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.





The drought of ’92

10 12 2015
Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Watsomba area of eastern Zimbabwe 1992

Zimbabweans have a curious attitude to the rainy season; they almost think it’s a right and are somewhat puzzled or even hurt when I say no, I don’t think the rains are going to come this year. Of course we will get some rain but it’s almost certain there will be a drought.

In 1992 we had a drought. At the time I was working in Penhalonga in the high rainfall eastern area of Zimbabwe. I was doing freelance programming; there was plenty of work but it did not pay well as people were not convinced of the value of it so I left and in 1995 (another drought year) started an agricultural job near Harare.

The photo above was taken north of Mutare in a high rainfall area called Watsomba. I don’t recall the actual date but you can see there is hardly a blade of grass to  be seen. In those days Zimbabwe still had a vibrant agricultural sector and despite the ravages of the drought nobody went hungry because the commercial farmers (mostly white) knew how to use their resources well and besides, drought is endemic to southern Africa so there was plenty of stored water to irrigate crops.

This year a drought is likely but there’s a major difference; there are very few capable farmers left. Most were driven off their land by the Mugabe government in 2000 – 2002. Many of the former commercial farms lie derelict and ironically, the dams (reservoirs) that ensured plentiful crops and established Zimbabwe as a regional food exporter are still mostly full. There are two reasons for this – there are few farmers to use the water and those who can prefer to pump the water for more profitable crops than the staple maize. Pumping is also expensive these days as most of the country is enduring long power cuts so diesel pumps have to be used. One of my customers told me that he gets up at midnight, when the power comes on, to irrigate his tomatoes. “You can get quite a lot of irrigation done in four hours before they turn it off again but the labour force is not very keen” he added.

The electricity situation is only going to get worse. Lake Kariba, which normally supplies most of the country’s hydro power is critically low so the turbines are running below capacity. The lake is low due to poor rains in the catchment area of central west Zambia and eastern Angola and this inflow only occurs around April. The Zambians have also over developed the north bank power station and the lake simply cannot keep up. Zimbabwe also has a large thermal power station at Hwange in the west of the country but generating capacity is down due to lack of maintenance and capital development (the government is broke) and despite being right on top of a large very high quality coal deposit they just can’t seem to get it together.

Money was borrowed from Namibia to fund electricity development in Zimbabwe but now the local utility, ZESA, has taken out another loan and we have to export more power to Namibia to pay it back.

The internet did not exist in Zimbabwe in 1992 so there was not a lot of opportunity to research the causes of drought. Now the current el Niño is well covered both locally and worldwide. Looking back at the history, this year’s temperature rise that defines the phenomenon looks to be very similar to that of 1992 (1995 was not quite as strong though we were saved in this part of the country by cyclone Bonita that savaged the eastern districts) but perhaps a bit stronger. That’s not good news at all.

I don’t have a photo of the same area taken in 1993 but I do recall that the area recovered very well. That’s cold comfort right now (it’s blazing hot as I write this with temperatures in the mid 30 degrees and few clouds to be seen) as we still have to get through another 12 months before we can hope for a normal season.

In the meantime I am installing a solar powered system capable of running all electrics in the house bar the water heaters (it’s not my house otherwise I’d install solar water heaters too).  I actually am connected to a reasonably reliable grid due to the proximity of a military baracks but I just like the idea of being independent and, yes, I’m a bit of a geek too.





Getting more for less (or preferably nothing at all)

22 10 2015

The workers’ committee representing my labour force requested a meeting yesterday. They were asking for a wage increase. That most of Zimbabwe is unemployed swayed them not a bit. Neither did the fact that most prices are not going up and rents are, in some cases, going down. The pharmacist where I most frequently get scripts has taken a 20% reduction in salary and is struggling to pay her children’s school fees. That I would have to increase prices to offset the wage increase and probably drive customers elsewhere also failed to move them. So in the end I just said no, it was not going to happen (I already pay substantially more than I am required to by law). They were more than a little bemused but at least they are actually working for a living unlike a lot of the “haves” in our society.

Currently there is a bit of a fuss in the press over a Zimbabwe born doctor who works in the UK. Dr Sylvester Nyatsuro is after a farm owned by a white farmer in the Centenary area in the north of Zimbabwe. Dr Nyatsuro is by all accounts successful in the UK, running a weight loss clinic in Nottingham – he does not need a farm in Zimbabwe. Even his UK lawyers seem to think he is entitled to grab the farm under Zimbabwe law. Note that he is not going to pay for it despite the fact that it is heavily cropped so I can only think he must be well connected. And what will happen to the farm in the hands of a doctor who probably knows little about farming? Well, he could if he is sensible employ someone who does know about farming but more likely it will suffer the fate of the farm just down the road from my business.

The farm to which I’m referring was once was highly productive. Some 3 years ago the owner was kicked off. Very little happens there now. There have been 2 disastrous crops of potatoes this year and last year there was an extraordinarily bad crop of seed maize that looked like it had been grown almost entirely without fertilizer. There is ample water supply to farm most of the land through the dry winter and ironically, unlike a lot of Zimbabwe, it has reasonably reliable power to pump the water. It is not clear whom is actually in charge of the land but the manager is reasonably capable so I can only think the “owner” is bleeding it dry.

Earlier this month, hot on the heels of Cecil the Lion saga, a magnificent bull elephant was shot by a trophy hunter near the Ghona-re-Zhou game reserve in the south east of Zimbabwe. It was a completely legal hunt but already the social media knives are out having so successfully lynched the American dentist who shot Cecil the Lion and has been exonerated of committing a crime (the professional hunter who led the hunt may or may not have something to answer for).

The German hunter who apparently shot the elephant paid a reported $60,000 for the right to shoot an elephant. That’s a lot of money for most people and in Zimbabwe professional hunting does bring in much needed cash and supports a lot of people. The hunting fraternity also argue that the controlled hunting areas would become a free-for-all poaching areas if hunting were to stop i.e. they are conservationists too. Whilst a lot of people find trophy hunting repugnant it would be difficult to argue that a poached animal that often dies in agony over several days has a cleaner death than one shot (elephant poachers have taken to using tranquilizer guns on their prey because they are silent – the tusks are then hacked off whilst the animal is still conscious) in a professional hunt. In Zimbabwe we don’t have the luxury of being able to leave land idle – it must all earn its keep. Sadly, allocating hunting areas to photo tourism won’t work either. Our already underfunded national parks are themselves being poached and in many cases the general public is helping to keep them going. Friends of Hwange are active in providing water to the animals in the country’s premier national park – a task that in normal countries would fall to the government. This government is always pleading poverty and prefers to let well-wishers help out whilst they spend supposedly non-existent funds on military vehicles.

Just yesterday I received an email from some local microlight pilots who have started a trust to provide aircraft free of cost to assist with anti-poaching patrols in the National Parks. The National Parks people are reportedly delighted as I guess so too are the government.

Now that most parts of the country are suffering massive power cuts of up to 18 hours, those of us who can are looking to “make a plan”. Whilst I am not in an area too badly affected I am not sitting idle and am looking at the solar option. A diesel generator would be cheaper but I am not convinced that diesel will always be available. Sunlight will be. So I guess I am as guilty as anyone of not standing up to the corruption, mismanagement and poor governance that blights this special country. But at least I am working for my money.