On-off-not-there-at-all electricity is Africa's curse, but watch out for these dams

In 2010 the 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa generated about the same amount of power as Spain.

THE world has caught the new sweet smell of Africa, and it has fired the collective imagination of Africans themselves.

The undoubtedly impressive economic numbers coming out most of the continent are slowly but surely replacing the ubiquitous negative headlines that had marked headlines about the continent for decades - famine, war and poverty.

However, to maintain the present economic upswing and to address poverty sustainably, Africa has to address its poor and erratic power production and distribution.

For instance, in most African cities (even in huge oil producing countries like Nigeria), water rich countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), or countries with reliable sunlight through out the year, load shedding or “power blackout” has become part of the rhythm of national life. So pervasive is the problem that in many parts it has been internalised as the “cost of doing business”.

Power companies’ response to the black outs is incessantly inept—technical breakdown being their famed default excuse. But such response provides a window into their gratuitous inefficiency owing to limited competition, allowing them to get away with murder.

‘Never-ever-power-again’
The response on the social media platforms to power outage has become mega comic relief, underlining Africans wicked sense of humour as a coping mechanism in dealing with their daily frustrations. For instance, in Nigeria, the National Electricity Power Authority, (NEPA) is called, “Never Ever Power Again,” and the Kenya Power & Lighting Company (KPLC) has become “Kenya Power Less Company”.

However, the consequences of power outage transcend individual frustrations and inconvenience; energy poverty has diminished Africa’s productive capacity.  

According to the World Bank 2010 report “Addressing the Electricity Access Gap Background Paper for the World Bank Group Energy Sector Strategy”, electricity is “by far the region’s largest infrastructure challenge, with more than 30 countries facing regular power shortages and many paying high premiums for emergency power. The 48 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa generate about the same amount of power as Spain. When South Africa is excluded, per capita electricity consumption is only 124 kWh and is falling”.

The report further notes, “Only 29% of the Sub-Saharan African population has access to electricity”.

Besides production and consumption, efficiency is another challenge, as well as the rural-urban divide. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, (OECD) Energy and Poverty in Africa Policy insight 2004, “In sub-Saharan Africa, rural populations are the least well served since just 8.4% have access to electricity” and  “11.3% of electricity generated in Africa is wasted in the course of production and transportation compared with 9.2 per cent in the world as a whole”. For instance, this wastage is more than 20% in Senegal, Tanzania and Kenya, and double that in Nigeria and Congo.

Tackling the problem
Several solutions are being explored to address this challenge. Some of these solutions include large-scale projects. Big projects have a rich history on the continent—grand white elephant projects with little public good utility except to satiate the ego of leaders, are littered across the continent. 

The former Cote d’Ivoire strongman Félix Houphouët-Boigny built a 18,000 people capacity cathedral whose price tag was  $300 million.

Zaire’s (now DRC) Mobutu Sese seko, the poster child of big man opulence converted his village of Gbadolite into the “Versailles of the Jungle,” modeled after the Belgian monarchy’s Laeken Palace.

At the height of his grander, Mobutu embarked on the construction of Inga Dam, which was slated to produce 1,100-mile tension high power grind in the Shaba region.

 The project is located approximately 500 km north west of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul - Gumaz along the Blue Nile. At the end of the works, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the largest dam in Africa: 1,800 metres long, 170 metres high and with a total volume of 10 million m³.

Over seven phases
The project involves the construction of a main dam in Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC), with 2 power stations installed at the foot of the dam. The power stations are positioned on the right and left banks of the river and comprise 16 Francis turbines with a total installed power of 6,000 MW and estimated production of 15,000 GWh per year. The project is completed by a 15,000 m3/s capacity concrete spillway and a rockfill saddle dam 5 km long and 50 metres high, both located on the left bank.

The DRC with the support of the World Bank proposes to develop the Inga 3 project, which includes a dam and a 4,500MW hydroelectric plant at Inga Falls on the mighty Congo River. The Inga 3 hydropower scheme is the first phase in the construction of the Grand Inga hydropower project, located 225 km from Kinshasa, and 60 km upstream of the mouth of the Congo river into the Atlantic Ocean. The scheme would have a generation capacity of 40,000MW and would be developed in 7 phases beginning with Inga 3, which itself would have 2 phases.

The plan to build the Inga 3 hydropower scheme has been in the cards as far back as the early 1950s. Since that time, developers from several countries have expressed an interest in implementing the project. These have included French, Belgian, Chinese, Brazilian and African companies and investors. 

In 1972 and 1982, the Mobutu government built the Inga 1 and 2, respectively, with a total potential generation capacity of 2,132MW. Sadly, these two schemes have never operated to full capacity; in 2013 the dams were reported to have produced only 40% of their capacity. 

At the end of the civil war in the DRC and the peace deal of 2003, Kinshasa revived its plans to construct Inga 3. In 2004, the Western Power Corridor (Westcor), a consortium of national utilities from five southern African countries (Angola, Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo), organised and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the DRC government to construct Inga 3, with its power to be distributed to all signatory countries through the Southern African Power Pool.

Go it alone
In 2009 the DRC withdrew from Westcor and decided to try to go it alone on the project. Its first step was to float tenders for the development of Inga 3 with private companies. The international mining corporation BHP Billiton won the tender, with its proposal to develop Inga 3 as well as a 2,000MW rated aluminum smelter in the vicinity of the hydropower plant. When BHP Billiton withdrew from the deal in 2012, the DRC again began looking elsewhere. 

The World Bank and other financial institutions came on board in May 2013, promising to offer finance for Inga 3. As part of this deal, South Africa committed to buy 2,500MW of the 4,800MW to be generated. A treaty sealing this deal was concluded in October 2013 making South Africa the key purchaser of the Inga 3 electricity.

Following the withdrawal of BHP Billiton from the arena, DRC commissioned fresh feasibility studies that were financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB). They recommended a new design for the dam, whereby the new Inga 3 hydropower project would not block the mainstem of the river but instead would divert the Congo River to flow into the Bundi Valley through a 12km open canal with an average flow of 6,000m3/sec. The diversion would be located upstream of the intake works for Inga I and 2.  At the end of the canal a 145m-tall dam and a power station would be constructed. There would be a small reservoir behind the dam wall.

According to the design, the dam would initially be built low (Inga 3 Basse Chute or low head) and progressively increased in height as the project proceeded to the next phase, eventually flooding 22,000 hectares of land as well as the original diversion canal. The outflow from the turbines would enter the Congo River about 30km downstream of the falls.

Inga 3 is projected to cost $12 billion and to generate 4,800MW when completed. The Grand Inga itself could eventually have a capacity of 40,000MW – equivalent to more than 20 large nuclear power stations. In addition to building the dam wall and Inga 3 hydropower plant by 2020, the project proposes a power line that would stretch more than 5,000km, from the project to South Africa, through Zambia and Namibia.

Electric concerns
The development of Inga would be implemented as a public-private partnership (PPP) deal. The AfDB, World Bank, French Development Agency, European Investment Bank and Development Bank of South Africa have all shown interest in financing Inga 3. 

In December 2013 the United States, through its development agency USAID, also expressed interest in contributing to the financing of Inga 3. At the time of writing, no developer had been chosen yet, but Chinese, Korean and Spanish companies are said to be in the forefront of the bidding put out by the DRC Government.

The development of this hydropower project raises a number of concerns. Firstly, the power production from the Inga 3 is mainly for industry users and will not improve the access level for the more than 90% of the DRC population who have no access to electricity. 

The prospect of local people getting power from Inga in the next 20 years is remote and does not feature in the project as currently planned. Most of Inga 3’s power will travel long distances to the industrial and urban centers in South Africa and large mines in DRC, bypassing Congolese who are not served by the nation’s limited grid.

The DRC has suffered decades of civil war, during which corruption has become entrenched in the socioeconomic fabric of the nation. By many accounts, the country has acquired a reputation as a failed state.  It is sad to note that, in this vein, the Inga 3 stands to become a large-scale infrastructure of false ideals.

 Some people will have to be relocated and agricultural land in the Bundi valley will be lost. The development model for the project does not appear to make any considerations to meet the expectations of the locals. On the contrary, the project will only add to the national debt burden, with very strong prospects of promoting corruption and allowing powerful companies to cheaply exploit and export the country’s vast natural resources. 

Not cost effective
Large volumes of research carried out worldwide have shown that grid-based electrification is not cost-effective for much of rural Sub-Saharan Africa where the population density is low. Renewable energy solutions such as wind, solar and micro hydropower projects are much more effective at reaching the rural poor.

The DRC government and the supporters of this dam need to critically examine their role in this project and to promote transparency and the pursuit of world standards in the development of these projects. There is need for transparency, sincere and committed public engagements, and implementation of an energy development path that addresses the needs of the country.

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the bipartisan Electrify Africa Act and the Senate is considering the Energise Africa Act. Both aim to boost energy generation capacity by 20,000 MW before 2020, which would help 50 million people living in extreme poverty get basic electricity for the first time. And by leveraging the private sector and using existing tools like loan guarantees and expanded insurance for American companies, the legislation won’t cost US taxpayers a dime.

Senators Menendez (D-NJ) and Corker (R-TN), the respective SFRC Chairman and Ranking Member, introduced the Energize Africa Act (S. 2508). Senators Coons, Isakson, Markey, and Johanns also co-sponsored the legislation. This bipartisan bill is thoughtful, comprehensive, and would give a significant boost to US efforts to promote growth and economic opportunity in the region.

-Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a Horn of Africa analyst. Twitter:@qulshtm

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