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Electricity shortfall needs decisive action

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MANY people may take it for granted, but there is no denying the fact that access to electricity is one of the defining characteristics of modern civilisation. Satellite pictures of North Korea taken at night are very revealing.

The secretive “Hermit Kingdom” looks like a vast expanse of darkness, sandwiched by a well-lit South Korea to the right and an equally well-lit China to the left.

North Korea has been ruined by decades of unworkable ideas, incompetent leadership and dysfunctional institutions. Rings a bell? In much of Africa, there is glaring evidence of the consequences of unenlightened policies — the pun is unavoidable — as shown by the fact that only one in five Africans has access to electricity supply.

The World Bank says Africa is the only continent that has not made progress in the provision of electricity. “During the last decade, a greater share of the global population gained access to electricity than ever before, but the number of people without electricity in sub-Saharan Africa actually increased.”

Provision of energy solutions is Sustainable Development Goal number seven, but the sad reality is that the target of universal access to energy is unlikely to be met by 2030. Zimbabwe is one of the affected countries.

This week, Energy minister Zhemu Soda told the National Assembly that the country is in negotiations for the purchase of an additional 180 megawatts (MW) from Mozambique and 100MW from Zambia.

A power shortfall worsened by diminished electricity-generating capacity has forced the country into 12-hour blackouts.

The minister’s revelation has highlighted the magnitude of the power shortfall. “We are in discussions with Mozambique for the recently commissioned power plants to give us an additional 180 megawatts,” he told legislators on Wednesday this week “We are also at final stage of discussion with Zambia to get an additional 100 megawatts.”

It is the height of grotesque irony that Zimbabwe is buying electricity generated at Cahora Bassa, a lake located in the same Zambezi River basin our own Lake Kariba sits on. Hydropower remains the lowest-cost source of electricity. Zimbabwe and Zambia share the world’s biggest man-made lake, Kariba.

But the Kariba South hydropower plant has been undergoing revamping for years. The dam wall has required major rehabilitation. The next cheapest source of power in the energy matrix would ordinarily be coal-powered thermal power stations, although the global climate crisis reminds us that this option is unsustainable.

The largest thermal plant, Hwange, is undergoing expansion but the ancient equipment has not helped matters.

The last figures from Zesa Holdings show that the country was generating 1 276MW on Thursday this week.

When demand, at 1 700MW, is taken into account, the shortfall is clearly amplified. Owing to corruption, poor planning and the lack of strategic foresight, Zimbabwe has not comprehensively addressed its energy crisis.

You do not have to be a professor of strategic management to see that the volatile mix of ageing equipment, poorly maintained power stations, bad governance and lack of significant investment in the energy sector will create problems for the country.

For decades, the authorities have paid lip service to the importance of developing alternative energy sources. The blueprints have been impressive and the country has even hosted the World Solar Summit.

The all-too-familiar malady has cropped up: lack of implementation. When national solar project tenders are awarded to criminals, what else can citizens expect?

Independent power producers are ready to commit huge sums of money, but the government must first untie the Gordian knot of an unpredictable regulatory and policy environment that does not make business sense.

If we are not careful, our neighbours in southern Africa will solve their energy shortfall, while we wallow in blackouts like the North Korea of this region.

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