Zimbabweans welcome government push toward solar energy

from Thomson Reuters Foundation AlertNet..

By Madalitso Mwando

June 30, 2013

HARARE, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – On the roof of Thomas Phiri’s small wooden cabin in Harare’s Westlea suburb lies a small solar panel, slightly larger than a sheet of writing paper.

It may be small, but the panel is enough to ensure Phiri has a warm meal – and it has become a source of relief amid endless power outages.

“This is by far the best investment I have ever made,” said the homeowner, one of an increasing number in Zimbabwe who are turning to solar energy as the country battles a power deficit.

Cheap solar panels are among the Chinese products now flooding into Zimbabwe, and the government is investing in larger-scale solar as well for the first time.

The Zimbabwe Power Company, a government agency responsible for power generation, in June announced plans for an ambitious 100 megawatt solar power project in Gwanda, 130km north of Bulawayo, as part of fresh efforts to boost the country’s power supply.

The country has relied heavily on fossil fuels and hydropower, but those have failed to provide enough electricity. The country is regularly saddled with a crippling power deficit.

The Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) says Zimbabwe requires around 2,500 MW per day but is only generating 1,200 MW daily.

Zimbabwe’s move toward solar power has attracted interest from Chinese investors who have already been awarded contracts for the expansion of the Kariba Dam hydropower station, and who are involved in a Hwange fossil fuel power generation project.

According to Elton Mangoma, Zimbabwe’s energy minister, sites for new 100 MW solar projects have been identified in Gwanda and Zvishavane. But the bidding process for other new energy projects has run into complications, raising some questions about whether the projects will be built quickly, or at all.

“I think it is pretty ambitious,” said Bulawayo economist Tim Limbikani. But “let’s see how it turns out because that is what may well salvage our industries,” Limbikani said.

The country has struggled with power outages that have been a particular threat to industry.

HIGHER BILLS?

Some power users say they welcome solar energy projects, seen as a source of cheap energy, but fear heavy foreign investment in a range of new generating capacity could lead to higher power bills that they will struggle to pay.

“We are already failing to pay our bills but if government is building solar energy plants, this is welcome if it will ease power cuts. My only concern is affordability,” said Phiri, expressing a common sentiment in a country where consumers are resisting paying bills for water and electricity, citing erratic supplies.

Solar energy is expected to have an impact in the country’s in the agriculture sector, where smallholders have long complained that irrigation schemes have suffered in the absence of a regular supply of electricity.  The Commercial Farmers Union says solar generation is one way to ease that problem.

Scores of farmers across the country have lobbied the government to compel the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority to stop disconnecting power for nonpayment of bills. They have also asked for farming areas to be exempted from load shedding.

“It’s been tough for us (farmers),” said Gilbert Tshuma, a beneficiary of the land-reform project who runs a maize and poultry farm just outside Harare.

“We cannot all invest in solar because the (solar) panels are pretty expensive. We have always lobbied government to seek cheaper ways of electricity generation and welcome any announcement that this is being taken seriously through this solar project that has been announced,” Tshuma said.

Power outages have been particularly bad for poultry farmers who last year reported that they had lost as many as a million eggs to persistent power outages.

Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Link to the article: http://www.trust.org/item/20130630235417-ejkbg/?source=hptop

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