Zimbabwe's innovative bulb exchange programme is not a waste of money

Aug 25, 2011

The Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority recently announced plans to give away energy saver bulbs in exchange for the old power-hungry incandescent types, which ZESA would destroy. The plan has been widely lauded as an important contribution to saving the country's chronically short supply of electricity. But not everyone thinks the $12 million programme is money well spent.

ZESA usually gets far more brickbats than bouquets but it has been widely praised for the new-for-old bulb exchange plan. More than five million of the energy saver bulbs would be distributed countrywide by the end of 2011. Estimated power savings will be 200 megawatts, close to 10% of the country's 2200MW requirement. That is not a small feat to achieve in less than six months.

But a detractor, writer Ariel Schwartz, thinks 'the numbers show that the money could probably have been better spent elsewhere.'

Robert Frelig, a solar power advocate contacted for comment by Schwartz is quoted as saying, "What must be taken into account when financial resources like this are being invested are the benefits you're going to get over the long-term."

This is all very well and good, and it is extremely doubtful that a company with a reputation for being tight-fisted and stingy like ZESA would spend $12 million on an unprecedented giveaway without doing a cost-benefit analysis. But quite apart from that, Zimbabwe's power shortfall is an immediate crisis as a well as a long term problem.

In Senegal recently, previously unheard of violent, country-wide long and frequent power cuts almost brought down the government. In Malawi too, severe power cuts were one reason for unusual civil unrest.

When there is no electricity for hours on end, many small time businesspeople like tailors cannot run their machines. The refrigerated goods in thousands of small time shops and in homes rot. None of these people are going to be impressed with being told about there being a new 'long term solution' of a power plant that will only be operational years from now.

All these frustrated, inconvenienced people, many of whom are struggling day to day, are also voters who want quick solutions to the energy problems, even as they also expect long-term solutions. The governments of the many African countries that face huge power deficits are under enormous political pressure because of the immediacy of the electricity needs and expectations on one hand, and on the other hand the long term and high-capitalization nature of the ''challenges in changing the energy infrastructure itself,'' as Freling says.

There is no way you can 'crunch into numbers' on a calculator these urgent, often clashing social, political and economic imperatives caused by the energy deficit. Seen in this way, freeing up a tenth of the country's already short power needs for a mere $12 million, and pretty much instantly with no fuss, is a heck of a good deal.

As a ZESA spokesman explained, "This is an immediate term response to relieve our clients from load-shedding while the medium term strategy is to deal with (hydro power stations) Hwange and Kariba expansions." These expansions of current installed capacity will bring an additional 900MW onto the grid, at a cost of US$1,3 billion.

So ZESA has both immediate term and medium term plans to deal with the crisis, which seems like pretty good strategizing.

Nor does this mean long term power generation or other 'green' efforts are being ignored only for short term and medium term initiatives. Among several of these long term initiatives is the huge Chisumbanje ethanol-from-sugarcane plant between government and a private investor that will soon be feeding power into the national grid. Then there is the recent startling news of a $3 billion 2000MW thermal power plant that a French consortium is reported to have just been awarded regulatory approval for, 'to be rolled out over four years.'

While we're crunching out long term numbers, mining concern Rio Tinto has also been given the go ahead for its own 1400MW thermal power plant, at a cost said to be $4 billion. It is expected to be operational in 2014.

If all these projects are realized, Zimbabwe will have extra electricity coming out of its ears in a few years.

The suggestions of more investment in technologies like solar is a good one, especially for those in remote areas who will not soon be connected to the national grid. There are solar projects being undertaken, though small ones, and government should do more in this area. But none of this at all detracts from ZESA's good idea to generate instant, significant electricity savings with the bulb giveaway.

The score is Team Ariel Schwartz & Robert Freling zero for presuming to be more knowledgeable about a situation whose many nuances they know nothing about; Team ZESA hundred percent for a good idea.

ZESA, on this occasion you have done well and deserve praise and thanks. Please ignore the detractors whose number crunching is generating figures that are divorced from reality and way, way off. Your immediate term bulb handout plan, combined with all the other exciting medium and long term developments in Zimbabwe's power generation sector, is indeed innovative and makes plenty of sense.

The Zimbabwe Review


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