Solar energy solution to Zim power deficit

A solar farm such as the above would be set up in Gwanda

Gibson Mhaka
ZIMBABWE is one of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa which have been struggling with power generation yet it boasts of some of the world’s greatest solar energy opportunities.According to the World Bank, access to electricity for households in Zimbabwe is less than 25 percent falling as low as 10 percent in rural areas. With power outages happening  at an average of 56 days a year, it has  undoubtedly taken a toll on the economic  growth of the country hence there is an urgent and dire need for the government to address this crisis by investing more in solar energy since energy is a key ingredient for business development.

Studies have shown that, although the market for solar energy development is vast in the country because of the abundant sunlight, lack of investment in the sector is an indication that the energy is being under-utilised. Statistics released in 2012 by the Energy Commission revealed that the energy balance in the country is 51 percent for wood fuel, 19 percent for coal, 12 percent for liquid fuel, 13 percent for electricity and 5 percent for solar energy.

These statistics are testament that there is comprehensive need by both the government and private players in the energy sector to collectively work and meet the targets set in the economic blueprint, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Socio-Economic Sustainable Transformation (Zim-Asset) of tapping solar energy and other renewable sources of energy in order to meet the country’s power demands.

This is so because on energy and power generation the economic blueprint aims to increase the use of renewable energy resources by 300 megawatts by 2018 and to substitute 20 percent of the country’s petrol imports with bio-fuels by 2015. It also seeks to substitute five percent of the country’s diesel imports with bio-diesel by 2020 after it had identified several greenfield projects to boost energy and power generation in the country.

Local energy experts however, noted that despite the fact that the country is in one of the best solar radiation belts in the world as it enjoys an average of 325 days of unlimited sunlight per year, it continued to experience power supply problems which is negatively affecting the growth of the economy.

“Although the market for solar energy development is vast in a country like Zimbabwe that has abundant sunlight, the energy is underutilised. Zimbabwe is one of the best solar radiation belts in the world, averaging 2,100 kilowatt hours per square metre per year and 3,000 hours, equivalent to 300 days of sunshine per year. However, this resource is currently under-utilised,” said Evans Mushongera, a technological researcher with the Harare Institute of Technology.

“Solar technology requires that solar energy be produced and stored during the day for use at night and this makes it more expensive. Our situation in Zimbabwe is that electricity is short during the day so there is no need to produce and store,” he added.

Energy specialists insist on the need for a clear policy framework that supports the development of clean sources of energy like solar. The policy should address all the gaps, such as incentives for increased uptake and investment in renewable energy and legislation.

The use of solar energy has a number of advantages. It can be harnessed for pumping drinking water for rural communities, electricity production, powering lights and appliances at rural institutions (schools and clinics) and water heating in urban areas.

There is also high demand for solar energy systems especially in remote rural areas where there is no power grid. If fully exploited, solar energy is also expected to have a huge impact on the agriculture sector where smallholder farmers have long complained that irrigation schemes have suffered because of irregular supply of electricity.

Environment Africa country director, Banarbas Mawire said in this time of climatic changes, where low-carbon development is now the preferred option for growing sustainable economies, the use of solar energy is prudent as it is environmentally friendly.

“Solar energy is a cleaner type of energy with a low carbon footprint if we’re to compare it with fossil fuels such as coal and the associated air emissions. It’s also a renewable source of energy which can be used over and over again. Despite the initial high costs of setting up a solar energy system, once installed, one doesn’t need to worry about monthly bills.

“For Zimbabwe, we also have more sunny days during the year which means that there will be less challenges emanating from overcast weather conditions. If one compares solar energy systems to say hydro-power, solar panel systems  may be set-up on roof tops and don’t require large expanses of land as compared to hydro-power which requires building of dams which may result in social and ecological problems such as displacement of communities and ecosystems. Solar systems can offer what are known as off-grid solutions to communities who are far away from the national grid,” he said.

Energy and Power Development ministry permanent secretary Partson Mbiriri said although solar energy is an inexhaustible source of energy, reliability and the cost of producing it makes it “impracticable” to heavily invest in it as a panacea to a number of challenges facing the country with regards to electricity generation, transmission and distribution.

“It’s expensive to generate it as a source of energy as compared to other renewable sources such as hydro and thermal power. For example if you’re producing hydro energy at a cost of 4 cents per kilowatt hour per square metre, when it comes to solar energy it will be between 17-25cents per kilowatt hour per square metre. Remember that the more you want to produce at that cost will cause the tariffs to go up thereby putting a burden on consumers which will automatically take us to the political arena.

“Still on disadvantages, reliability is also another factor which makes it impossible to generate energy for 24 hours. Unlike other renewable sources which can also be operated during night, with solar you can only produce it for 12 hours that’s during the day.

Technically, clouds diminish the power of solar panels, especially in foggy or overcast areas thereby limiting the availability of sunlight which will make it difficult to generate more energy,” observed Mbiriri.

Three companies, one local and two foreign–owned were licensed by the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority to build a 100 megawatt on-grid solar power plant in sunlight-abundant Gwanda in Matabeleland South Province.  Gwanda was chosen because of its excellent radiation conditions.

The Matabeleland South capital lies in the hottest region of Zimbabwe, receiving 9,5 hours of sunshine per day for nine or more months in a year. If the project is going to be fully exploited, the weather patterns would also have annointed the underdeveloped Gwanda, the centre of Zimbabwe’s solar farming industry.

There is no doubt that if successfully exploited, the solar power plant will be one of Zimbabwe’s quickest solutions to power problems, considering the fact that the country is facing serious power shortages resulting in rolling power cuts to balance demand and supply which has come at a huge cost to both industry and households.

An initiative undertaken by Pilot Public Solar Water Heating System Project in conjunction with the government of South Korea to install two solar water heating systems in the pilot phase, one at the Harare Institute of Technology and another at the United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH), heating 15,000 and 13,000 litres respectively, has proved that investment in solar energy would go a long way in dealing with the expanding power deficit bedevilling the country.

With these notable pilot initiatives at Harare Institute of Technology and UBH, there is no doubt that if properly implemented, investment in solar energy would have the effect of ameliorating power outages bedevilling the country as it strives to achieve its objective of self-sufficiency in power generation and supply. It would also enable the country to realise sustainable economic growth and development, poverty reduction, economic empowerment and employment creation among many other benefits.


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