The proposed annual US$100bn climate change fund, which will be at the heart of many of the debates at the UN climate change talks in Durban in December, will put the spotlight back on the hydropower potential of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Plans to develop Grand Inga, a hydropower scheme on the Congo River, have been dabbled with for decades, says the World Energy Council's regional manager from Africa, Latsoucabé Fall. They could come closer to reality with the help of such a fund.

SA is in the process of signing a memorandum of understanding with the DRC government (it has been sent to cabinet for approval) which will form the basis of engagement on the scheme.

"The DRC approached SA and said [Grand Inga] could be a legacy project," says energy department director-general Nelly Magubane. "There is an expectation that other countries will also express their interest."

The project has the potential to generate 40000MW–45000MW of electricity annually. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the Inga site holds 45% of the DRC's 100000MW hydropower potential. If it goes ahead the plans are to have transmission lines to SA, Nigeria, Egypt and a number of other countries.

"The whole issue in the power and utility sector in Africa is security of supply," says Norman Ndaba, Ernst & Young director for power and utilities in Africa. "To the extent that African countries are embarking on massive infrastructure projects, they will need [this project]."

African countries, including SA, have a history with Inga. In 2003, a joint venture company made up of the national power utilities of SA, Namibia, Angola, Botswana and the DRC — called Westcor — was formed and it entered into an agreement with the government of the DRC to develop Inga 3. Each country had a 20% stake.

But because it would be some time before the project could start producing, and countries needed power sooner, the grand plans fell by the wayside.

But in 2009, the DRC government changed its mind. According to Fall, the government wanted to prioritise projects that would help grow the country's economy , including mining projects. Resources giant BHP Billiton had mooted plans for an aluminium smelter, which would use up 2000MW, a possible anchor consumer for Grand Inga.

As well as fuelling the DRC's economic growth, the Grand Inga project now has an increasingly important place in the long-term provision of clean energy for many African countries, Fall says. "It could save up to 100Mt of carbon dioxide a year."

Therefore not only would it be eligible for funding from the global climate change fund, but possibly also benefit from the carbon disclosure mechanism and other schemes.

The project could cost up to $80bn ($40bn for generation and $40bn for transmission), says Fall. The funds could come from international institutions like the World Bank and AfDB , climate finance, and investment from the countries involved. "The funding is a huge challenge," he says.

Magubane says the extent of the transmission lines involved means it would only be viable for SA if the country received 3000MW or more.

There may be a need to build an entirely new transmission network across the continent, she says. She adds that this type of cross-border project could easily attract funding, and that the governments involved would have to provide guarantees. SA's utility Eskom would then be expected to be part of an offtake agreement, which would entail it receiving and distributing electricity .

But Fall points out that the biggest challenge to Grand Inga is political leadership. "The strong leadership required [to drive the project] doesn't exist now; the DRC has presidential elections coming up and the country will then have to be stabilised." It will also require strong political support from all the countries involved and co-ordination among the stakeholders. "If all this were in place, the project could go ahead," says Fall.