Democratic Republic of Congo boasts massive energy generation potential from hydro, wind or solar, but the traditional approach of evaluating hundreds of prospective hydro sites across the country looks increasingly flawed. Overcoming the chronic shortage of available generation capacity is most likely to be achieved by focusing on relatively modest projects located close to key load centres, and using a variety of technologies, rather than by developing the massive Inga or other large-scale hydro schemes.

African Energy recently reviewed existing, planned and prospective generation capacity before the launch of the African Energy Live Data platform. The figures show that only a fraction of the country’s generation potential is in a meaningful planning stage and an even smaller amount in construction. Live Data currently lists 19 projects with capacity of 1,720MW in planning. These are projects that have a reasonable prospect of being built as they have a sponsor and there is evidence of progress. They include Sicomines’ 240MW Busanga hydro, Construction, Finance & Engineering Congo’s 100MW Mbimbi Mayi Munene hydro, the Ruzizi III and IV hydro schemes and Gécamines’ 500MW Luena coal project. There are are six projects with a total capacity of 247MW currently in construction. These include Sinohydro’s construction of the 150MW Zongo II dam, which has started supplying an initial 37MW to the grid (AE 353/13), and Bharat Heavy Electricals’ 64MW Katende hydro project.

Additionally, there are seven already operating plants in rehabilitation, with a total capacity of 382MW. These are mostly located in the Katanga mining area and are being repaired by state-owned utility Société Nationale d’Electricité (Snel) in partnership with mining companies in return for guaranteed offtake. Examples include Ivanhoe Mines’ sponsorship of work at the Koni, Mwandingusha and N’zilo I plants. Although the 63 currently operating plants have total installed capacity of 2,321MW, most estimates suggest that actual available capacity is around half that, not least because of the lack of output from Inga I and Inga II.

Live Data also lists 66 hydro prospects with cumulative installed capacity of just under 47GW under the rubric ‘no evidence of progress’. They include 42GW from the Inga site plus other large hydro schemes, some of which were identified as early as 1972. The selection represents only the largest and best documented part of this potential and is a fraction of the total hydro capacity theoretically available. In January 2015, the government published a 582-page atlas outlining potential wind, solar and geothermal projects including 100GW of hydro (AE 292/8).

The generation possibilities are not restricted to hydro. In September, the US-based advocacy group International Rivers published a study identifying “a minimum of 15GW of wind power and 70GW of solar photovoltaic (PV) within 25km of existing and planned transmission lines”. It said that up to 5GW of the wind capacity could produce power at less than $0.08/kWh, and over 50GW of the solar PV capacity at less than $0.07/kWh, making it broadly comparable with the World Bank’s projected $0.07-$0.08/kWh cost of Inga III power for utility customers. The area with greatest wind and solar potential is the south-east, conveniently close to many large mining operations, but there is also 6GW of solar PV capacity in the Kinshasa area. In addition to comparing DRC’s wind and solar prospects to the planned Inga projects, the report also argued that the export of Inga III power is a more expensive option for South Africa than the development of its own domestic wind and solar generation.

A further alternative approach to the challenge of electrifying the country was taken by US energy consultancy ICF in its Conceptual Plan for Enhancing Transmission Infrastructure to Expand Electricity Access in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, published in March with funding from the US Agency for International Development. It focused on the energy needs of four cities along the Inga-Kolwezi corridor: Kikwit, Kananga, Tshikapa and Mbuji-Mayi, whose combined urban populations totalled 9.4m in 2016, expected to rise to 15.9m by 2035. It estimated that projected peak demand would increase from 822MW to 2,082MW over the same period. None of these cities is currently connected to the grid and combined installed capacity is approximately 28MW.

ICF clean energy development director Sanjay Chandra told African Energy that having identified the load centres they came up with “potential projects that could be presented to potential investors which would be realised, not in some 20-year vision… but which investors could put up within five to ten years”. Obtaining reliable data on the projects was difficult, he said as the main government agencies do not talk to one another. Alongside several established schemes, such as the 128MW Lungudi hydro expansion and the 100MW Mbimbi Mayi Munene hydro, ICF identified other relatively unknown prospects such as the 70MW Lovua Longatathilmo project and more than 30 mini and micro-hydro schemes. It also put forward proposals for creating local distribution concessions to bring the power to the cities, which eventually could be linked by a new transmission network.

This is already working on a small scale elsewhere in the country, most notably in the Virunga National Park. The vision is unlikely to involve the state utility. As Chandra noted: “We were not relying on Snel to support this. Snel is focused on Kinshasa and not interested in going out into the countryside.”