Zimbabwe is in the throes of a power crisis which authorities have attributed to the low water levels at Kariba Dam where hydroelectricity is generated. Government says the power shortages will be alleviated soon. The Herald’s Political Editor Tichaona Zindoga (TZ) sought the views of UK-based power systems and former Zesa engineer Kenny Kanyuchi (KK) who has worked for over 15 years for UK power utility companies in operations, who proposes energy reforms, strong technical, institutional and political commitment among other ways to ensure that Zimbabwe is energy-secure.

TZ: Zimbabwe is facing a power generation crisis at the moment with shortages and outages being experienced for hours on end. Can you contextualise this crisis?
KK: Thank you Mr Zindoga. This is my personal opinion and factual representation of my views about the Zimbabwe energy crisis. It’s just a small evaluation of the situation.

Zimbabwe currently is facing an unprecedented energy crisis. This has been caused by a combination of a lot of factors and I will only dwell on the technical aspects and leave the political side to politicians. But I would like to add in passing that a strong commitment to energy reform and implementation of a good electricity programme is a technical, institutional and political challenge.

The current cause of the power shortages can be attributed to a combination of ageing power plants, and a transmission and distribution network which have suffered years of neglect and minimal maintenance, unsupported and under-performing renewable sector.

The past decades may have provided evidence predicting today’s scenario. In the early 1990s, an opportunity to upgrade and build power stations was missed. You may recall the YTL debacle (1998). An opportunity to increase power generation was lost. There were lots of opportunities that were lost to arrest this present energy crisis. The above are but a few that I can mention now.

TZ: What do you think is the cost of this current power crisis?
KK: The cost of this current crisis is enormous. Economies of the world are energy-driven, energy powers the nation, and it fuels all commercial activities and public life. Therefore this current power crisis affects every Zimbabwean one way or the other. Our human activities, our way of life is sustained by energy use.

My prediction is that if this current crisis and inconsistent in energy policy continues on this trajectory it will seriously threaten the economy, security and social well-being of Zimbabwe and is already affecting the economy big time.

As I have been reading in your newspapers, captains of industries are reaching out to Zesa to try and help them to avoid total collapse of the manufacturing sector.

TZ: The one explanation being proffered concerns water levels in Kariba. What are the dynamics of water and power and to be honest, we have not just witnessed the worst drought in memory?
KK: Hydroelectric power plants are classified and based on the total water head or head of water available in a dam. There are three types based on the height of water available. These are low head, the water head is less than 30 metres, medium water head is more than 30 metres but less 300 metres and high is more than 300 metres up to 1000 metres. I am not sure what type we have at Kariba but it is my assumption that the hydropower plant is of the medium type.

The water turbine is a rotary engine that converts kinetic energy and potential energy of water into mechanical drive. So in short, the lower the water level at Kariba Dam will reduce the efficacy of the machines potentially compromising the power output. That could be the reason why they have to reduce the output. I am not better placed to make a factual comment on the drought issue because I do not have adequate meteorological data and information to make an informed judgment.

TZ: And this is also a regional issue, with South Africa and Zambia facing some challenges?
KK: Zimbabwe is connected with neighbouring countries through SAPP (Southern African Power Pool), and in theory it can import electricity from neighbouring countries. The reality is quite different.

Regional energy demand in SA and Zambia far outstrips supply hence sources of imports are diminishing. This situation poses an additional threat to access to electricity. The possibility or practicability of importing electricity is further compounded by the fact that several neighbouring countries like Mozambique are also experiencing power shortage. This is a collective failure by regional leaders and lack of foresight.

The regional power pool has relied heavily on hydropower that is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and variability in precipitation. These observations may imply that increasing and diversifying local power generation is the safest option.

TZ: One would have thought, with industrial use of electricity low because of reduced capacity utilisation in Zimbabwe, we would not be talking about shortages?
KK: It’s not as easy as you put it. A lot of dynamics are at play here. Zimbabwe currently is generating just slightly above 900MW, which is well below half the country’s energy consumption of 2 000MW. Harare energy demand is around 600MW, which is two thirds of current generation. Out of the 600MW demand by Harare, 40 percent of the 600MW is drawn by geysers. These are factual figures. It will help you to evaluate and quantify the current use of electricity. It’s not about industrial below capacity utilisation; it’s about generation not matching demand. All this comes back to what I have said above; lack of forward planning.

TZ: From a technical perspective, what can authorities do to alleviate the situation in the short to medium term?
KK: The Ministry of Energy and Power Development has overall responsibility for energy issues in Zimbabwe. The responsibilities include energy policy formulation, performance and monitoring under four directorates, Policy and Planning (which manages the policy making and planning process); Power Development (electricity sector policies and plans); Petroleum (petroleum sector policies and plans); and Energy Conservation and Renewable Energy.

It boggles anyone’s mind how the price of electricity is sold below economic costs of generation, distribution and supply.

Electricity is generated, for example, at 20 cents per kWh after factoring in all the parameters such coal, labour e.t.c but sold below the cost price at 16 cents per kWh. It does not make business sense. In this respect, electricity is affordable in Zimbabwe. This allows a lot of irregularities to develop in terms of revenue collection because who will account for the difference of 4 cents? It’s a recipe for corruption. There should be a call for dispensation to allow electricity tariffs to reflect economic pricing in line with regional best practices, enhanced overall revenue generation in support of improved supply of electricity.

Currently ZESA is a monopoly, electricity is generated, transmitted and distributed by the state-owned ZESA Holdings (Pvt) Ltd. It has a subsidiary that generates power (Zimbabwe Power Company, ZPC), and another one that transmits and distributes electricity (Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company, ZETDC).

The Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) was established in September 2011 by the Energy Regulatory Authority Act of 2011 “to regulate the procurement, production, transportation, transmission, distribution, importation and exportation of energy derived from any energy source”.

Its main role is to carry out policy monitoring and enforcement. Accordingly, ZERA is required “to create, promote and preserve an efficient energy industry market for the provision of sufficient energy for domestic and industrial use . . . to promote and maintain effective competition within the energy industry.” But, the question is how do you regulate a monopoly and promote and maintain effective competition within an energy industry with only one player, ZESA? It does not make sense at all.

TZ: Everyone now seems to be talking about solar being the panacea to the energy crisis in the country. Your thoughts?
KK: Yes, it can cover the gap now and bring corrective measures to address the current shortage. The Government also needs to support the renewable energy initiatives like domestic rooftop solar installation so that the power from domestic houses can be diverted to industries. Also promotion of utility scale solar power generation to argument power gaps. Incentive rebates, duty free import of the geysers, solar panels e.t.c can go a long way to relieve the national grid.

A long-term solution is to build new power stations instead of wasting resources in refurbishing obsolete power stations like Hwange, which is overdue for decommissioning. Policy consistency will attract investors. Options to explore the building of gas-fired power stations and coal-fired stations will be long-term solutions since Zimbabwe has got a lot of gas reserves.

There are a lot of challenges that need a close look — including billing and collection, aged and obsolete equipment and power plants, operational challenges like undercapitalisation, compounded by debt-ridden financial position.

Currently ZESA is owed millions of dollars by consumers. There is high cost of rural electrification through grid extension due to the scattered nature of settlements, thefts and vandalism to name a few challenges that need to be looked into with a view to aligning them.

The legal and regulatory framework also needs a shake-up. There is need for a draft energy bill that will pave way for liberisation of the energy sector. Again this is a minefield. Liberisation of the energy sector needs a lot of debate but it’s the only way out of this situation.

Energy reform and strong technical, institutional and political commitment can help address the energy challenges facing Zimbabwe and offer a thorough and responsible energy plan the country needs to come out of this crisis.

Policy consistency and financial incentives are needed to restore investor confidence. Removing injudicious market interventions and policy vacillation will help to bring a fresh perspective to the energy sector and bring hope for a better future in energy security in Zimbabwe.