The missed opportunities
Harare – Zimbabwe requires at least US$40 million to import fuel every month to meet the country’s industrial and domestic needs.
In addition to the fuel bill, the country spends millions more importing electricity monthly. All this is money that the country can barely afford, especially when it comes to electricity imports.
It is because of such pressures that the adoption of cheaper, renewable sources of energy has been identified as a possible long-term solution to Zimbabwe’s energy needs. Money saved from importing energy will in the long run benefit other sectors of the economy.
In short, the case for renewable energy in Zimbabwe, as in many other countries, is one of self-reliance. Unfortunately though, it has been a case of missed opportunities.
In 1996, Zimbabwe hosted the UN World Solar Summit, the first of its kind, as part of the global organisation’s drive to promote the use of cleaner, reliable and environmentally friendly sources of energy.
The Summit was attended by 18 Heads of State and Government and delegates from over 100 countries.
The aim was to come up with a Declaration on Solar Energy and Sustainable Development and to launch a 10-year campaign to implement some 300 renewable energy projects around the world.
The then UNESCO Director-General, Federico Mayor, described Africa as “the ideal location for laying foundations, developing and consolidating a world solar programme”.
In the communiqué, the Summit recognised “the significance of the role that solar and other sources of renewable energy such as wind, geothermal, hydro, biomass and ocean, as well as energy efficiency, should play in the provision of energy services and in the sustainable use of environmental resources for the well-being of humanity”.
It also noted that the “provision of sufficient energy services at affordable prices and the adoption of energy conservation measures are essential for the progress of all countries, developed and developing alike, to meet current and expanding needs in ways which minimise environmental degradation and risks, as well as to realise the full potential of renewable energy sources”.
But nearly 17 years later, nothing tangible has been done to adopt the use of solar energy, whether in Africa (including by the Summit host, Zimbabwe) or on a global scale. It is only in 2012 that a pilot project for the use of solar energy was launched in the eastern Zimbabwean city of Mutare through a partnership with a housing co-operative. Zimbabwe’s Energy Minister Elton Mangoma recently spoke about the importance of harnessing solar energy.
“Zimbabwe is blessed in that it lies in one of the best solar radiation belts in the world, averaging at 2 100kW hours per square metre per year and 3 000 hours, equivalent to 300 days, of sunshine per year. However, this resource is currently underutilised.
“The main thing that makes solar technology more expensive is the need to produce and store during the day for use at night. Our situation in Zimbabwe is that electricity is short during the day so there is no need to produce and store. In this regard, we are looking at plant(s) to feed into the grid on a produce and consume basis. A tender for a 100MW solar plant will be floated before the end of March this year,” he said.
Chisumbanje Ethanol Plant
The establishment of an ethanol plant in Chisumbanje in the eastern province of Manicaland was viewed by many as a panacea to the country’s fuel needs.
The plant was established as a joint venture between the state-owned ARDA and two private firms, Rating and Macdom Investments.
At full capacity, the huge plant can produce 120 million litres of ethanol a month and reduce Zimbabwe’s monthly import bill by US$2m through the use of blended fuel.
Furthermore, the residue from the sugarcane used to produce ethanol can supply citrus farmers’ needs, while a modest amount of electricity (approximately 15MW) could also be produced to supplement the national grid.
The Green Fuels project, as it is commonly known, has employed 7 000 people at its plant and sugarcane estates.
However, haggling between the parties in Zimbabwe’s coalition government has essentially mothballed the project since last year, prejudicing the country of potential revenue through production and taxes.
Last year, Energy Minister Mangoma alleged there were irregularities in the deal, and refused to direct fuel companies to sell blended fuel. This has seen the minister accused of playing politics with a national project that represents the largest single infrastructure development in Zimbabwe since Independence in 1980.
So furious were the communities that live around the plant and estates that in 2012 they handled the minister when he visited Chisumbanje.
Fortunately, the government has now made it mandatory for fuel companies to blend their product with ethanol but several policy issues still need ironing out.
Zimbabwe’s Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara, who chaired an inter-ministerial committee to look at how best the ethanol project could benefit the nation, has said there is need to separate cheap politics from matters of national development.
His committee has reported that, “The Chisumbanje ethanol project is an enterprise of strategic and national importance, which has the potential to be the nucleus for the development of an ethanol industrial cluster.
“The project currently has issues and problems in two broad areas, which are: social and community related, and, technical and business related. Long term and sustainable solutions should be found to these issues based on a thorough and technical analysis of the problems instead of politicising the issue.
“The solutions should balance between three buckets of interests, that is, community, private and national. The solutions should provide a win-win scenario for these three potentially conflicting areas of interest. The resolution of the challenges should be proffered in ways that protect the integrity of the government while engaging all the stakeholders involved and affected.”
The Deputy PM also recommended that villagers that were displaced when the project commenced be compensated, while the government should learn from the Brazilian model where a car assembly plant for vehicles using ethanol has been established in that South American country.
“In fact, we can think in terms of an ethanol industrial cluster, with many products and services driven by ethanol.
“As we address the problems that have led to the derailment of the ethanol project, we must not miss the forest for the trees. This project is a national and strategic asset with a potentially huge impact on our economy, through radically changing our fuel economics, power generation (supplying the whole Manicaland Province), multiple downstream industries, new dependent projects such as Kondo Dam, and a potential car manufacturing industry, alluded to above.”
He concluded saying adoption of renewable sources of energy was the direction to take given global issues to do with global warming and protecting the environment.