Overcoming obstacles to electrification in Congo (DRC)



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University of Cape Town

The contrast between the very low rate of electricity access (about 6% of households) and the significant energy resources existing in Congo justified an investigation into the obstacles to electrification and ways to overcome them. Basically electricity is generated from hydroelectric plants; the most important located in the western tip of the country (including Inga I and Inga II) and in the copper mining area in the southeast. Only the copper mining area, the area around the capital city Kinshasa and some other towns are connected to the grid or to isolated hydro plants, leaving vast parts of the country unserved. Description and analysis of existing electricity systems, their current problems and the sector master plans led to the identification of the following major obstacles to electricity expansion: [* Poor and declining performance of the electricity sector in terms of plant availability, overall losses, non-payment, and poor collection; depriving the national utility of the necessary capacity and resources to undertake electrification. * High cost of expansion programs under the approach of extending networks by transmission and three-phase distribution lines in a vast country. Limited electricity demands in most areas, lack of standardization of voltages and network equipment, and high standards of connection equipment also contributed to increase electrification costs.] A review of literature showed that, where already applied, the recommendation of international organisations to restructure and ultimately privatise electricity utilities has yielded limited results on the particular issue of electricity expansion towards low-load areas. As electrification of such areas is a major objective in Congo, this justifies that we do not recommend this route as a key strategy in solving the electrification problem in Congo. In other words the objective of expanding electricity throughout the country is not likely to be met by private operators that prefer large-scale electricity production for urban and industrial markets and emphasize the profitability of every project. However possible ways to improve utility's performance were identified in the literature. These include: the use of prepaid meters to improve collection, transferring the management of distribution networks in some areas to local organisations, attribution of more authority to the utility to enforce non-payment and staff training under a more experienced utility in the field. The liberalization of small-scale production that allows small operators such as missionaries, NGOs, or agro-processing industries to generate and possibly distribute electricity in remote areas may also contribute to expanding electricity in the country. The literature review also revealed that alternative MV distribution technologies and connection practices tested and successfully applied in other countries for low-cost electrification were available. Despite minor inconveniences such as their capacity restriction, and the inability to provide three-phase power for motors, single-phase technologies result in cost-effective networks as far as rural electrification is concerned. This is attractive for rural electrification in Congo. Applying single-phase MV technologies with adapted SASS and PIESA guidelines and standards to the design of an isolated rural network in eastern Congo, the following results were obtained: • When loads to be served are small (about 100-200kVA) phase-phase and SWER lines are cheaper to build than three-phase lines. As loads encountered in most rural areas in Congo are generally smaller than 100kVA and can reach 100-200kVA in the medium or long run, single-phase networks can adequately supply these areas from existing networks or from local plants. • The low cost of these networks in rural areas is a result of using a reduced number of components (conductors, poles, insulators and pole-top hardware), conductors of small size and of higher ratio strength to weight (T/wc), such as ACSR, that result in long spanning lengths. • If three-phase systems were systematically used, the cost of individual connection would be higher and the capacity in the networks would have been much greater than needed. Besides, given the limited financial resources other communities could not be connected owing to the high cost of three-phase lines to connect them. In addition, in order to reach the viability of the electrification project a higher tariff should be used. This is the main finding of the financial analysis carried out to investigate the viability of the electrification project in eastern Congo. As a result of high connection costs and tariffs, electricity would become unaffordable to most rural customers. This contradicts the primary objective of providing electricity to most possible customers. In practice, as shown by the case study, the pattern of electrification should be as follows. From existing networks with sufficient capacity or from a nearby plant, an optimised three-phase line towards a main center is built. Single-phase feeders of adequate rating (taking into account present demands and future growth) derive from the backbone towards various load centers. This pattern can be applied to most rural areas in Congo. At the customer level, ready boards that include isolators, protection, sockets, switches and possibly lights are installed. The cost reduction at the network and at the customer level should result in more affordable connection costs for customers. In addition to the introduction of lower cost technologies, planning approaches should be adapted. The extent to which electricity contributes to socio economic development should be the main consideration in planning electricity expansion. In other words emphasis should be put on economic and socio economic electrification. The productive uses of electricity in economic and socio economic projects bring sustainability and may attract funding for other projects from development organisations. However some social electrification to gain political support for the economic and socio economic projects are necessary. The traditional planning policy that justifies building three-phase lines as a precaution to avoid costlier upgrading at a later stage, is not adequate when financial resources and plant capacity are limited and when uncertainty exists about load growth. In other words, three-phase networks, with capacity high enough to meet years of demand that can sometimes not grow as expected, deprive other customers of connections while capacity is idle in the existing tri-phase networks. The study has shown that there is substantial scope for the application of lower cost distribution technologies than the present standards in Congo. Applying low-cost electrification technologies such as single-phase MV distribution systems to expand electricity from existing networks and from small-scale hydro plants (as a measure to postpone the construction of more costly transmission lines), after the utility has improved its performance and skills, should significantly contribute to expand electricity in Congo. In this process, utility's efforts can be shared and complemented by small operators such as missions, NGOs, and agro-processing companies in isolated areas and at small-scale level.

Includes bibliographical references.