• Power shortage reducing copper output by 50,000 tons a year
  • Privately developed power plant would be country's first

A Congolese businessman plans to develop a hydropower project in southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo to supply electricity to the region’s mines. By doing so he would establish a new model for electricity projects in the country.

Africa’s biggest copper producer is almost the size of Western Europe, though it only has installed power-generating capacity of 2,442 megawatts -- about the same as Panama’s. Only half that capacity is functioning.

Eric Monga, regional head of the Federation des Entreprises du Congo, a business lobby group known as the FEC, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Congolese government in September for the development of two sites in Haut-Katanga province. Most of the 1 million metric tons of copper the country produces comes from the southeastern region, which was previously known as Katanga.

“Power is the solution for Katanga and for the rest of the Congo,” Monga said. “More Congolese should be investing in it.”

Monga estimates the total cost of the Sombwe project at $300 million and says he will sell power directly to the mining industry. While he’s had discussions with three mining companies, he hasn’t signed any deals yet. He declined to identify the companies.

First Project

The electricity industry in the Congo is currently dominated by Societe Nationale d’Electricite, the state-owned utility. While a number of international mining companies are now developing hydropower projects in partnership with SNEL, Monga says his would be one of the first projects to be realized by private industry in Congo.

Underinvestment in power infrastructure has seen electricity production decline as facilities have fallen into disrepair. Total installed capacity between 2012 and 2014 remained stuck at 2,442 megawatts and by 2014 the country was only producing 1,329 megawatts, according to statistics from the FEC.

The power shortfall is particularly acute in Katanga, now divided into the three new provinces of Haut-Katanga, Haut-Lomami and Lualaba. Monga said available power in Katanga in 2014 was 725 megawatts, while demand from the mining industry alone was 1,267 megawatts.

Output Dropping

In its quarterly report in November, the Chamber of Mines at the FEC said that power shortages were reducing annual copper output by 50,000 tons. The industry body estimates that production of the metal will drop to 982,044 tons this year from 1.04 million tons in 2014. In the report, the chamber also restated an earlier call for the creation of an independent company to manage electricity transmission and distribution and restore trust between mining companies and SNEL.

Other reform initiatives are already under way. In February, Winnipeg, Canada-based Manitoba Hydro International Ltd. signed a technical-assistance agreement with SNEL according to a statement published on SNEL’s website. Manitoba is, among other things, contracted to advise SNEL on an investment program to rehabilitate production, transmission and distribution infrastructure and to put in place public-private partnerships.

In October, former Hydropower Resources and Electricity Minister Bruno Kapandji was appointed to head a new office at the presidency to try and accelerate the Grand Inga hydropower project in the west of the country. Congo has been trying to develop the Inga complex on the Congo River, which the World Bank says could eventually produced 50,000 megawatts, but the size and cost of the project has proven challenging.

Monga’s Sombwe project would only produce 95 megawatts, though he says smaller facilities are vital to address the power shortfall until Inga can be fully developed.

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