By Lemuel Chekai
Until the enactment of a national lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19 pandemic, most households in urban Zimbabwe were enduring up to 18 hours without electricity for over a year.
According to the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), the country’s power utility, the acute electricity shortage was partly caused by the 2019 El Nino induced-drought which affected water levels at Kariba dam.
Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC), a subsidiary of ZESA Holdings, states that at its peak, the Kariba hydro-power station generates about 1,050 megawatts of power, well over a half of Zimbabwe’s daily energy requirements.
Zimbabwe primarily relies on Kariba hydropower station and Hwange thermal power plant as well as imports from South Africa’s Eskom and Hidroelectrica de Cahora Bassa (HCB) of Mozambique, to meet the power supply gap.
But with Hwange only producing a fraction of its 920 MW capacity due to obsolete equipment, Zimbabwe ended up generating 820 MW against a daily peak demand of 1,600MW in winter and 1, 400MW in summer.
Arrears amounting to US$80 million ZESA owed to Eskom and HCB, worsened the situation as the producers were forced to cut supply for Zimbabwe to settle its debt.
This meant power would only be reserved for mining and manufacturing industries, among other key contributors to the country’s economy.
As a result, most households had to endure 18-hour power cuts. However, this opened opportunities for eco-friendly initiatives. Renewable energy and other more efficient and environmentally-friendly power sources, such as solar and liquefied petroleum gas(LP) gas, are good examples.
With corporates having to make do with unreliable power supply, the closest alternative became diesel-powered generators.
However, with foreign currency shortages limiting fuel importation, most individuals and corporates were frustrated from the carbon-emitting energy source due to spiralling fuel prices and long winding queues which characterised most fuel stations.
The majority of generators in Zimbabwe are powered by combustion engines – almost similar to those on vehicles – which emit carbon smoke that destroys the ozone layer, causing global warming.
Fresh investors such as the French-owned Saint-Gobain Construction Products, who in February this year commissioned a USD$ 1 million Weber plant for tile adhesives in the Zimbabwean capital’s – Harare Msasa industrial area, made sure the plant would not rely on the national power grid as it is entirely powered by solar energy.
“In the long- term, through its solar projects, the group is expected to be fully independent of the national power utility, ZESA,” says RioZim Limited (RioZim) chairman, Saleem Beebeejuan, whose company is considering weaning off the national power grid.
Another miner, Caledonia Mining Corporation, says they are “well advanced in the evaluation of a solar project to provide one of our mines – the Gwanda-based mine, Blanket Mine’s power supply and reduce its dependence on imported power during daylight hours.
This a major step towards achievement of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 7 and 13. These goals seek to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all and combating climate change and its impact through strategic planning for a net-zero carbon emissions future, respectively.
While corporates are geared towards going green, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is fast surpassing firewood in urban areas as the preferred alternative to electrical power.
As of last year, the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) projected that annual LPG usage would grow upwards from 38 million kg used in 2018 to 50 million kg by the end of 2019.
Ideally, the figures would have exceeded that projection by now.
“It’s now compulsory for each one of my tenants to use LP gas when cooking,” says Grace Dube, a landlord in Glen Norah C high-density suburb in Harare, added,: “With everyone heeding, the three residing families in my house can go for a month with the 200 units limit.”
To ensure responsible use of electricity, the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC), set the first 50 units of electricity for a month at US$ 0,98, and 200 units at US$ 7,46. Any consumption above 200 units has been pegged at a punitive US$ 0,18 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).
While the migration interprets into subtracted demand on the national power grid, the ecological benefit arising from this is that fewer trees are cut down for fuel.
Perhaps the biggest undoing to this minor, but commendable progress towards eco-friendly power sources – bringing into account the 67.79 % rural population in Zimbabwe as of 2018 who primarily rely on firewood to cook – is the increasing usage of charcoal in urban areas.
“We are using charcoal to boil foodstuffs like beans, tripe and other dishes that take longer to cook. I can’t afford to boil beans for hours on a gas stove, it won’t last,” says Petronela Makaudze, a resident of Mufakose high-density suburb in Harare.
While burning charcoal produces little to no smoke, vast lands with trees are cleared to make charcoal.
In several of Harare’s suburbs, one can easily see carpets of solar panels on rooftops as a testimony to the significant number of Zimbabweans embracing green energy.
Zimbabwe Environmental Health Practitioners Association president, Stephen Musarapasi, says while power cuts have encouraged positive steps towards eco-friendly energy sources locally, the global lockdown over COVID-19 has also complemented the earth’s restoration.
“While the excess power cuts have indeed seen people moving towards greener energy, this, evidenced by a significant number of people moving from charcoal and firewood as alternatives to electric stoves, globally, COVID-19 lockdowns that have lessened industrial emissions have also seen the earth going through some resuscitation process – healing the land in the process.”