The DRC: Rethinking Power Transmission
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Read more on the DRC’s resource-rich potential in the Africa Energy Series Special Report: DRC 2020 – the leading investor resource for tracking the country’s current and future movements within the sector. Download the Report and other AES Special Reports here.
In a country the size of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the design of an efficient electricity transmission network is a key topic regarding access to power, population isolation and economic competitiveness. Featuring one of the continent’s lowest rates of access, the DRC needs to work hard to feed power to its 85 million people.
The DRC currently has around 2.7 gigawatts (GW) of electrical capacity installed through 50 power plants scattered across the country. Less than half of that capacity is actually exploitable, due to ageing equipment and lack of maintenance. Ninety-five percent of the DRC’s output is hydroelectric, thanks to the Congo river.
Nineteen percent of the Congolese population has access to electricity. Disparities are great as almost 50% of the urban population is electrified as opposed to 1% in rural areas. The national grid comprises three separate grids, in the west, the east and the south of the country. The south grid covers the Lualaba and Haut-Kantaga provinces where intense mining activity is conducted. It is connected to Inga power plants on the Congo river and features and transmission line for imported power from Zambia. The high-voltage line between Inga and Kolwezi, Lualaba province capital, was rehabilitated and its capacity doubled in 2007 thanks to a $178 million loan from the World Bank.
Liberalization of the power sector was implemented in 2014, ending the national utility company Société Nationale d’Electricité’s (SNEL’s) monopoloy. To this day, SNEL still provides 94% of the DRC’s electricity production. The company is in financial difficulty due to low cost of electricity for end users, around $0.07 per kilowatt-hour, as well as illegal connections.
The Ministry of Energy and Water Resources is responsible for organizing the production and distribution of water and electricity in the country. In 2016, two government agencies were created in order to better regulate and develop the power sector, and implement more efficiently the liberalization strategy. The Electricity Regulation Authority’s (ARE’s) mission is to regulate the sector, be a solid interlocutor for its stakeholders and attract private operators into the DRC’s electricity space. The National Agency for Electrification and Energy Services in Rural and Peri-urban Areas (ANSER) focuses on isolated rural areas as well as suburbs and lightly urbanized areas.
The Inga-Kolwezi transmission line, which was once the world’s longest high-voltage direct current line reaching 1,700 kilometers, is one of the few large-scale power infrastructure achievements in the country. When the local government liberalized the electricity sector in 2014, institutional investors such as the World Bank, the African Development Bank, United Kingdom’s Department for International Development and the European Union declared the DRC’s power sector development a priority.
While mining has been the country’s economic backbone for six decades, the available energy resources are immense. The DRC’s could contain up to 20 billion barrels of oil according to estimates, placing it just behind Nigeria in Africa’s top oil reserves ranking. While international operators are increasingly interested by the DRC’s hydrocarbon sector, renewable energy production is set to see exponential growth in the context of climate change and the Paris Agreements. These alternative fuels are particularly strategic regarding infrastructure development as they are available nationwide and therefore do not require to be transported over long distances, thus opening the door to mini-grid systems.
Solar energy offers remarkable potential to power mini-grids electrical distribution. The southern regions especially features high rates of daily irradiation as they reach an average of 3.5 to 5.5 kilowatt-hour per square meter (kWh/m2). Six provinces in the area boast the highest daily irradiation around 5 kWh/m2 and sometimes up to 6.75 kWh/m2.
The DRC has significant biomass resources despite a regular deforestation in recent decades. The local deforestation rate is estimated to be stabilized around 0.2% since the 1990s, which is lower than tropical regions in South America, where 300,000 hectares are destroyed every year. The Congolese tropical forests cover 67% of the country’s surface. This corresponds to 19.5 billion tons of carbon in activity, while other estimates suggest this figure could be doubled. The agricultural domain has major waste potential due to its 25 million hectares of arable land. Waste collection logistics is the main challenge in that regard as it is currently limited and disorganized.
In 2018, SEforAll Africa hub in conjunction with the African Development Bank recently published a mini-grid market opportunity assessment of the DRC. Based on current grid coverage the report estimates that 61 million people could be connected to mini-grids, for an annual market potential of $921 million. Solar and hydro power have the highest potential to accelerate electrification thanks to mini-grids as they are both abundant resources in the country.
Despite a lower than average rate of access to power, the DRC government is showing commitment to improving the situation. Its formidable natural resources such as solar, hydro and even petroleum are set to light up the country in the near future. Major investments, both public and private, are required especially in infrastructure in order to make sure power is produced, transported and delivered in the most efficient and affordable manner.