EDITORIAL COMMENT: Each of us can help power Zimbabwe

The Herald

The present load shedding arising from ever-growing demand in a rapidly expanding economy and a severe cut-back in output at Kariba South after stored water from the flood season was used up highlights the need for effective action in the short, medium and long term.

The short-term has seen the Government laying out US$34 million to import more power, from Mozambique and Zambia, which hold between them just about all the modest surplus in generation in the Southern Africa Power Pool, the rest of us being net importers at the moment. 

At the same time everyone involved in Hwange Extension realises that while technical matters on the control systems have caused delays, these have to be minimised. And we can all hope the rains in southeast Angola, where three quarters of more of Kariba water comes from, are above average.

In the more medium term the Government has finalised the policy on independent power producers, ensuring that if they are reasonably efficient they can handle their finance costs and can make a modest profit; this is needed for all investors, and someone financing a power station is no different. 

Minister of Finance and Economic Development Mthuli Ncube announced the deal last week in Parliament.

Much of this power will be solar, which is fine considering the falling average flows in the Zambezi over the last decade as climate change bites. As Zesa Holdings chairman Sydney Gata himself has noted, if there was 1 000MW of solar, Zesa even when it had to manage with just half of what comes over the Victoria Falls without storage, could easily cut Kariba South close to zero when the sun was shining and double output when it was dark.

In fact the first 2 000MW of solar installation in Zimbabwe can almost certainly use the world’s largest storage reservoir and the oversized Kariba South Power Station as the world’s largest battery, supplying grid power from solar in the day and stashing away a lot of water at the same time, and then spinning all eight turbines at night.

Again in the medium term, next year will see the start of the refurbishment of the six old units at Hwange Thermal, which date from the 1980s. This is a bit like refurbishing a major highway, it is a lot cheaper than hacking a new road through the bush, but while the foundation stays in place, the actual road needs to be rebuilt. 

And the Hwange refurbishment will be similar, with a fair percentage of the machinery replaced, and the rest thoroughly reconditioned so that it is like new. Then we need the new really big power stations, the longer-term objective, and many of these will be independent power producers, although Zesa may be involved in some, either on its own or in a joint venture. 

But this does not mean we will be out of the woods. We keep hearing from the Ministry of Mines and Mining Development of the new mines opening or about to open. 

Already output has tripled since 2018 and by the end of next year might well have quintupled. Some mines are fitting up the own solar stations to take some of the burden, although not all, at least at first, and while Disco is building its own modest coal station at Hwange to supply its iron mining and blast furnaces in Chivhu district, it will still probably need some Zesa power for its ever widening businesses.

We are continuously upgrading our irrigation, which is why our wheat farmers produced a record crop this year and for the first time in the history of the country, including the colonial era, we are self-sufficient in our second most important grain. 

But Zesa had to guarantee power for the farmers before they risked everything they had to plant and grow that crop. And every new factory, and every increase in capacity utilisation of existing plant, needs more power.

President Mnangagwa suggested in his State of the Nation Address when he opened the present Parliamentary session last month that we need to move towards every business and every home generating a lot more of its requirements. 

This is the position for most rural areas, where despite the rural electrification fund it costs a vast amount of money to run the pylons and cables and fit up the transformers for every village. 

This is why the local networks, a batch of solar panels in a village, is being pressed as a cheaper solution, despite the high cost of panels and batteries. At least you do not need 10km of pylons and cable plus the substation.

Now Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers president Denford Mutashu has grabbed the idea and has started fleshing it out, to turn policy into lights and fridges. 

Noting the continuously increasing demand, and the fact that a lot of his members are buying generators, he is suggesting they invest in solar instead.

He realises that a solar system costs a lot more than the equivalent diesel generator, but that in the end it will pay for itself. Electricity from a diesel generator is a minimum of US35c for a unit of 1 kilowatt hour, thanks to the serious inefficiency of internal combustion engines which throw away around two thirds of the energy content of a litre of diesel. 

Sunlight is free, and a solar installation just has the cleaning and maintenance costs, which admittedly after a few years will require a phased replacement of panels. 

But the operating costs, even with these factors, are far below those of a diesel generator, and far below what Zesa charges now, let alone the modest rises the regulator will probably have to approve as more generating capacity has to be financed.

The problem, especially for the smaller retailers as Mr Mutashu notes, is finding that higher capital cost at the beginning, even if the slashed cost of power from the panels will eventually pay off the loans. 

So he, practically, is looking for a loan scheme that his members, especially the smaller businesses, can tap into. This will have a lot of other benefits. The loans will presumably come through the banking system, so those retailers who bank in trunk will need to establish communications with their bankers, and deposit their money. 

The bankers will probably want to see real books, setting out the cash flows as well. Both measures will professionalise business people.

Anyone wandering around places like northern Highlands and Borrowdale in Harare will see that a lot of the businesses that line the main roads have almost the whole roof on the sunnier side under panels; the houses still used as residences have panels too, just fewer, since a family does not have a dozen people each with their own computer. So the idea of modest businesses moving to solar is not impossible, it just requires some sort of credit and loans.

The Government itself is looking into a loan facility for civil servants to have solar at home. And that brings up the need for those designing the hundreds and thousands of blocks of flats under Government housing programmes to refine their designs if necessary so that the roofs are strong enough to carry a solar water heater for each flat plus a bank of solar panels. 

Car parking roofs can provide more space for panels, and so those need to be sited out of the shade of the blocks. 

Even if the solar installations come later, we need to ensure that unlike older blocks of flats, and there some luxury apartment complexes with very fragile roofs, all new housing and flats at least can support solar so the options exist.


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