April 21, 2008 / 4:04 PM / 12 years ago

Congo's Inga power projects seek new lease of life

LONDON (Reuters) - Banks, businesses and representatives of several African nations met in London on Monday to try to breathe new life into an $80 billion hydroelectric power project in Congo that could be the world’s biggest.

A general view of Inga dam's eight massive turbines on the mighty Congo River in this October 22, 2006 file photo. REUTERS/Marlene Rabaud

The Grand Inga dam could, if it gets the green light politically and commercially, dwarf China’s Three Gorges scheme and increase Africa’s power generation by more than one-third.

But the problems dogging the project are massive, ranging from political instability including the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) recent civil war to local objections and, not least, the massive costs involved.

“We have been trying to facilitate the decision-making that would allow these projects to go forward on a sustainable and affordable basis,” said Gerald Doucet, head of the World Energy Council (WEC), which is hosting the meeting.

“We are trying to bring affordable, clean energy to the DRC and Africa,” he told a news conference. “These projects have to benefit Africans, not only in terms of the social and civil side but also job creation and electricity connections in Africa that allow people to move out of poverty.”

Never has the demand for clean power been higher, driven by economic growth, rising urbanization and the battle against climate change due to burning fossil fuels.

Big business, which for years shunned Africa, has suddenly developed a new interest, attracted by the rich pickings to be had in the new carbon emissions market and the credits they can get from investing in so-called clean development projects.

The run-of-river Inga I hydroelectric plant was commissioned in 1972 and Inga II followed a decade later. But both have fallen into disrepair and now only manage to produce about one quarter of their joint capacity of 1.7 gigawatts of electricity.

The little power they are producing is going exclusively to power the mines of Katanga, with none to local people in a country where 92 percent of the population is without electricity.

“We have to address the concerns of the people living in the area. There aren’t many, but those who do live there haven’t seen any benefit from Inga I or II,” Doucet said during a break in the two-day meeting.

Both are now being refurbished with World Bank money, but the Canadian company carrying out the work has warned that, due to silting problems, even when new machinery is installed output will still be one-third below capacity.

The planned 4.3 gigawatt Inga III, expected to cost $5.5 billion, is optimistically expected to start construction around the end of 2010 but not come on line for a further eight years.

As yet the project has still not been financed.

Grand Inga, which unlike I, II and III would dam Africa’s biggest and fastest-flowing river and could generate 40 gigawatts of power, is still only at the feasibility study stage and is not expected to be approved or rejected until 2014.

“There are huge, huge challenges to face. WEC is trying address those challenges to get to a point of decision-making on Inga III and Grand Inga that makes this project relevant for Africa within the next 20 years,” said Doucet.

South Africa, suffering a spate of power cuts, Nigeria and Egypt have all expressed interest in Grand Inga and Inga III, and there has been talk of exporting what would be the world’s cheapest electricity to Europe and Israel.

Editing by Catherine Evans

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