JABULANI J MHLANGA
IN February 2022, the deputy minister of Energy and Power Development, Magna Mudyiwa, stated that the people of Zimbabwe should brace for increased power cuts. Looking at this, it appears like an unnecessary statement, since our nation has always faced power challenges.
Part of the reason for this has been that we have made few meaningful improvements to the infrastructure we inherited from our former colonial overlords, and the scientific Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that, left to themselves, systems get worse, not better.
Our capacity to generate electricity has remained stagnant while our demand has increased as more of our population and our daily lives get electrified. Equipment breakdowns resulting from wear and tear and continued thefts caused by desperation further erode our ability to generate and effectively distribute enough energy to power our needs.
Economic, environmental and human cost
The country was dealt a terrible hand by suffering through the indignities of colonialism, but our leadership must bear its weight of responsibility for the lack of progress.
The consequences have affected the growth of our economy, with business and industry being disrupted and thefts and muggings often occurring when the lights are out.
The search for firewood has negatively affected our environment, laying large swathes of our country bare of trees. It disrupts the education of our young ones when power cuts interfere with lessons and greet students with darkness when they reach their homes.
In all this, women and girls have endured the worst effects. We often expect women to handle the domestic roles that take the worst toll on their bodies and their futures.
This forces them to spend long hours searching for and carrying firewood and hunching over smoky fires to keep their families warm and fed. They pay a future toll in problems with their lungs and musculoskeletal systems, heavily diminishing their ability to earn and improve their families’ socio-economic status.
Looking to the future
Energy is a vital component of economic and social advancement. To unlock the full potential of our plentiful natural resources and our industrious people, and advance our economy and position on the global stage, we need to rehabilitate and expand our capacity to generate electricity.
As we do this, it is vitally important that we take the future cost on our local environment and global climate. Approximately 75% of our installed generating capacity, that is 1 670 megawatts (MW), comes from coal-fired power plants, with a further 600MW expected to come online later this year from the much-needed Units 7 and 8 expansion to Hwange Power Station.
As we know, coal is a fossil fuel which produces carbon dioxide emissions from actual power generation down the chain to transporting the fuel, down to the act of mining it.
As we all know, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas which causes global warming, driving climate change. The global Paris Agreement set a target of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius of warming, but we are already well on course to blow past that target. Reducing the proportion of power generated by fossil fuels is vital to meeting global warming targets and maintaining a stable climate.
The font of all energy
Fortunately, Zimbabwe has very high access to an infinite source of energy — the sun. If we trace a path of origin for all the energy Zimbabwe currently produces, the sun is its ultimate source.
It is the sun’s energy which is converted by trees through the process of photosynthesis into the firewood we use for fuel, and even the coal burned in our power plants is technically nothing but very ancient trees.
We generate hydroelectric power, our largest current source of clean energy, through the water cycle, via evaporation caused by the sun’s heat. The air currents which drive wind power are also the result of pressure differentials caused by warmth from the sun.
So it stands to reason: why not just get the energy we need directly from the sun? The government of Zimbabwe has come to this exact conclusion, and its most ambitious plans to date for increasing our generating capacity involve solar energy.
Our current installed capacity is between 20MW and 40MW, less than 1% of total capacity, but plans are underway to increase that (together with other renewable sources) to 2 000MW, nearly doubling our current generating capacity.
How we deploy this additional capacity will have wide-ranging consequences on the electricity grid itself, and on the timelines.
In the next article of this series, we will explore strategies that can ease the process and help speed up Zimbabwe’s transition to renewable energy.