After a very frustrating period of prolonged load-shedding that saw citizens only having electricity between midnight and 4am, the Zimbabwe government has declared the end of electricity rationing. This follows the completion of two 300MW coal-powered new generation plants.
This new capacity is from the recently commissioned units 7 & 8 at Hwange. Before the addition of the 2 new units that were built at a cost of US$1.5 billion, that country’s old coal power plants (Hwange units 1 to 6) had been experiencing frequent breakdowns, meaning that they were never able to reach anywhere close to their installed capacity of 920MW. There are also some smaller thermal power stations around the country in Harare, Munyati, and Bulawayo, that rarely produce and when they do, it will be well below their rated capacity.
This scenario has meant that the country’s 1,050 MW hydropower plant at Kariba has been doing most of the heavy lifting. But due to climate change-induced irregular rainfall patterns, the water levels in the dam have regularly been falling below sustainable levels for continuous or peak support output at the required levels. This has resulted in the Zambezi River Authority implementing a water rationing program, therefore restricting electricity generation. For example, late last year, ZRA instructed the Zimbabwe Power Company to reduce power generation to a maximum of 300MW. This resulted in the Zimbabwe Power Company, the operator of the national power generation plants, to produce a record low 354MW at one point across its fleet of generators that had an installed capacity of around 2,200MW at that time, against a peak demand of about 1,800MW, hence the high levels of unprecedented load-shedding.
South Africa was also implementing a record load-shedding program, as well as Zambia at some point, and therefore the region was experiencing an acute deficit. This meant Zimbabwe could not import as much as possible from the region. This was further exacerbated by Zimbabwe’s everlasting foreign currency shortages, as well as the regular burst of hyperinflation, meaning the country was also not in a position to pay for additional imports from Mozambique and Zambia, for example.
With the addition of the two new coal plants, the country’s installed generation capacity has now shot up to around 2,800MW. Recently, when the two new units were added to the mix, the ZPC reported a generation output of around 1,600MW—1,700MW. This has helped ease the burden on citizens who were fed up with the incessant load-shedding. Zimbabwe also imports some power from Zambia and several of its neighbors.
However, there is still a lot of work to do! First up, the addition of the new generation capacity has been welcomed by the citizens, as it has given them some relief from the 20-hour cuts. But this new capacity being fossil fuel-powered means that it has significantly reduced the share of renewable energy penetration in the country’s energy mix. The country’s biggest power plant used to be the 1,050MW Kariba Dam hydropower plant, but now it is the 1,520MW Hwange coal power plant. Although the old units 1 to 6 (920MW) have not been performing well, the government has announced plans to refurbish these units now that the new units 7 & 8 have been successfully completed. This means Zimbabwe will need to add more renewables to offset this additional fossil fuel-powered generation capacity as well as diversity its energy mix. The country also needs to add new generation capacity as quickly as possible via the most economic routes to meet a growing demand for electricity.
The country’s national utility company, ZESA, announced a while ago that it has received applications for new connections from the mining and industrial sectors for about 2,500MW. Therefore, the power generation arm, ZPC, needs to finds new generation capacity ASAP.
One of the key projects driving this demand is a new steel plant under construction in Manhize that would require at least 500MW on completion. Of course, this new demand excludes any major infrastructure projects such as an electrified national and metro railway system that has been a topical discussion for years now and pops up every election season. There are no firm plans yet for this in the near future, but if these types of projects were to be developed, these and other similar projects, as well as any new heavy industries, would need to be accommodated in the power system development plans as well.
Zimbabweans also do not yet have universal access to electricity and this demand would also need to be incorporated, therefore a whole lot more new generation capacity needs to be developed quickly to ensure that Zimbabwe does not slip back into prolonged periods of load-shedding.
So, although the country has declared the end of load-shedding for now, already there is pressure from all the new planned and confirmed projects, such as the new 500MW steel plant. To help add some capacity to the mix, the developers of the steel plant have recently applied to the energy regulator in Zimbabwe for a license for a 100MW wind power plant. This will be the first ever utility-scale wind farm in Zimbabwe.
According to the Zimbabwe energy regulator’s latest Annual Report, Independent Power Producers, or IPPs, supplied 385.2 GWh in 2022 against 131.1 GWh in 2021. However, this was just 3.6% of 10,710 GWh of energy supplied in 2022. The total energy supplied in 2022 was up from 10,193GWh of 2021. As at the end of 2022, there were 32 Independent Power Producer power projects operational out of 115 licensed by the end of 2022, compared to 20 out of 96 in 2021. The contribution from IPPs is growing though, up from 2% in 2021. These IPPs are mostly small utility-scale solar PV plants (25MW and below per project). There is yet to be a 100MW and above PV project that has reached financial close in Zimbabwe and has been implemented.
To help meet the already registered new demand as well as to help increase access to electricity in the country, a whole lot more capacity will be needed from Independent Power Producers as well. However, due to the previously mentioned issues around the shortage of foreign currency, difficulties in moving money, as well as the ever present hyperinflationary issues, IPPs have often struggled to get financial backing to get projects off the ground. The government has tried to put in place some measure to kind of address some of these via a fast track program for 1,000MW for an estimated cost of US$1 billion.
The government says it wants to catalyze growth in the solar PV sector under the standardized Government Implementation Agreement (GIA) for all solar IPP projects. Zimbabwe’s minister of finance recently announced some new measures to help the sector. The Finance minister said “A key ingredient to the successful implementation of the solar IPPs projects is a bankable GIA with an economic tariff. The GIA has three major components which are Project Development Support Agreement; Power Purchase Agreement; and The Reserve Bank Undertaking for Foreign Currency Convertibility and Transfer.”
Another interesting project that has been proposed is the 1,200MW DC floating solar PV (FPV) plant on Lake Kariba by China Energy Engineering Group. The proposed 1,200MW (DC)/ 1,200MW (AC) floating solar plant for Kariba will cover 25km2 (about 1.34%) of the total reservoir’s area, using the figures considered by Rocio Gonzalez Sanchez et al., providing an estimated annual production of 2,640 GWh. In 2021, Kariba generated 6,067 GWh on the Zimbabwe side, according to the Zimbabwe Energy Regulator’s (ZERA) annual report. The annual production from the proposed FPV would work out to be 44% of that, excluding any extra generated from reduced evaporation. Another area that has not been fully exploited in Zimbabwe is the area of distributed small hydropower plants, including run-of-river plants that do not disturb the environment as much.
The African Development Bank, one of the major funders of large infrastructure projects on the African continent, announced that it will stop funding coal projects. As there has been a big push to clean up the grids globally, it will therefore be better for developers of power projects in Zimbabwe to focus on more bankable, cleaner, and renewable projects to complement existing plants to boost electricity generation in the country. There are plans to rehabilitate the old underperforming small thermal power plants at Munyati, Harare, and Bulawayo, but this money could be better spent adding some form of utility-scale batteries to the energy mix to help integrate more variable renewable energy as well as for other grid support services.
Another priority area to focus on is on the country’s transmission and distribution infrastructure. This will also help integrate more variable renewable energy as well as improve the overall system efficiency. On the regional side, there needs to be an accelerated approach together with the other members of the SADC region to expedite the planned additions and expansion of the regional network to facilitate more energy trading between members of the Southern African Power Pool.
Another major project that has been proposed for decades and is still to kick off is the Batoka Gorge hydro project, also shared with neighboring Zambia. According to the Zambezi River Authority website, the project will have two underground power stations (one north and one south bank) with an installed capacity of 1600MW (2×800 MW). If it eventually does kick off, Zimbabwe would get an additional 800MW of renewable energy capacity.
More renewable capacity could actually be added very quickly via incentivizing and promoting the adoption of more rooftop solar, for example. Neighboring South Africa has recently shown us the way, giving a good example of just how quickly rooftop solar and other distributed projects can bring in new capacity. Analysis from South Africa’s power utility company Eskom shows that there is now about 4,412MW of solar PV installed in the South African C&I and residential sectors. That’s 4.4 GW of awesome distributed solar!
Eskom deduced that in the C&I and residential sectors in South Africa, as well as large users such as in the mining and agricultural space, added about 3,000MW of solar PV in just over a year from March 2022 to June 2023. It just goes to show how fast solar can be added to the mix. Zimbabwe should also push harder for rapid uptake of rooftop solar. There has been some progress in Zimbabwe with the introduction of net metering. Homes and businesses are now each able to feed in up to 5MW.
This is some good progress, however, a whole lot more work lies ahead. If the economy was to somehow find a way to grow for a sustained period of time, a lot more work needs to be done to get the country to a stage where the citizens can truly feel that the worst of load-shedding is behind them.
Kariba Dam image courtesy of Zambezi River Authority
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