Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest is taking his newfound zeal for renewable energy to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The founder and chairman of A$70 billion (US$54B) Fortescue Metals has persuaded President Felix Tshisekedi to let his company lead development of hydroelectric power stations to generate as much as 40 gigawatts, or more than double China’s Three Gorges complex.
It’s part of his fledgling drive to turn fossil-fuel-free hydrogen into a US$12 trillion global market by 2050. This African plan, however, borders on green megalomania.
The dream of turning the waterway into a huge energy hub, known as Grand Inga, is decades old. Companies including BHP and Spain’s Actividades de Construccion y Servicios have had a crack at it before retreating.
Political risk is a big factor, and the project could cost US$80B, according to estimates several years ago. The original idea of transporting power via cables to South Africa and elsewhere on the continent is also inefficient.
Big dams are generally a fool’s errand, wreaking havoc on wildlife, and water and soil quality, affecting farming. Their reservoirs increase evaporation, too, though the Congolese project would exploit a large vertical drop at the Inga Falls and therefore require less storage. Such projects are also notoriously hard to control. On average, costs exceed initial estimates by 96%, according to a 2014 Oxford University study.
Even assuming Forrest, also known as Twiggy, can pull it off, his plan of converting the electricity to hydrogen to be shipped to Europe and elsewhere raises two additional problems. First, taking energy from Africa, which lacks sufficient electricity, reeks of neo-colonialism. Second, it may not stack up financially.
The European Union reckons it will have 300 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2050, much of it in the North Sea dedicated to making hydrogen, which can be piped into existing infrastructure. Inga’s gas-processing plants will have to be built from scratch. And within Africa, wind and solar power is quicker and cheaper to build.
Forrest’s green enthusiasm is to be applauded, even if Fortescue is still developing a carbon-spewing gas-fired power station in Australia. It should not, however, ignore less bombastic alternatives.
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– The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo on June 15 said it had picked Fortescue Metals to develop the Grand Inga Hydroelectric Projects in the Congo river. Earlier on the same day, the Australian company said it had no “formal binding agreement”, though it confirmed that discussions have taken place.
– Fortescue Chairman Andrew Forrest and DRC President Felix Tshisekedi met on June 13 to discuss the project. Forrest said Fortescue Future Industries had secured the rights to the project, subject to concluding financial terms. Tshisekedi stated that all parties interested in developing the Grand Inga should deal with Fortescue. The Australian Financial Review first reported the comments.