KINSHASA, May 10 (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo will decide by October between a Chinese and Spanish consortium to develop the long-delayed Inga 3 hydroelectric project with construction expected to begin the following June, a government official said on Tuesday.
The $12 billion project along the Congo River will expand on two existing Inga hydroelectric dams and is part of an eight-stage Grand Inga project that would produce a record 44,000 MW at an estimated cost of $50-80 billion.
Proponents of the project say that it could eventually power half of Africa, while critics say that the money would be better used supporting smaller local plants.
The Chinese consortium is led by China Three Gorges Corporation while the Spanish one includes engineering giant Actividades de Construccion y Servicios SA , said Bruno Kapandji, the head of the Agency for the Development and Promotion of Grand Inga.
"We are waiting for their bids in the month of July," Kapandji told Reuters. "We will choose the one that will be the best in terms of experience, capacity to mobilise funds, capacity to mobilise technology."
Of Inga 3's 4,800 MW, 2,500 will be sold to South Africa and 1,300 is earmarked for Congo's mining sector. The remaining 1,000 will go toward meeting domestic demand in a country where less than 15 percent of the population has electricity.
The start of construction has been repeatedly delayed by red tape and disagreements between Congo and its partners on the project, including the World Bank and African Development Bank, which have provided technical assistance.
Kapandji said he expects construction to begin in June 2017 and last four to five years. Congo had originally promised South Africa power from Inga 3 by 2020.
However, he said that the project still needed to secure additional financing. He declined to say how much money had already been mobilised but said that possible investors were attracted by the project's potential profitability.
Kapandji also defended the controversial decision last October to move control of the project from the prime minister's office to an agency within the presidency, which has raised concerns about corruption and political interference.
"It's the head of state who pilots this programme," he said. "First of all, that secures the project itself. Also, that reassures our partners and, above all, our clients."
Editing by David Evans