Renewable Energy into the Future: An Only Option?

Over the last two years, Zimbabweans have enjoyed fair access to electricity with decreasing powercuts and load shedding. While the country’s economy is still on the path of slow recovery, it would seem that there has been a miracle, for no single day has passed without the much valued, assumed to be there – electricity! For areas that are encountering load shedding, the time lags are not as long as before. Yet, in the ‘ comfort zone’  of short or no generators running, Zimbabweans seem to be forgetting something. The energy crisis is not over, given our economic circumstances. Efforts and work done by the Ministry of Energy and Power Development (MoEPD) over the last two years for Zimbabweans to enjoy minimal and uninterrupted power supply are appreciated. Having worked in the last three years on renewable energy, it is a daunting task to provide energy, in an economy undergoing challenges.

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The country must not rest on its laurels, simply because energy is widely available. Except in rural areas, the talk of solar charging, charging lanterns, buying Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), acquiring and servicing generators appears to have never happened. Yet, it was an issue for many years.  Today, the nation seems to have rested and of course focusing on the devastating effects of the current drought. Yes, this is a critical area of focus, but we must not lose sight of the fact that our energy sector needs to be sorted. Zimbabweans must be aware that we are not yet out of the woods. Energy challenges are still with us, and as we do not have long terms strategies that include renewable energy solutions reaching most households, affordable energy remains a serious challenge. The short-term gains of today may evaporate tomorrow, and the question is, what do we do? Are we prepared for any future shortages? If the El Niño persists for another year or more, are we prepared to live a situation without hydropower generation? If world oil prices rise, can we afford the petrol products that we consume today? If Hwange and coal generated power stations cease today, what is our energy answer? If the mega energy deals signed with China fail to come to fruition due to an underperforming Chinese economy, do we have alternative strategies? There are just too many ifs and ifs in the energy sector, which has led us to reflect and think, and perhaps cajole Zimbabweans not to sleep and forget the energy challenges.

The electricity dilemma hits hardest those connected to the national grid. For the rest and largely rural communities, the reality of life without electricity poses a different challenge – finding the right option for energy supply from the natural resources available. What can be done to address the crisis? All minds are focused on renewable energy to come to the rescue for Zimbabwe. But, is this the way to go? Is renewable energy the solution to sustainable and consistent energy supply for Zimbabwe? An assignment that took us to the Middle Sabi Valley in late 2015 helped us reflect on these questions.

Take for instance, Tongogara Refugee Camp, which lies in the Middle Sabi Valley, and some 75km off Chipinge road and 15km off Chisumbanje road in Manicaland Province. Approaching the camp, one notices the scarce forest cover, a mix of moderately dense mopane and acacia trees that are resilient to the hot temperatures characteristic of the valley. However, moving towards the centre of the camp, sparse patches of trees in the barren plains cleared for crop production and development of the residential settlements make up the barren landscape. One soon learns that the ‘ barrenness’ was also the result of deforestation as local and refugee communities sought wood fuel to use in their homes.

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Deforestation is evident at Tongogara Refugee Camp, and is the scenario in other areas where wood fuel resources are on high demand

Observations during the drive are interrupted by a haulage truck offloading timber poles to a group of refugee men, women and children. Under the mid-morning heat, everyone was at first huddled around someone, probably the person responsible for distributing the timber poles then in no time, each individual started dispersing from the crowd and the haulage truck, pushing the timber pole into rolling motion – some using their feet, some using their hands, others using both their hands and feet – to get to their homes. This was the main source of wood fuel for the refugees. With each progressing day , however, we noticed that the homes used charcoal stoves for cooking. We saw a couple of people moving with 50kg sacks packed with charcoal. The charcoal was made deep in the forests close to Save River, from what we were told. However, this practice was discouraged as it was contributing to deforestation. In an interview, the District Administrator for Chipinge, Mr Senzea noted that while the community relies on wood fuel, there was no strategy for afforestation, which is detrimental to the scarce forest resources. He further pointed to wind erosion as a problem in the camp that’s largely the result of deforestation (Interview, 08 December, 2015).

Wood fuel resources, however, are not the only option in the camp. Our visits to the market centres revealed the reliance on solar energy and generators for lighting, electricity supply for the barbershops, hair salons, cell phone repair shops and bars. During informal conversations with the business owners, they expressed concern with the absence of electricity citing that solar energy as an alternative is not exactly ideal beyond lighting and recharging cell phones. For those using generators, the concern was around the cost of fuel, which they said was too high.

renew5Timber poles and solar panels at Tongogara Refugee Camp.

It has not always been like this. This camp used to have electricity supplied by ZESA[1] but they cut us off. I don’t know the whole story but it has something to do with people making illegal connections and compromising the infrastructure. They had to stop supplying electricity. Now our businesses are suffering because it is not easy to use a generator all the time and some of these solar panels are not durable. It is so frustrating!

The question to energy users at Tongogara Refugee Camp was whether they were thinking about other sustainable options such solar energy or LPG, which is renewable and relatively inexpensive. Responses were divided between those who felt that electricity was a primary need while renewable energy options are for alternative use in the absence of main supply. The renewable energy dilemma at Tongogara Refugee Camp is just but a microcosm of concerns at national level, throughout all Zimbabwean communities.

What are the limitations to renewable energy? Like other stakeholders in the energy sectors, I am for renewable energy because the advantages outstrip the limitations. Lets start with the limitations from most of the stories heard at the TRC and elsewhere! Most users point that renewables in the form of bio digesters were new to them and do not know how they work with large appliances such as grinding mills, fridges, stoves, and processing equipment. This also related to the scepticism about bio digesters in terms of input requirements and balance with output, noting that outside of places without mass waste they are labour intensive and would add a burden on families struggling with other necessities such as water. There could be a valid point there! Some have complained of the low flammability for locally constructed bio digesters. On solar related energy, the struggles for getting adequate power using small panels led most to be unsure whether the sun can really power homes and meet their needs. There are also related capital costs. Questions to bio-digester scientists noted that for a medium scale digester, can cost anything between US$4,000-5,000 per unit, and comprehensive photovoltaic power solar can cost hundreds if not thousands of US dollars. Yet, the downside to producing renewable energy lies in meeting sufficient quantities of electricity that match the capacity produced using fossil based fuel generators. Given that most renewable energy sources such as wind and water are reliant on the weather, adverse effects of climate change and weather variability may limit reliable supply.

What are the advantages of renewable energy? Renewable energy is cost effective in the long term given the minimal maintenance when compared with traditional fuel generators. The only time biogas will be depleted is when we stop producing any waste. Further, renewable energy is lauded for its environmental benefits including minimal to no waste products such as carbon dioxide and other pollutants that could potentially be harmful.  Much of this energy uses up waste material found in cattle pens, pig sties, chicken runs; allowing for decreased soil and water pollution.

The Biogas route: this is slowly gaining prominence with various prototypes being developed locally. Yet, with various development agencies such as SNV and Hivos implementing programmes on harnessing renewable energy resources, including biogas, awareness and uptake remains low. At Tongogara Refugee camp, potential for undertaking biogas production on a large scale is possible given the high population of pigs in the camp. The pig slurry can be taken to treatment plants and fermented to produce biogas which is useful for cooking.

renew6Pig manure can be put to meaningful use by innovating around biogas production at Tongogara Refugee Camp

Another visit to a family in Rural Mutoko that installed a bio digester for home cooking and lighting promoted by World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Zimbabwe provides lessons.  The family indicated that biogas technology has made a difference to them in the first few days. The family domiciled in an area with little forest biomass, opted for biogas because it reduced the difficulties of accessing wood for home use. In addition, they indicated that using paraffin was expensive. They were expecting that the biogas would reduce household expenditure by switching from wood to biogas for fuel. The biogas was expected to use cow dung at the family homestead. The family does not have to spend money purchasing firewood as fuel from biogas suffices to cook food for the family. By installing the biogas plant, the family expected that other families around would emulate them. Sparking interest among other villagers who have seen the investment on the biogas plant is worth studying in the long duration to see efficiency of the biogas, rates of uptake by other communities.

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Bio-digester and utilities at a family home in Rural Mutoko, Mashonaland East Province

Solar route: there has been a frenzy of solar options in Zimbabwe at a micro-scale in most homes. At Tongogara refugee camp solar panels of various shapes and sizes can be seen, providing renewable energy for lighting, charging cellphones and tablets, and energising small appliances such as radios and TVs. There are very few who have used solar energy in Zimbabwe to completely delink from the national electricity grid. Yet, having this option as a priority would complement the MoEPD’s efforts. In addition, the scope for feeding solar energy into the national grid, should be regarded as a plus, where such households who do so should be given an energy balance price and credits whenever they have put a significant amount of the unneeded energy into the national grid. This can be worked out and calculated per year, for such credits to be awarded as an incentive.

Wind energy: we grew up in rural Zimbabwe, in mining and agriculture areas. We have seen now dilapidated windmills that we understand were used for water abstraction from boreholes. These were also popular in national parks, and besides the initial capital outlay, they are relatively inexpensive to maintain. The question is whether we have sufficient wind power to generate electricity, or there are technologies that are capable of being wind powered and are lighter than the older generation wind technologies that use heavy steel. We are not engineers, therefore throw this question to our engineers in companies and universities to answer. Is it possible to tap into this resource? Where has it been tried and with what success? How relevant would it be for Zimbabwe today?

Renewable energy is complex and is in its infancy in terms of understanding the efficiencies and costs. Yet today, Zimbabwe cannot afford the luxury of not doing anything, when our past has shown that the energy supply chain dependent on hydropower and coal is unstable and unpredictable. The last few months, we have enjoyed and it has been a relief and thanks to the men and women at MoEPD and other stakeholders. Nonetheless, there are real fears whether this current extended Christmas present is sustainable or not. This is the reason why we are reminding Zimbabweans to explore renewable energy options, while scientists, economists and plant designers are finding ways of bringing them to reality and making communities aware. On our part, we are on the road promoting and dialoguing with communities on renewable energy throughout the country, as the main deal we need in the years to come.

[1] Formerly and commonly known as the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, now known as Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company.

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