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By Farai Diza - Freelance Journalist
Many African nations, including South Africa, have been facing acute electricity shortages thereby crippling the progress of many industries and negatively affecting GDPs.
However, South Africa's support for the Inga 3 project has come under the spotlight.
What is the Inga 3 project?
In a bid to address this electricity shortfall, South Africa, under the leadership of then-president Jacob Zuma, pledged support to the ambitious Inga 3 hydropower project in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011.
Under the agreement, the initially-earmarked 11 000 MW project would see a bulk of the output being earmarked for South Africa with the rest going towards DRC’s mining sector and the general populace. It has since been reduced to start operating at 4 800MW.
The Inga Dams are two hydroelectric dams connected to one of the largest waterfalls in the world. Engineers have predicted that the falls could unleash as much as 40 GW in generated power.
This major initiative is projected to address SA’s mounting electricity wars by injecting 2 500 megawatts to the local grid by 2030. This would be an addition of 5%.
California-based pressure group International Rivers estimates the total cost of the project to be a whopping $80 billion if cross-continental transmission lines are taken into account.
The group further warned that the project is likely to displace thousands of people and wreck the ecosystem.
President Cyril Ramaphosa told leaders at the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa in February that Inga 3 is one of four continental infrastructure projects SA will be fast-tracking through the Presidential Infrastructure Champion Initiative.
“We have shortlisted the following 4 projects for fast tracking and implementation..... (3) The Inga III Hydropower Project involving South Africa, the DRC, Namibia, Botswana and Angola,” he said.
A damning report and pull-outs question feasibility
But in a report titled I Need You, I Don’t Need You: SA and Inga 3, experts have questioned the feasibility of the initiative arguing that the R14 billion project is “risky and may be more expensive than most other power sources available”.
The report was compiled by the New York-based Congo Research Group in collaboration with Phuzumoya Consulting from Cape Town.
Eskom’s Head of Grid Planning, Mbulelo Kibido, is quoted in the report saying “Inga makes no business sense for us. There is no budget for it.”
“You can’t use the existing lines. They won’t handle it. And a new line costs R7 million per kilometre. And that does not include the substations. Each substation would need two transformers and they are R400 million each. We simply do not have that kind of money,” he was quoted.
The report also contends that the power from Inga 3 is highly likely to be more expensive than other domestic sources and could become useless in the near future if Medupi and Kusile Power Stations' energy production is increased as per government strategy.
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Inga 3 has been beset by problems in the last few years
Spanish energy giants, Actividades de Construccion Servicios (ACS) have withdrawn from the multibillion-dollar project, further setting back plans to develop Africa’s largest hydro plant.
The company cited differences based on how to proceed to construction. Analysts, however, noted that ACS had been on the fence for quite some time and were not committed to pumping out extra money to such a risky investment.
“We can expect the remaining Spanish company and the Chinese majors with which it has been asked to form a joint consortium to actively look for a more enthusiastic partner to integrate the team,” said an analyst.
In 2016, the World Bank suspended tens of millions of dollars in funding. They went on to further criticise the project overseas strategic decision after the DRC government assigned the portfolio to the president’s office.
In December 2019, DRC head of state Felix Tshisekedi suggested reverting to earlier plans of building Inga 3 with 4 800 MW capacity, which would pave way for future expansion.
The government appears unperturbed by the Inga 3 ‘going ons’
However, president Ramaphosa’s words at the summit professed SA’s commitment towards fulfilling the project.
In an interview with Fin24, Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe stated the government was committed to ensuring that there is security of energy supply to society.
“I regard energy as a public good. The state has a responsibility to ensure that there is security of energy supply to society. How it secures and procures this is a different matter. But many things are possible,” he noted.
The authors of the recently released report agree
“The government says it wants Inga 3 to happen because it will aid Africa’s industrialisation, help diversify South Africa’s energy mix and will increase the share of the South African total provided by renewable sources,” the Congo Research Group report reads.
The updated Integrated Resource Plan envisages that the country’s energy mix will include coal 59%, nuclear 5%, hydro 8%, solar 6%, wind 18%, gas 2%.
Economist Al Kitenge divulged that the DRC has never had a real plan for the project, leaving South Africa feeling the heat.
“The DRC has never had a real plan, neither for Inga 1 nor for Inga 2 and even less for Inga 3. It is external pressure, in this case pressure from South Africans, that we started trying to structure a project,” he said.
Eskom is in the dark
Eskom disclosed to a leading daily newspaper that there was no certainty as to when the Inga dam construction would be finished and it needed to avoid relying too heavily on external sources.
Meanwhile, many energy industry experts have called upon SA to rethink the Inga 3 hydropower project with many thrashing it as a total waste of money with minimal returns.
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