The power is on (for the moment)

7 09 2019

As I write this we actually have mains supply power. According to our neighbourhood WhatsApp group it’s because a dignitary is attending a function at a local sports club. By dignitary I mean someone with political clout. That way they can pretend that all’s well in the power supply situation when the reality is 18 hour power cuts every day. We are in this mess for several reasons, the main one being we have possibly the world’s cheapest power at US3c a unit (kWh). Until very recently it was 1c.

It wasn’t always that way. Back in the days when we were using real US$ and nothing else it was around 10-14c a unit and power was plentiful. We could import what power we needed from Mozambique and South Africa and even if the rest of the economy was a mess, which it was and still is, power was there if you needed to use it. Then in 2016 the government decided to introduce another currency called the “Bond dollar” which locals quickly nicknamed the “bollar” or “zollar”. The government insisted it was equivalent to a US dollar and was backed by a bond from the Egyptian Afreximbank and it was there to reduce the problem of small change. It was a lie. There was no bond, those who could withdrew their real dollars from the bank and those who couldn’t watched as the value of their accounts was whittled away by the informal market exchange rate. Eventually the government admitted that the bollar was not equivalent to a US dollar and pegged it at 2:1. The informal market ignored it and the rate soared to 12:1  before the government made it illegal to trade within the country in anything but bollars which were now called new Zimbabwe dollars (though we have yet to see any actual notes). The official exchange rate has now risen to around 14:1 which is why our electricity is ridiculously cheap. We were informed earlier this year that our bank accounts that had been in US dollars were now in Zimbabwe dollars – and so was our real money stolen.

We now owe US$73 million to the power utilities in Mozambique and South Africa with no real hope of paying it back and getting ourselves reconnected (not surprisingly they refuse to continue to export power to us). We need to import power because local thermal generators have been badly neglected because they have not been charging enough for the power (the government regulates power and fuel charges). This means that maintenance has not been done and our main source of hydro power, Lake Kariba, has been over-utilised beyond its design limitations. To compound the mess last season there was poor rains in the main catchment area in north-western Zambia and Angola.

The effect of lack of maintenance cannot be over-estimated. Apart from effeciency loss in old switch gear and old machinery (turbines), transmission efficiency is also affected. Insulators get covered in dust, rain turns the dust to mud which then causes shorts to the supporting structure which heats and cracks the insulator. Local losses are around 12% (I’m told the internationally accepted level is 7%).

The local power utility, ZESA, has embarked on a programme of power cuts or load shedding as it’s known locally. Alternative energy suppliers’ businesses are booming. The Reserve Bank estimates that the diesel fuel import bill has jumped 20% since the power cuts started as people and businesses buy it for their generators – money that could have been put into importing power in the first place.

It doesn’t take a huge imagination to realize what the consequences of these draconian power cuts are going to be. Some of the bigger mines import their own power directly from South Africa but the smaller ones, which apparently are given priority, have to make do. Farmers irrigate their crops in the dead of night when the power comes on, usually between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. but this is often not long enough for a full cycle and I’ve heard of farmers abandoning their winter wheat crops which have demanding irrigation requirements. Tobacco seed sales were down 30% in April but this was as much to do with the government reneging on it’s promise to pay a proportion of the sales in hard currency as a lack of power. The early tobacco crop (tobacco is a major foreign currency earner) does require irrigating and supplementary power sources for the irrigation will likely make an expensive to produce crop excessively so.

Cell phone connectivity is now noticeably reduced as service providers have to rely more on backup power sources – usually diesel generators and the cost of airtime has gone up considerably.

We recently had six days with no power at all – just us and a neighbour across the street. Marianne went into the local ZESA offices to see whom she could get to come and have a look. A technician duly arrived and walked around the property then said he’d go and have a look at the sub-station (which supplies the suburb) and nothing happened. The next day the neighbour tried with no success. By now we were having to throw away food as our solar system couldn’t cope with running the fridge, deep freezes and other appliances and borehole pump 24 hours a day. So I went along to the offices, fully prepared to have to pay a bribe/sweetener to get something done.

I asked for the local manager with whom Marianne had spoken and introduced myself by commenting that we had more in common than he realised – we are both going bald. He laughed and I knew we were off to a good start. After explaining the problem I asked him what the future of our electricity supply was. Without saying anything he pointed to the ubiquitous portrait of the President, E D Mnangagwa, that seems obligatory in government offices. I replied “Please don’t point to that picture and tell me Zimbabwe is open for business”. The occupants of the office found it hugely funny. The slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business” was widely used by ED, as the President is known, in his election campaign.

“Are you and engineer?” I asked the manager.

“I am” he responded.

“So”, I asked him, “what happens when the water level in Kariba gets too low to be used for power?”.

“We turn it off” he replied.

“You mean the whole country?”.

“The whole country” he confirmed.

“Unless we can find some money to import some power. But that’s unlikely to happen so long as we have the world’s cheapest electricity?” I responded.

He nodded to E D’s photo without commenting.

That afternoon our power supply was restored and I hadn’t needed to part with any money – sometimes engagement is all it takes.

I don’t expect that the whole country will be turned off anytime soon. Certain areas in Harare, where we live, seem to be exempt. The grids surrounding the main hospitals and the President’s residence don’t get power cuts. A friend who lives close to the state controlled broadcaster, ZBC, never gets power cuts. Another friend who lives in a rural part of Zimbabwe in the east is on the same line as a senior ZESA executive never gets cuts either. That said I’ve told Marianne that we need to expect ever more draconian cuts – we don’t live near anyone or anything of political consequence.

Some four years ago I was living on a farm close to where I work. It was for me the perfect existence – close enough to town to be convenient but far enough away to benefit from the peaceful countryside. Whenever there was a thunderstorm the power went off and could take several days to get it fixed. I got fed up and bought a small solar system to keep the fridge and deep freeze running. I’ve always been a bit of a geek and liked the idea of a bit of independence from the grid and yes, I got a bit of a fuzzy warm feeling that I was doing something good for the environment.

The system worked well and it was upgraded by two panels when we moved into town. Then earlier this year as the load shedding was introduced the original lead-acid batteries had run their life and needed to be changed. It was evident that the power cuts were only going to get worse so we decided on another upgrade. Foolishly we bought locally manufactured batteries which only lasted 3 months but at least we could pay for them in local currency. The company that sold them to us did admit there was a problem and replaced them but we’d decided to go with an initially more expensive but much longer lasting lithium battery. Yet more photovoltaic panels were added with our closely guarded US dollars and now we have a nearly-off-the-grid system. It’s OK if we get a few hours of mains every night to charge the battery but if it gets to the stage where we’re completely cut off (no important neighbours to please) we are going to have to think of upgrading yet again. It will be money that could have been spent on a couple of really good holidays.

Panels are put onto the structure. Whilst I did most of the welding I had to get a specialist welder in to do the final work

The area where my nursery is has been relatively unaffected by power cuts. The research farm where I used to live is on the same grid and likes to claim some responsibility. I think it’s mostly due to the military barracks just down the road – can’t annoy those that keep the government in power now can we? Whichever it is it’s unlikely the situation will last so just before the recent slide in the local currency I invested in a solar powered borehole system whilst I had the money. Fortunately I have a young friend who has a qualification in solar systems and he helped me put it in by doing the design work whilst I did most of the welding of the structure. We did have to wait a month to get the electrics hooked up as the electrician was simply too busy doing other installations. In a rare moment of common sense the government has removed duty from solar panels and other associated equipment so those who can afford it are scrambling to install systems.

So far our system works fine, weather permitting. It cannot pump all the water we need so we are still reliant on getting at least some power to keep the water tank full and if the power goes off during the day, as it sometimes does,

there is a generator but it can go through 25 litres of diesel a day which of course is in short supply.

The price of power has recently gone up by up to 300% but it is still ridiculously cheap especially since the exchange rate with the US dollar has started to run again. There is no obvious way out of the mess.

The final wiring gets done. The system allowed for the original pump and motor to be used so required specialist knowledge


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3 responses

7 09 2019
Dennis

If you have power at the nursery, why not rig some batteries into a trailer (or the back of your bakkie) and charge them at the nursery. When at home plug them into the inverter. There’s also a lot to be said for the old windmill borehole pumps. The one on a friend’s farm in Marandellas kept a good sized reservoir nearly full. Pumping from the reservoir needs a much smaller pump.

7 09 2019
tuppit260

Knowledge is power!

8 09 2019
gonexc

The home system has a full complement of solar panels for day use and the inverter requires a battery system to be in place. When the sun shines the panels carry most of the load then the batteries take over for late afternoon and night time. Charging another set of batteries at the nursery is not an expense I’m prepared to meet. The nursery system runs of a Variable Speed Drive (VSD) so doesn’t use batteries. The obvious downside being it only works under good conditions. A battery and inverter system would have required a “theft proof” structure as it’s located some distance from the office and habitation.
We use up to 16,000 litres of water a day so pump from several weak boreholes into a 125,000 litre reservoir which also supplies the rose nursery (not mine). On occasion, such as when the power lines get stolen, we have to use a generator to assist in running the boreholes to keep up with water use. Yes, we use smallish (1.1kW) pumps from the reservoir into the irrigation system.

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