Vol.22 No.139

Friday 9 September 2005    

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Features
Power to the people


9/9/2005 8:36:46 PM (GMT +2)

Botswana is to house an ambitious project that seeks to provide electricity throughout Africa, and some parts of Europe. KETO SEGWAI reports


Perhaps of all Southern African Development Community (SADC) integration efforts, Botswana has realised tangible results from the power sector. The sector has touched the ordinary lives of Batswana in a profound way. The vivid benefits are succinctly captured in the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC) advertisement flighted some years ago depicting a woman in a reed hut in the northwestern remote village of Shakawe ironing her clothing. The scenario has been replicated numerous times in villages across the country, particularly remote border villages.

Under the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) agreement, villages in the Okavango, from Mohembo to Gumare source their electricity requirements from the Namibian power utility company, NAMPOWER. The Chobe district gets its power from the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (ZESCO), while the southwestern Kgalagadi district is supplied by South Africa's ESKOM.

A 13.2 kV line also feeds the Ghanzi district from NAMPOWER. The national grid that supplies the rest of the country, including major urban centres, is connected to ESKOM for supplementary supply. SAPP, which brings together 12 power utilities, was established under the auspices of SADC in 1995.

In the last three years, BPC has embarked on a large-scale electrification of an estimated 86 villages across the country and has also introduced the Rural Collective Schemes.

Had it not been for the SAPP arrangement, the provision of electricity could have remained a pipedream for most of the remote rural areas of the country. It is apparent that Botswana's vastness and sparse population is a planner's nightmare. The planners always grapple with balancing the social responsibility with economic viability. The SAPP cooperation appears to have lessened the planning headaches for the utilities.

Few factors better explain the seeming success of the energy sector in SADC. The utilities are parastatals but operate more as commercial entities, which are not necessarily bogged down by bureaucratic bottlenecks characteristic of most sectors in SADC. The utilities had been pro-active in ensuring that SAPP delivers and is results-driven.

SADC's total electricity consumption, excluding Mauritius and Madagascar, is currently estimated at slightly more than 40,000 megawatts. The region has a surplus generating capacity of up to 51,880mw with South Africa alone accounting for 33,800mw or 85 percent. However, the pressing concern is that due to increased requirements, the generation reserve capacity is diminishing, without corresponding increment of investment. It is estimated that by 2007, consumption will equal the current generating capacity.

Permanent Secretary in the ministry of minerals, energy and water affairs Dr Akolang Tombale noted on Wednesday during the utilities agreement signing ceremony in Gaborone that the surplus generating capacity is reducing and will run out between 2007 and 2010. "The SADC's power requirements are growing at the rate of about 3 percent per annum or 1,400mw. This will require an investment of not less than P5.2 billion per annum to meet the growing load," Tombale said.

As it is, SADC is heavily reliant on thermal generation (coal-fired plants), which is not only non-renewable but is detrimental to the environment. The regional generation mix is such that 74 percent is derived from thermal plants, 21 percent from hydroelectric power stations, 4 percent from nuclear plants, and 1 percent from gas and diesel. Of these, hydroelectric power is the most appropriate because it is renewable, environment friendly and cost-effective. Obviously, SAPP took cognisance of these positive factors when they settled for hydro-electricity and embarked on a region-wide search for such a resource.

SAPP did not just haphazardly settle for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is the only natural choice. The DRC is home to the famous 4,300km long Congo River. This is the second largest river in the world (in terms of water volume), after the Amazon in South America. According to the energy division of SADC, the DRC has the potential to produce 150,000mw approximately three times Africa's present combined consumption.

At this stage, SAPP-backed Western Power Corridor (Westcor) project is targeting the Inga Rapids in southwestern DRC. The Inga Falls has a potential generating capacity that equals that of all southern African countries put together. The DRC national utility company, Societe National d'Electricite (SNEL), already operates generation plants known as Inga I and II with a combined output of 1,179mw. The Westcor project will concentrate on Inga III. The final phase of Grand Inga has a potential output of 39,000mw. Further down the Inga Rapids, is the Kwanza Basin in northern Angola which has hydroelectric potential of about 6,000mw. In the initial stages, Westcor plans to tap on Inga III and the Kwanza Basin.

Westcor is a joint venture project between Societe National d'Electricite (SNEL) of the DRC, Empresa Nacional De Eletrecidade (ENE) of Angola, NAMPOWER, BPC and ESKOM.

The Westcor project has enjoyed unusual political goodwill, not only from the participating countries, but also from other SADC members. On 3 October 2003, the SADC Council of Ministers approved it as a priority energy project. The SADC Heads of State and Governments also endorsed it last month in Gaborone. Various legal requirements such as memoranda of understanding were signed during the intervening period.

Westcor was registered and incorporated in Botswana in 2003. Its headquarters are in Gaborone. The five power utilities have already contributed about P500,000 each as start-up capital to fund the first phase of the studies. The chief executives of the utilities signed a landmark shareholding agreement in Gaborone on Wednesday and launched Westcor (Pty) Ltd. The agreement entitles each utility to a 20 percent equity share. The entire project, whose construction is expected to start in 2007 and be completed by 2010, is estimated to cost more than P35 billion. The project expects to source additional funding from SADC, New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the African Union and international financiers.

The Westcor project has two components - electricity generation and telecommunications operation. A statement from Westcor says, "a conventional point-to-point 500 kV High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) technology has proven to be optimum transmission technology for the application. With tap offs at Auas (Windhoek) in Namibia, and Gaborone, the two HDVC circuits will terminate on the South Africa's ESKOM National Grid at Omega (Koeburg) and at Pegasus in Kwazulu-Natal. At Inga III, a classic 400 kV HVAC single circuit will emanate and terminate at Kinshasa for local SNEL supplies."

According to Tombale, the telecommunications component "will involve the development of a broadband telecommunication network, using optic fibre. This will facilitate communication not only among the five countries but also all the SADC countries as well."

Westcor's sights appear to be set beyond the five countries and the SADC region. With the development of the Grand Inga, with a capacity of 39,000mw and the demand for cheap energy, the Westcor interconnect is being developed with the expectation of expanding with the growth of both demand and supply. In the long term, the project targets most of Africa, western and eastern Europe, and some parts of the Middle East.

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