The rise of solar power and Zimbabwe’s power generation crisis

18 05 2019

The solar power sun is rising

There was little warning of the impending power cuts (called load shedding here). Just a notice from the government owned utility, ZETDC, in the press and the next day we were cut off for 8 hours. That was 10 days ago and they have been very regular since then – alternating mornings and afternoons.

The first one coincided with the demise of a set of lead-acid batteries we’d bought of a local manufacturer in February for our solar system. They’d just been returned under warranty and we’d decided to go upmarket  and more reliable. After a lot of reading up and phoning around and being promised all manner of quality and prices I visited a supplier whom I’ve dealt with in the past and who I know supplies quality equipment.  He also knows what he’s talking about. An hour later and he’d convinced me that lithium batteries were the way to go with their 10 year warranty and superior charging characteristics (3 hours under bright sunlight). Initial outlay is high but lead acid batteries only have a one year warranty for most types.

We duly dug into our savings and paid up. Much to his embarrassment the supplier then discovered he didn’t have any lithium batteries in stock so lent us a set of lead-acid gel batteries that were to be returned to the factory for some minor defect. Going back to the outlet today to get some further information on the new lithium battery one of the senior staff confided that ZETDC had told them that the power cuts were going to get MUCH worse. It was not just sales talk.

Zimbabwe most of its power from Lake Kariba on the Zambezi River on the country’s north-west boundary with Zambia. Both countries have been over-utilizing this water resource for some years now and the lake has fluctuated far more in recent years than in the past. Add to this the fluctuating rainfall and we are into dangerous territory. It should be said that a large proportion of the water that flows into the lake comes from northern Angola and central Zambia which has more reliable rainfall than Zimbabwe.

The dam was finished in 1960 and since then the turbines have been upgraded and the power stations on both banks of the Zambezi River have been expanded. It is the largest man made lake by volume on the planet and such is the mass of water that it is not unusual for the residents in the area to experience minor earthquakes. Such is the volume of water that can be released from the floodgates that it was feared the vibration could cause damage to the wall and it is very rare for more than 4 of the six floodgates to be opened at any one time. The plunge pool, where the spilling water falls, has undercut the foundations of the wall beyond permissible limits and has to be stabilized along with overdue maintenance on the floodgates. This means that the dam should not be allowed to spill until the work is complete so this last rainy season substantial water was allowed to flow from the dam before the flood waters come down from the upper Zambezi, usually in April. It seems that someone got the maths wrong, let out too much water before checking how much rain the catchment had received which was less than normal, and now there is barely enough head of pressure to keep the turbines going. Add to this the fact that one of the turbines at Hwange, the large thermal power plant in the west of the country, is out of commission and we have a power supply crisis. Alternative development projects, such as solar, have failed to come to fruition due to the dismal credit rating of the country.

This of course is not bad news for the sellers of alternative power systems. Whilst it is certainly cheaper to buy and fuel a generator than a solar system in the short term there is also the added complication that we have a fuel supply crisis. This has been ongoing for some months now and is driven by a lack of hard currency to pay for the imported fuel. Fuel queues are long and ubiquitous if one wants to pay in the local currency (now just referred to as ZWL). For those who have hard currency there is no queue and fuel is always available.

One could be forgiven for thinking that this is the death knell for the local currency and it may be, but the vast majority of Zimbabweans just do not have access to hard currency (usually the $US). The country is not earning much hard cash from limited exports and already the government has reneged on it’s promise to pay tobacco farmers at least a portion of their earnings (the majority of the crop is exported) in US dollars. Appeals to South Africa to sell us power is likely to be refused; they too are inflicting load shedding on their population due to a lack of power capacity. In their case, the local power authority – Eskom, is guilty of lack of development to meet increasing demand and corrupt dealings and over-paying senior management. Anyway, they would demand hard currency which we don’t have.

Downstream of Lake Kariba, in Mozambique, is Lake Cahora Bassa. It too is a large lake built to generate hydroelectric power which is mostly sold to South Africa. Not surprisingly it is full thanks to the outflow from Kariba and I’ve heard speculation that Mozambique will be approached to supply us power. Once again, we don’t have the money to buy it. It’s not looking good at all until at least April next year when the flood waters from the upper Zambezi reach Lake Kariba assuming the rains will be good in the catchment area. The government has promised not to cut power to the vital mining sector but its track record on promises is poor.

Meanwhile the local currency is under severe devaluation pressure. Just this last week the unofficial rate (what it can actually be bought for vs the “official” rate as quoted by the central bank) has fallen from 5 to the US dollar to 7. The official rate of 3.5:1 US dollar exists only on paper. Many outlets have stopped quoting goods in local prices and some, such as the accounting firm that holds my company documents, is demanding only US dollars. The ZETDC power utility is owed millions in unpaid accounts and our electricity price has remained at 14c (local) per unit for years despite the falling value of the currency. It has appealed to the government to raise tariffs but the last application was rejected – the government doesn’t want to foment unrest. They may have missed the bolting horse. Today I was shown and anonymously authored WhatsApp message announcing a mass stay-away. Details were sketchy, deliberately I think, but the message was clear; we’ve had enough.

Mass stay-aways in the past have had limited success but have clearly rattled the government which has responded with shutting down the internet and crushing any demonstrations with a very heavy hand. The WhatsApp circular advised people to remain peaceful and stock up on essential supplies. Sound advice for those who can afford to pay for them – a forever diminishing proportion of the population.





Rural visit

7 02 2013

“They didn’t pay their electricity bill” Archie replied to my question as to why the Mhangura mine had closed. I thought there may be a bit more to it than that but there was no doubt as to the impact the collapse of this copper mine in northern Zimbabwe had on the town of the same name. I’d picked up my guide, Archie, at the local GMB (Grain Marketing Board depot) for the trip into the surrounding farming area to see a customer who had problems with some seedlings he’d collected.  The GMB, once a cornerstone of the nation’s agricultural economy, was now very run down and the signpost was a hand-painted piece of metal propped up by stones at the side of the road.

It had been a long trip out of Harare on the road north-west of the capital towards Lake Kariba but I’d been interested to take a trip back to the area where I’d worked on returning from my travels abroad in 1990. Turning off at the township and GMB depot of Lions’ Den (yes, there really were lots of lions here in the early part of the 20th century!) I got onto the very quiet Mhangura road and put my foot down – there was little to miss apart from the occasional herd of cattle being driven along the side of the road. The rains had been late coming to this part of the country but the crops were still dismal – small, yellow and very uneven. This was a far cry from the area I’d known 20 years ago when the area was populated by mainly white commercial farmers.

I wasn't going fast when I took this - promise!

Long, straight and uncongested – I wasn’t going fast when I took this – promise!

Having picked up Archie we made our way east towards the Raffingora area and got chatting. Of Zambian descent he’d grown up in Harare and worked for a while as a farm manager for a number of black farmers but got fed up being given half the inputs he needed and then told to “make a plan” so he’d set himself up as a commodity broker. He didn’t go back to Zambia much but said if things got much worse in Zimbabwe he might have to.  We bumped and crashed along a truly appalling road that had clearly not seen any official maintenance for quite some time. The countryside was still beautiful despite the collapsed tobacco barns, power cables lying in the fields and the dismal maize crops clearly not suited to being grown in an area once famed for its tobacco.

It took the better part of an hour to do the 20 or so km to the customer’s farm. I dropped off Archie at the rather decrepit farm workshop area (clearly there was protocol involved here as he was definitely not invited to accompany us) and went with the farmer to the lands. Also of Zambian extraction he was an engineer by training but preferred to be a farmer. The cabbages were not in good condition, largely due to unsuitable soils so I dispensed what advice I could before collecting Archie and making our way back to Mhangura.

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

The bush was looking good, much better than the road!

It was a long slow drive back to Harare along the congested Kariba road but I’d fuelled up with biltong from the renowned Lions’ Den Butchery which was just as good as I remembered from 20 years back. Getting back home I noticed a missed call on my cellphone from the farmer; he was just checking to see I’d got home safely. Clearly I’d made a good impression!