Even without the major distractions of Julius Malema and his fellow Economic Freedom Fighters being violently evicted from Parliament, the Democratic Alliance walking out in sympathy and cellphone signals being jammed, listeners would probably have struggled to make complete sense of President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address on the vexed question of electricity.
That was probably the intention. Coming in the middle of rolling nationwide blackouts from Eskom, power – or impotence – was clearly going to be a politically sensitive issue. Which is perhaps why Zuma emitted what seemed to be a large and bewildering ink cloud of impressive-sounding statistics about the volume of new electricity that his administration had added, or was planning to add, to the national grid.
Tallying up to an impressive total of 50 000 MW of electricity, this included 4 000 megawatts (MW) from independent power producers, using renewable sources; 3 900 MW of renewable energy; 10 000 MW from the three new power stations; 2 600 MW of hydro-electric capacity to be sourced from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region and 9 600 MW from the fleet of new nuclear power stations that the government is exploring, which the United States (US), South Korea, Russia, France and China are preparing to bid for. Of the 48 000 MW that will be generated by the Grand Inga Hydro-electrical Project in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zuma said South Africa would have access to 15 000 MW.
There are no SADC countries with a 2 600 MW hydro potential other than Tanzania and DRC
On paper, then, we are soon to wake from Eskom’s long dark night to a brilliant dawn. Yet there were many devils in the details of this list, as consulting electrical engineer Terry Mackenzie-Hoy pointed out. He recently told Africa Check that Zuma’s claim that three new power stations Kusile, Medupi and Ingula, would add 10 000 MW to the national grid was ‘somewhat misleading’. This was because Ingula, in the Drakensberg, is a pump-storage scheme, not a power station. It stores water to be released through its hydro-electric turbines to relieve the grid in peak load times, and so does not contribute to South Africa’s base-load capacity. He added, however, that Kusile and Medupi would add 9 564 MW to base-load capacity, so Zuma’s 10 000 MW claim was only 436 MW out.
In an interview with the Institute for Security Studies though, Mackenzie-Hoy suggested that some of Zuma’s other figures of power generation were perhaps even more misleading, on face value, because of double counting – for instance on the quantum of renewable power that the government is procuring from independent producers. At one point in his speech, Zuma said: ‘To date, government has procured 4 000 MW from independent power producers, using renewable sources.’ At another point he said: ‘A total of 3 900 MW of renewable energy has also been sourced…’
Mackenzie-Hoy says this gives the impression that we have 4 000 MW plus 3 900 MW of renewable energy. ‘In fact it is 3 915 MW from renewable energy in total,’ he explains, adding that at best, only 25% of the 3 915 MW would be base load, because when the sun wasn’t shining and the wind not blowing, energy would still have to be found from conventional sources.
Mackenzie-Hoy also suggested that the 2 600 MW of hydro-electric capacity which Zuma said would be sourced from the SADC region was actually part of the 15 000 MW that he said South Africa would be able to access from the Grand Inga project in the DRC (a SADC member state).
The proposed supply will require a 2 600 km transmission line; longer than any such power line in the world
‘There are plans to proceed with construction of Cahora Bassa North Bank peaking plant [in Mozambique],’ Mackenzie-Hoy said. ‘This will provide 3 220 MW in perhaps 2020. Most of the supply will be used by Mozambique, but the balance will be exported. It is not likely that this balance will be “2 600 MW from SADC countries” and there are no SADC countries with a 2 600 MW hydro potential other than Tanzania and DRC. The 2 600 MW must refer to Inga Phase 1.’
He explains: ‘Phase 1 of the Grand Inga Project is a new dam called Inga 3. This will provide 2 500 MW power. Of this, 2 000 MW was going to be used by Billiton in an aluminium smelter in DRC and the rest sent to other customers. This is now coming to South Africa following the 2013 agreement. However, let us not get too carried away by Inga. It does have a 48 000 MW potential, of which South Africa could get 15 000 MW. But the proposed 2 500 MW supply will require a 800 kilovolt direct current [DC] transmission line 2 600 km long [longer than any DC power line in the world], which will be very costly to build and difficult to operate in a stable fashion at low loads. None of this will happen in less than eight years.’
Another energy expert who did not want to be named agreed with Mackenzie-Hoy, saying that the DRC was most likely the SADC country that could potentially supply 2 600 MW hydro-electric power to South Africa. But even if that amount could be squeezed out of Inga 3, ‘the line losses and insecurity of transmitting power from there to here and the complexities of the financing would make it an unviable exercise.
‘Also, there’s no reasonable prospect that the South African government could finance such a scheme, which would likely be in US dollars. Eskom doesn’t have the balance sheet to sign up that kind of MW on a bankable basis.’ This potential fault is a game breaker, because South Africa’s 2013 agreement with the DRC to buy 2 500 MW is indispensable to Inga 3’s economic viability. The Department of Energy was approached for an explanation on Zuma’s speech, particularly where the 2 600 MW would come from in SADC, but had not responded at the time of writing.
Eskom doesn’t have the balance sheet to sign up that kind of MW on a bankable basis
Inga 3 – properly called Inga 3 Basse Chute or Inga 3 BC because of its low fall – would add to the aging and under-performing Inga 1 and 2 hydro-electric plants, and become the first of the seven-phase Grand Inga scheme. Several local and international civil society organisations have raised objections to it on social, economic and environmental grounds. The civil society organisation International Rivers said Inga 3’s output was intended mainly for industry users and wouldn’t help the more than 90% of Congolese who had no access to electricity. Some local people would have to be moved and farmland would be lost. It also said that Inga 3 would probably aggravate the corruption that is already firmly entrenched in DRC and increase the country’s debt burden to unsustainable levels.
However both the World Bank and the African Development Bank have invested some money, and perhaps even more of their considerable credibility, in Inga 3. In March last year, the World Bank announced a US$73.1 million grant for a technical assistance project to ‘strengthen DRC’s institutional capability by establishing an autonomous and transparent Inga Development Authority, which will follow best international practice in selecting the private concessionaire and negotiating power purchase agreements.’
The project would also finance technical, environmental and social studies to develop the project sustainably. The African Development Bank had approved another US$33.4 million for assessment studies for the project in 2013, making a total of US$106.5 million.
The World Bank said 1 000 MW of electricity from Inga 3 would go to greater Kinshasa to meet its projected needs to 2025, 1 300 MW would be sold to mining companies and 2 500 MW would be sold to South Africa. ‘By being involved in the development of Inga 3 BC from an early stage, we can help ensure that its development is done right so it can be a game changer by providing electricity to millions of people and powering commerce and industry,’ said Makhtar Diop, World Bank Vice President for Africa.
Significantly, though, the World Bank has not yet decided to invest in the actual construction of Inga 3 which is roughly estimated to cost US$12 billion, though it and several other development agencies are clearly sniffing at such an investment. On paper then, the grand mirage of Inga, which has been hovering tantalisingly just out of reach on the horizon for over half a century, is getting closer. Whether it will ever materialise, though, still remains to be seen.
Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa
Picture: © Yasser Booley / Africa Media Online