The World Bank is hopeful of reviving a colossal 40GW renewables project it is claimed could provide a quarter of Africa’s electricity, but the plan faces “daunting” challenges – including one that some believe renders it “absolute science fiction”.

The dream of building the world’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Congo River and delivering transformative amounts of power to the African continent has existed in many forms for decades.

But the monumental challenges of realising the monumental “Grand Inga” project have seen the various iterations of the plan fade and various prospective backers disappear over the horizon.

One of those backers was the World Bank, which suspended financing for one such iteration of the project in 2016 amid reported tensions with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) government over how the project would be run amid corruption fears.

But now, the World Bank’s director of energy and extractives, Demetrios Papathanasiou, said the Washington, DC-based institution is “really trying to get it off the ground again” and it will be “a tremendous transformative process for Africa.”

“I think it’s the first time that I feel more optimistic. I almost believe that we can get it done,” he told a mining conference in South Africa in comments reported by the FT.

Papathanasiou told Recharge he could not yet provide “detailed information” but that he expects they “will be able to share more in a few months.”

If built, Inga would be sited around Inga Falls, the world’s largest waterfall by volume, 50km away from where the river flows into the Atlantic.

There are two hydroelectric plants around Inga Falls already but Inga III, as the project is also known, would blow their combined 1.8GW capacity out of the water.

Inga III, typically cited as being a 40GW or 44GW project, would in fact almost double the capacity of the world’s largest current hydropower dam – the monolithic 22.5GW Three Gorges Dam in China.

Mining magnate turned green energy backer Andrew Forrest has pushed to progress the Inga project. Photo: Flickr/Global Maritime Forum

“For decades engineers, financiers and politicians have dreamed of this idea,” said Harry Verhoeven of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University in New York.

But Inga faces huge challenges, said Verhoeven, who specialises in the intersection of water and energy in Africa, not least its “phenomenal” cost.

The sums being talked about are a lot for the US or Europe, he said, but “it’s a hell of a lot of money in Africa, especially Central Africa.”

The DRC signed up Fortescue Metals Group, the company led by Australian mining magnate turned green energy backer Andrew Forrest, to develop Inga in 2021.

But Forrest said last year that the project would need to be done on a collaborative basis and that he “can’t wait forever” for partners and further backing to emerge.

'Political imperative'

Verhoeven said another challenge is that the DRC is historically “one of the most misgoverned parts of the world”.

The ability of the government to manage this kind of project has he said therefore always been “questionable” to some, or “absolute science fiction” to others.

With “massive corruption” still an issue in the region, there are also fears over whether money is “simply going to disappear.”

Putting in place the “regional architecture” for the project – as it is so big that there is “no way” the DRC or even its neighbours would be able to consume all the electricity produced – is “pretty daunting,” he said.

One long-term backer of Inga III is South Africa, which has for years been stricken with rolling power outages. "You can see the maths," said Verhoeven, with South Africa being an economy that "has the capital potentially to reliably pay the Congolese."

Forrest wants to use some of the dam’s power to produce green hydrogen, of which he is a long-time evangelist. Plans to use Inga to produce green hydrogen have indeed pricked ears as far as Germany.

Verhoeven said the World Bank also has “political reasons” for pushing the project, having come under “a lot of pressure” over its commitments to climate change and adaptation in poor countries.

Inga, which would be one of the most ambitious development projects ever undertaken in Africa, would he said be a “pretty significant response to its critics.”

The project also feeds into competition in Africa between the World Bank and China, he added, and delivering Inga would also be significant in that context.

A “new wave of excitement” typically surfaces around the project every few years, he said. “But there’s a reason why it’s failed in the past and why it’s unfortunately likely to prove difficult today.”

“It is of course possible that this time they will pull it off,” he said. “But I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

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