OPINION: Grand Inga, the dream that should be shelved
As the dust settles from the drama around the release of South Africa’s long-awaited updated electricity plan, the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), let’s pause to kick up one more gust on one of the chosen energy choices.
Despite the fact that the main error in the wrong version being published was around the inclusion of 2,500MW of power from the Grand Inga Dam project and stated concerns about it not “materialising”, the white elephant “hydro” has quietly continued to loom over the whole plan. By contrast, much has been said around coal, nuclear, solar and wind in the energy mix.
GRAND INGA AND IRP
Grand Inga Dam is a proposed hydroelectric dam on the Congo River at Inga Falls in the DRC.
The Inga contribution to the IRP was magically inserted into the 2018 version of the IRP, with the only explanation offered being honouring the signing of a treaty between the DRC and South Africa. The IRP press briefing and previous communications also continue to use the justification of not reneging on a treaty that South Africa is party to in purchasing electricity from the project.
“Clean, reliable and affordable” energy is what the Minister of Mines and Energy, Gwede Mantashe, emphasised in announcing the IRP. Least-cost options can be added to the top of that list of requirements for an energy choice to make it in to the plan. Yet Grand Inga meets with none of that reason and evidence-based muster.
NO CLEAR OR CONCRETE PLAN
Grand Inga, should it even go ahead, is expected to come on line by 2030. The project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade now, with the government of the DRC shifting goal posts and vacillating between a number of potential power purchasers. While all this drama and posturing has gone on for years, there is nothing concrete to show for it. No design, no agreed commitments, no social and environmental assessments, and no committed investors. Big dam projects are also notorious for cost and time overruns.
This hardly shows up as a quick solution to meet South Africa’s energy needs in a time of all too frequent power cuts. In fact, the stars would have to align, is how miraculous this would be.
Affordability and reliability are perhaps the biggest and most controversial of the issues plaguing Inga. As part of the agreement, South Africa has signed up to build the transmission lines which will run all the way from the DR Congo, across at least three countries, at a conservative cost of US$4 billion.
The government knows pretty well that a lot of ground work and negotiations have to be initiated before such a mammoth infrastructure project can take off, including with countries that will offer passage for the transmission lines.
If you add the costs of purchasing the electricity, and most likely South Africa kicking in some of the construction costs should we want to finish the build on time, costs to this country could spiral.
Moreover, it is unclear how the costs match up to other options such as solar and wind. We can hardly expect to rely on the ‘project developers’ estimates on such an important decision without any further explanation.
It seems that the Department of Energy is as poor at getting the right version of key policy documents out as they are at doing the work necessary to show why we make our energy choices. When the debt of Eskom consumes 9% of our GDP and our credit ratings sink ever lower, we can reasonably argue that all the government should be ever doing is their math! Quite frankly, on this basis Grand Inga is grandly mind-boggling expensive.
SAY NO TO GRAND INGA
The South African government could do the nation a great favour by simply concentrating on increasing the proportion of solar and wind included in the energy mix, options that are realistic, truly clean and affordable. Options that can quickly come on line, especially at the time when we need electricity yesterday, should be prioritised.
Grand Inga hydro and any other energy sources that rely on construction of large infrastructure that will cost the consumer an arm and a leg, will only cause more blackouts and increase the national debt.
Trusha Reddy is with WoMin African Alliance and Rudo Sanayanga is Africa programme director at International Rivers.