacity to produce about 1 775 MW, although they are being refurbished and are operating below capacity. The treaty signed this week was about the development of the next phase, Inga 3, which should add another 4 800 MW to the output and which Zuma estimated would cost about R100 billion.

According to one news agency report, South Africa committed itself in the treaty signed this week to buy 2 500 MW of that, which would be just about the amount of regional hydroelectric power that the government has proposed to import in its Integrated Resource Plan for energy. The DRC itself would take another 1 000 MW and the rest of the 4 800 MW would go elsewhere in the region.

Three international consortia have already lined up to bid to build Inga 3 – China Three Gorges Corporation and Sinohydro Corporation; Posco and Daewoo Corporation of South Korea in partnership with Canada’s SNC-Lavalin Group Incorporated; and Actividades de Construccion y Servicios SA, based in Madrid, and Spain’s Eurofinsa Group. And Kapindji announced in October that the DRC government was open to other operators joining these bid groups. His technical adviser Max Munga said DRC would choose the successful consortium in June or July next year and that construction might begin in October 2014 with the first power being generated in 2020.

But while that all sounded encouraging, it is of course not the degree of interest of would-be builders of this very lucrative project but that of would-be financiers that is the real test of the viability of the project. And that is far less clear.

South Africa’s Eskom, DRC’s equivalent government energy utility SNEL, Namibia’s Nampower and other regional energy utilities have all been involved in earlier initiatives around Grand Inga. But it is uncertain where they all stand now. The World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Development Bank of Southern Africa, the European Investment Bank (EIB) and possibly other international financial institutions all still seem to be at quite early stages of investigating the feasibility of Inga 3.

This week Diederick Zambon, head of the EIB’s Southern Africa and Indian Ocean division, said that before the EIB – and no doubt other international financial institutions – decided to invest billions of euros in such a giant project, it would first have to satisfy itself that there was enough take-off – that is sufficient and firm commitments to buy the electricity. And this would require a very thorough calculation of the eventual cost of electricity to the individual consumer in countries like South Africa.

Apart from the huge cost of building the power plant itself – including the dam, the turbines and so on – one of the major calculations would have to be the cost of the powerlines carrying the power to distant consumers.

Munga has been quoted as saying that for Inga 3, DRC would construct 1 841 km of high-tension lines to its border with Zambia and South Africa would install another 1 540 km of lines from Zambia through Zimbabwe to Witkop. The total combined distance of the multi-stranded lines would stretch around the circumference of the earth, as he put it rather colourfully, suggesting thereby that it would require some 40 000 km of cabling. He did not mention the cost of constructing such an enormous length of power lineage but Zambon said the EIB was keen to discover who would pay for it and how.

Zambon did not dismiss the possibility that the project might eventually come to fruition and even that it might one day supply power to Europe. But he was unable to say if he thought the realisation of the dream had been brought any closer by the signing of the treaty in Kinshasa and his caveats were pertinent.

The South African government has been throwing some very big numbers around with regard to its long-term energy plans, also concerning nuclear energy, of which it is proposing to generate some 9 600 MW with six reactors at a cost of about one trillion rands, according to some estimates. Such potentially lucrative contracts certainly keep would-be investors sniffing.

But some potential investors are also growing a little sceptical, wondering if the high-profile signing of the Grand Inga treaty in Kinshasa this week, for example, might have had more to do with imminent elections and the need to mollify voters irritated by frequent power outages, than with any real intent to get the project out of the pipeline at last.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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