Zimbabwe's electricity deficit, in stark numbers

Jul 1, 2011

All Zimbabweans are painfully aware of the great problems the electricity monopoly ZESA is experiencing in providing power, but never have they been quantified in quite they way they were recently in parliament. The figures are startling and depressing.

Electricity generation infrastructure hasn't been added to enough to keept up with the growing needs over the years. Existing infrastructure hasn't been maintained like it should. Alternative sources of energy like solar, wind and biomass haven't been explored enough. The result are the long and frequent power cuts with which Zimbabweans have become wearily, angrily familiar.

It will be no consolation at all to Zimbabweans for them to know that their problems are shared over a very large swathe of Africa, and in many countries beyond. In Senegal early this week there were nation-wide violent riots over severe power cuts that shook the government to its very core.

Figures from a report in the 14 June Herald of the testimony the day before to a parliamentary committee of a former Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Company chief executive, Francis Masawi:

He said Zesa generated 7,267 GiGawatts hours in 2010, which cost US$552 million but it collected US$469 million, making a loss of US$83 million owing to billing challenges.

Energy demand for the year stood at 13,221 GW, but the power utility had generated 8,482 GW, leaving energy not served and load-shedded at 5,854 GW. This resulted in the power company making a loss due to load-shedding at US$439 million. The figure translates to a cumulative US$642 million loss.

While the country doesn't generate enough of its power needs, import is not a realistic, sustainable option. Millions are already owed to neighbours Zambia and DRC, and the region as a whole is experiencing a power deficit so each country must look out for itself, another manifestation of how small African countries' insistence on absolute 'sovereignty' even on issues like this is so unrealistic and outdated. If one particular country like the DRC happens to have the most hydro-power potential, all the surrounding little countries without that same potential should get together to support the DRC (or whichever country) to supply the rest of them the hydro-electricity.

Mitigations strategies in the pipeline? According to Masawi, a new sugar bioethanol will soon feed 18,5 Megawatts into the national grid. A drop in the bucket of the annual demand, but better than nothing, as long as the supplying sugar cane estates are not 'land reform-invaded,' as has happened previously.

All new buildings should be required to have solar water heaters instead of electric geysers. Street lights can run on solar power instead of sapping expensively-generated power. Energy saving bulbs should be the norm for lighting. Farmers and other users in open areas suitable for wind power should be given special incentives for installing it. Biomass energy should be looked into. None of these on their own may generate huge quantities, but they can significantly reduce the pressure on a stretched central system.

ZESA's monopoly should be re-examined, as Masawi proposes, and it probably only a matter of time before the situation forces a reluctant government to accept this. Energy is one of those 'strategic' sectors that governments are afraid to let loose for all sorts of reasons, but more governments are realising that it is very difficult to get investors who are willing to go into partnership with them.

A problem in almost all poor countries is that because electricity is such a basic modern need, there is tremendous political pressure to subsidise it to 'affordable' levels for those important few of the masses lucky enough to be connected to the grid in the first place. This often means the power utility must charge less than the cost of generation and delivery, which means no money for maintenance or new investment, the cause of the vicious cycle Zimbabwe and many other countries find themselves in with regard to electricity.      

Even if the basic grid and support infrastructure remains government-owned, innovative ways will have to be found to give investors enough leverage and freedom to be interested enough to make the long term committments required.

Some countries are encouraging heavy industrial users of electricity to generate their own so that they can reduce demand on the national generation system, giving them incentives to do so. An additional sweetener is that if they generate electricity excess to their needs they can sell it at a profit, whether to private customers or to the main power utility.   

That these partial solutions are not discussed in any sort of serious holistic way is criminal given the level of the energy crisis.


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