THE major factor influencing investments into Zimbabwe’s electricity sector today is the need to enhance energy generation to satisfy rising consumer demand, met only 50 percent during peak periods currently, even by exploiting dangerous carbon-emitting sources.
However, the slow drive towards renewable energy will yield greater environmental and economic benefits during a time of changing climates, where low-carbon development is now the preferred option for growing sustainable economies.
The licensing of three companies, one local and two foreign, by the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority in March to finance and build a 100 megawatt on-grid solar power plant in sunlight-abundant Gwanda, 600km south-west of Harare, highlights an important step towards green growth.
Gwanda was not an accidental choice. The Matabeleleland south capital lies in the hottest region of Zimbabwe, receiving 9,5 hours of sunshine per day for nine or more months in a year. In the winter months May to July when temperatures and sunshine in most parts of the country markedly drop, the south-western areas remain warmer, generally, with average 5,5 hours of sunshine in a day.
Although off-grid solar lighting litters many of Zimbabwe’s homes, particularly those in rural areas, the country has lagged behind in renewable energy deployment, even solar, despite the vast opportunities available for its successful exploitation. Generally, Zimbabwe has one of the highest solar radiations in the world, and yet, a severely under-developed solar energy sector.
The country requires significant technical and financial investments as well as capacity building to reduce its fossil fuel dependence, power economic growth and promote social progress.
Now, the ongoing economic and power crisis, and the challenges of climate change mean it is imperative that Zimbabwe shifts to sustainable methods of development.
Safe, secure and, in the long run, affordable energy will only be available by switching to renewable energy and improving energy efficiency while creating opportunities for the local economy. This will support sustainable development and innovation.
Solar energy is one of the renewable technologies identified by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, as key to improving energy access at a lower cost, bolstering energy security and curbing the production of climate-change causing gases such as carbon dioxide.
The UNFCCC is a world body comprising of nearly 200 members and primarily responsible for designing policies and strategies that bind countries to limit emissions growth in a verifiable, effective manner.
In Zimbabwe, solar can be useful for promoting the development of a green industrial sector, not to mention the accompanying economic activity and jobs created, while simultaneously working towards environmental targets.
The concept of green growth envisages a form of economic development that prioritises people, the planet and profit as equal factors.
Solar-use has the ability to achieve the three-pronged goals. The energy is clean, meaning it produces little or no carbon dioxide at all, the major gas responsible for causing climate change and global warming. Solar generates and regenerates from the sun, making it an infinite resource.
Solar solutions could be expanded to cover aviation, traffic and road signs, advertising billboard, telecommunications including solar hot water systems for use in public utilities such as hospitals, schools and hotels etc.
For farming, direct current solar powered pumps for boreholes, dams, irrigation and tobacco curing could be utilised effectively.
Compared to other energy forms, the initial set up costs for solar power plant of any type are considerably higher, but the long-term benefits greater.
In the last 25 years, however, the start-up costs for large on-grid renewable technologies have declined by between 20 and 30 percent as more public and private finance pour in, according to the International Energy Agency.
It costs roughly US$3 000 to establish and produce one kilowatt of electricity from a photovoltic solar station, the plant whose panels are usually mounted onto the ground producing electricity directly from sunlight. That means the proposed 100MW Gwanda plant will cost an estimated US$300 million to build, money which the Government does not have.
The coal-fired powered station of similar size could cost half that much but the periodic repairs needed to keep the plant operational increases costs. Apart from that, the environmental damage from coal is huge as a 100MW plant produces millions of tonnes of CO2 in a year.
“Solar is expensive to install but has no fuel cost. It also has no moving parts hence it tends to be reliable as long as the sun is shining,” said Engineer Norbert Nziramasanga, a renewable energy expert.
The IEA says global carbon dioxide emissions increased by 49 percent since 1990, reaching 31,3 Gigatonnes in 2011, led by the US and China which produced two-thirds of all emissions combined.
Coal drove the significant emissions increase in developing countries, while developed countries slightly decreased their emissions compared to 2010. This growth threatens the global temperature rise limit of 1,5 degrees Celsius by 2080, considered by scientists as the safe cap to prevent further warming of the earth’s surface. Increased renewable energy use could significantly reduce that danger.
To support private capital in solar projects, Government policies should be able to curb losses for the investor. The final pricing should be right to achieve mutually beneficial goals that do not disadvantage the individual consumer, Government nor the investor. In this regard, the promulgation of clear cut policy framework that supports the development of clean energies including solar must be taken seriously and implemented now.
Eng Nziramasanga said: “There is a difference between the return on investment for the owner of the plant and the price that is charged the energy user. Power is used to generate business and that should meet the input cost.
“The investor gets a price that matches the cost of capital and what they agreed to be their rate of return. This implies that it is not wise to produce electricity just for consumption without production.”
Zimbabwe has huge potential for solar development, with a ready market starved of reliable power from the mainly coal stations that breakdown frequently due to old equipment or lack of spares.
Statistics released in 2000 by Zesa, which are the latest, show that the national energy balance stood at 53 percent for wood fuel, 20 percent coal, liquid fuel 14 percent and 13 percent for electricity.
The numbers underline the reason Zimbabwe has lost its rich forests that act as carbon sinks and why investments into solar should escalate. Additionally, the power utility reported in 2005 that the electrification level stood at 15 percent for rural areas, 85 percent for urban areas and a national average of 42 percent.
This shows that more than three-quarters of the rural population and more than half of Zimbabwe’s people are without access to electricity, which makes the renewable energy case urgent.
The National Energy Policy of 2012 articulates a cocktail of measures it targets for implementation in the renewable energy sector by the end of this decade.
To promote solar energy use, the NEP aims to establish a fund for the short to medium term to address the ongoing electricity crisis.
Pursuant to this, regulations were to be implemented in 2013, which did not happen, to force the installation of solar geysers into all new homes and buildings failing which penalties in the form of higher electricity tariffs are effected.
Solar use will also be promoted through the establishment of “cost-reflective feed-in tariffs with appropriate subsidy mechanisms and other incentives to promote grid and off-grid power generation using solar and other renewable energy resources”.