A vision of a lighter Africa

Published: 27-OCT-04

Stability in Central Africa will allow for the fast-tracking of the multi-billion dollar Grand Inga Hydro electric Project, which will see the development of what has been dubbed the biggest power plant in the world.

It appears that the massive project, which is seen as a beacon of hope for Africa, is already beginning to influence foreign policy on the continent. The DRC is potentially Africa�s wealthiest nation, with massive deposits of gold, diamonds, copper, uranium and other minerals. With these wealth deposits the country is seen as a major catalyst for growth and development in Africa. The Inga project will see the construction of a 3 000 MW hydro-electric power generation plant at the Grand Inga Falls on the banks of the Congo river. The river drops 100 metres, promising huge amounts of energy for powering turbines. The Grand Inga hydroelectric project is expected to generate 40 000 megawatts of electricity.

Political turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is being seen as delaying what could be the biggest project ever undertaken by the New Partnership for Africa�s Development (Nepad). However, African leaders are on top of developments, moving behind the scenes to ensure peace in the central African state.

Eskom has not been shy to announce its intentions to take a leadership position in this project. Reuel Khoza, the chairman of Eskom, is leading this latest quest to light up Africa. �We (Africans) actually gave to humanity the first signs of civilisation, but we actually did get overtaken. Now the challenge facing Africa is to catch up and catch up substantively. All that is required is the requisite political will and the leadership that will make sure that we don�t develop incrementally, but actually leapfrog into the 21st century. And develop Africa in a concerted fashion. In a fashion that says we shall not be a follower. We shall be a coleader at worst�, says Khoza.

Eskom is clear that it needs the Inga project for additional capacity and to will provide linkages to the western corridor. It is expected that the project will be jointly owned and operated by the power utilities in Angola, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and the DRC. Energy ministers from these countries are said to be close to finalising an agreement.

With Southern Africa�s electricity capacity expected to outstrip demand by 2008, the Grand Inga Falls project has become an emergency. The governments and the major shareholder, Eskom, want it developed by 2008. If analysts forecasts that Africa will require an additional 60 000 MW by 2030 to satisfy demand, then the project will become even more critical for Africa.

Thulani Gcabashe, the Chief Executive of Eskom, says the group has a policy to diversify its sources of energy as far as possible. Currently, coal accounts for the largest primary source of energy, at 90% of Eskom�s generation, followed by hydro and nuclear energy.

�In Hydra, there�s not much further potential within South Africa, but outside South Africa there�s a potential on the Zambezi, both in Zambia and Mozambique. There�s a potential in Congo, DRC at Inga, where in fact there�s 40 000 MW of potential that is there. Then nuclear is part of our suite of primary sources of energy going forward.�

The Inga project is the brainchild of Eskom, which is ranked among the top five energy utilities in the world. Eskom plans to connect the plant to a continent-wide electricity grid. Currently, Eskom buys the bulk of its power from the Cahora Bassa Dam on the Zambezi River in Mozambique.

Eskom Enterprises, the driver of Eskom�s businesses across the continent, is currently involved in the electricity sectors of about 31 African nations. Its role in owning and operating hydropower projects is growing. The group is buying up existing dams, and in other cases it is proposing to help finance or buy the electricity from new dams.

Already three American Banks are said to be interested in funding the Grand Inga Power plant, largely because of the potential to export electricity to Europe, via Spain. The first power lines would link the plant to South Africa via Angola and Namibia, a distance of some 3000 km. As a follow-up, it could go 4000km north through the Central African Republic and Sudan to Egypt. Nigeria wants to take Inga power to West Africa. Eskom is already talking about exporting power to Europe.

The World Bank is advising the DRC government on its hydro power capacity. A survey undertaken by auditing firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PwC) among Chief Executives of power utilities in Southern Africa suggests that most believe that NEPAD will encourage co-operation and the formation of a common power pool. According to Stanley Subramoney, the Deputy CEO of PwC Southern Africa, this is good news for foreign direct investment in the region.

The Utilities Global Survey 2004 also suggests that hydropower is considered to have the greatest potential on competitive electricity pricing. The report suggests that �while there are limited reserves in the region, benefits can be drawn from the Congo river, through the centre of Africa�.

Construction was expected to begin in 2003, but instability in the region has scuppered these plans. Now, all hopes are pinned down on next year�s promised elections in the DRC, which are expected to bring peace and stability in the region. Already, there is hope, as President Josef Kabila has worked hard to stabilise the country following his father�s death.

But there are other concerns. The Botswana Daily news has quoted its Minerals and Energy Minister as saying the project hangs in the balance because the DRC government wants a bigger slice of the share as the host nation.

The DRC is said to be asking for more than just the 20% stake that is supposed to be spread equitably amongst the 5 nations involved. Barring any major political instability, the Grand Inga Project might just be the only hope for a lighter Africa, come 2008.

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