The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has one of the lowest electrification rates on the African continent and in the world. The DRC’s electrification rate is around 10%. As access to electricity is one of the main drivers of development, increasing the country’s electrification is long overdue. Accelerating energy access programs will help transform the lives of the majority of citizens in the DRC.
Using a new type of hydropower turbine invented by Natel Energy, a tech firm in San Francisco that is owned by MIT alumni, MyHydro wants to help accelerate electrification rates in the country by exploiting its vast hydropower potential as well as across the African continent in general. Usually, when people think of hydropower in the DRC, they imagine the 40 GW Grand Inga project, which is often touted as the answer to Africa’s relentless power shortages. However, due to a host of challenges, the Grand Inga project has so far proven to be nothing more than a dream. But MyHydro, which distributes generation capacity across multiple small hydropower plants, will unlock the vast hydrological resources that exist in DRC. The country is blessed with over 50% of Africa’s total water resource.
“Through our partnership with MyHydro, we have the opportunity to use our fish-safe hydro turbine technology and restorative hydro approach to accelerate electrification efforts to the vastly underserved communities of the DRC,” said Gia Schneider, CEO and co-founder of Natel Energy. “Adding roughly 3% of renewable, accessible electricity to a part of the world that needs it most and doing so in a way that protects the critical ecologies of the region, provides a blueprint for other countries with similar challenges. With only 10% of Africa’s hydro resources developed today, we see a lot of opportunity for distributed, sustainable hydro growth across the continent.”
MyHydro’s small distributed hydropower projects will bring uninterrupted power supply 24/7 to consumers at a minimum of half the cost of off-grid solar because it does not require to be supplemented overnight by other forms of generation or storage. This presents an opportunity to have low-cost electricity delivered directly to consumers on consumer-friendly tariff structures. Consumer payment systems will be set up so they can pay either in cash or mobile money. Mobile money has been one of the biggest drivers of financial inclusion on the continent and it will be a key enabling technology in the quest to increase energy access rates.
MyHydro is a partnership between international power developer Symbion Power and Natel Energy. MyHydro plans to invest over $1 billion over the next 10 years to install fish-safe, low-head hydropower-based distribution systems and their associated mini-grids at low cost across the African continent. MyHydro recently executed a contract to acquire four turbines from Natel Energy for the first of its 33 sites in the DRC, as part of the initial investment on the Lubi River in the Kasai Province. MyHydro will deploy a minimum of 150 low-head, distributed mini hydro installations and associated mini-grids in Africa by 2027, directly serving over several million private customers.
MyHydro says recent innovations in turbine design have unlocked the full potential of Africa’s vast network of waterways. The Restoration Hydro Turbine (RHT) is a modular, low-head turbine, meaning that it captures energy from river sites that have a hydraulic head in the range of only 2 meters to 20 meters, and at capacities of up to 3 MW per generator. The “hydraulic head” represents the vertical distance between the elevation point at which the water is diverted from the waterway to the point where the water enters the turbine. Low head applications means that there are many more river sites and non-power reservoir and dam sites in Africa that can now be utilized to convert water energy into electricity, unlike with older technology.
The first MyHydro site is located at Kabeya-Kamwanga on the Lubi River near a city called Mbuji Mayi, the diamond capital of DRC. MyHydro says the site has been chosen as it will have high impact at the beginning of its program and because the water flow rate is excellent.
Paul Hinks, the founder and CEO of MyHydro, told CleanTechnica, “This whole city is off-the-grid, yet it has a population of around 3 million, the majority of which are below the age of 30. The site will have 4.48 MW plant. Construction is expected to start in Q2 of 2023. Approval of the regulator has been received as has an environmental certificate issued on the basis of our ESIA. There will be two phases with Phase 1 (1.2MW) ready within 14 months, which means that we will be delivering electricity in Q3 of 2024. The balance of 3.6MW will be completed 6 months later, in Q1 of 2025.”
These kinds of minigrids will help showcase the capabilities of distributed mini hydro projects built with the new technology. 1.2 MW of dependable electricity generation capacity can be delivered in just over a year and Hinks says that once global supply chains have recovered from the effects of the COVID pandemic it will be faster. These quick turnaround projects will be critical to the empowerment of local communities and help increase access to electricity where it is needed the most.
Paul Hinks elaborated, “This is a unique partnership between two U.S. companies who are targeting areas of Africa where there is no access to reliable power and the use of diesel and heavy fuel oil generators is prolific. By displacing dirty power generation with our low cost, zero-emission, eco-friendly hydropower plants, we will transform the lives of millions of people in Africa.”
Construction of the next 2 plants that are also located near Mbuji Mayi will start by the end of 2023. These sites are close to the towns of Ngandajika and Mwene-Ditu. Following the Mbuji Mayi projects, the next phase will see plants being built in Butembo and Bukavu in eastern DRC as part of the 33 hydropower plants in total that MyHydro is investing in, bringing at least 150 MW of new generation capacity to the country.
Recently MyHydro was recognized by President’s Biden’s administration and also by leaders from several African countries that are keen on these type of projects. At the recent US-Africa Leaders’ Summit held in Washington DC this past December, the White House vetted hundreds of US investments, and MyHydro was selected as one of only nine key climate and energy companies to showcase. The Summit was attended by 50 African heads of state, and many leaders from the US administration and congress, including President Biden, Vice President Harris, Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry.
Symbion Power is not just investing in distributed hydro at the moment. In 2023/2024 it will also build, own, and operate a $97 million 35 MW geothermal power plant in the Menengai Volcanic Crater in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, under a 25-year Power Purchase Agreement signed with the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) and a Steam Supply Agreement signed with the Geothermal Development Company (GDC).
Hinks, who is also the co-founder and CEO of Symbion, explained that Symbion intends to increase its investments in the geothermal sector in Kenya and also in several other countries in Africa where there are suitable geothermal resources. He said, “In the past 2 years Symbion has shifted its focus from natural gas and other types of generation that are powered by fossil fuels to a business model that is investing only in renewable, base-load, clean energy projects that will deliver 24/7 electricity to consumers. By 2030 we will be one of the largest players in distributed hydroelectricity and geothermal power on the African continent. That is our goal. We are thinking very big because things must change in Africa inside this decade.”
Images from MyHydroAppreciate CleanTechnica’s originality and cleantech news coverage? Consider becoming a CleanTechnica Member, Supporter, Technician, or Ambassador — or a patron on Patreon.
Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.