Diversification is the way to go for Zambia – Minister Mabumba says

The Southern Africa Power Pool has faced many challenges since its inception. One of the major challenges faced by the regional regulatory body is over reliance on hydropower in the generation of electricity. In its endeavour to unravel the pertinent issues affecting the generation of power in the region, our Senior Writer Lovemore Ranga Mataire (L.R.M) recently caught up with Zambia’s Minister of Energy and Water Development Honourable David Mabumba (D.M) who highlighted the need for the region to explore alternative energy sources.

L.R.M: Let’s start our discussion on the relevance of the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP). Many doubt its relevance given that sometimes when a country is in distress it is unable to get the power required from the pool. What are your views?

D.M: What I can say is that SAPP is a very good organisation which is there to support and enhance power trade among member states. When you look at whether it has fulfilled its vision, I would say no. The reason for saying NO is based on the fact that it has not been always possible to get power when you desperately need it. In terms of need when you want power, you don’t find it in the pool. The understanding is that we in the region are almost in the same situation when we had drought but when you look at the region itself three quarters of it is coming from coal. Zambia itself, in the past recent years, we were 99 percent hydro and any climatic changes would affect our power generation. One would expect that other countries that are using thermal power would be able to assist but it was not like that. We ended up hiring a ship. As we speak right now we are relying on power anchored in the ship. When we approached South Africa it was non-firm power, as and when it is available and only got something from Mozambique.

L.R.M: What do you think should happen to ensure that the SAPP becomes effective especially in bailing out member states in distress?

D.M: In my view each member state needs to invest in power generation for our own needs and for the need in case of surplus. Let’s not just rely on one technology; we have to diversify the electricity generation. That is the way to go. In terms of diversification, let each member state do that. Then the other issues is that of renewables, let’s not shy from the renewable. Let each member state go that route as well. In terms of binding, I can’t see any agreement not to be adhered to but the challenge is that everybody is affected in terms of deficiency of power. It’s not that other countries that don’t want to give power but if they don’t have surplus, they can’t give. For me I think self-sufficiency is the way to go.

L.R.M: What is Zambia doing in exploring other sources of energy besides hydropower?

D.M: If you got me right in my opening remarks where I was saying in a few years past, we were 99 percent hydro, it’s no longer the same situation.  Right now we have gone down to 85 percent reliance on hydropower. We have brought in thermal power plants, coal; we now have 300 megawatts on the grid. Already we have signed agreement on the solar power plant and anytime from now we should be having 100 megawatts also coming on the grid.   

L.R.M: Do you think the coming on board of Angola, Malawi and Tanzania to the regional power pool would have any effect in the supply of power?

D.M: It will have an effect because when you look at countries like Tanzania, they have diversified sources of power and them coming on board means we can also get power from them. Once Tanzania comes in it means we are now interconnecting to two regional power pools, the southern region and the East African region. Tanzania has hydro, gas and thermal. In Eastern African Power Pool, you have Ethiopia and Kenya. Ethiopia has massive power plants coming, the same with Kenya. Once Tanzania comes in, and Malawi and Angola, obviously an effect would be felt.         

L.R.M: I spoke to the Permanent Secretary and she highlighted that negotiations were at an advanced stage for Zambia to be part of the Eastern Region Power Pool. How far have those negotiations gone?

D.M: In terms of the negotiations, maybe I will answer it in terms of the interconnections. The interconnections have gone very far, feasibility studies are almost over and for your own information the interconnection themselves, certain segments are done. The transmission network called the Zambian, Tanzania Kenya Interconnector. In Tanzania they have done everything except some sections from Iringa into the Tunduma area but they are moving ahead in sealing the deal with the financers and contractors. Same applies to Zambia in our case it’s from Kasama into Tunduma, that one is not done yet done. We just have one line from Pensulo into Kabwe sub-station, again that one we just need to reinforce but there is power passing through into that other area. Tunduma is a neighbouring town in Tanzania. That is the link that is missing but already there is a contractor working on that section and any time soon things should be done.

L.R.M: One of the objectives of SAPP is to attract investment especially by energy intensive users into the region. In your view has this objective been realised?          

D.M: In my view I can say SAPP has done very well in terms of attracting investments because when you look at all the investments that we are boasting of, its all because they appear in the SAPP project portfolio. They have tried by all means. As we speak right now as Zambia we have written on behalf of four countries where we are saying let SAPP come in and help us source funds from African Union. As we speak on the technical aspects, there are these three utilities from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia.

L.R.M: What necessitated the change from cooperation to competitive power market?

D.M: In think in terms of competition it helps in bringing the price down. So from a layman point of view I would say it was more to do with tariffs.

L.R.M: What do you think are some of the challenges that SAPP is facing in terms of it being a robust organization?

D.M: The challenge has been that of member states failing to adhere to set principles and targets. Why? Member states are sovereign states and adhering to some of the targets is difficult. It becomes more of a talk show. No one wants to practically implement what we would have agreed. For example we agreed that member states should move to renewables and ensure that by 2019 they must move towards cost-effective tariffs. Very minimal progress has been achieved.

L.R.M: But are the technical issues not being handled by technical people? One would expect that if issues are being handled by technical experts then they would be some progress of some sorts.

D.M: Technical people are there to provide information but the implementers are the politicians. So that’s why in whatever agreements that are there, political commitment is what is lacking. Maybe one would say maybe their hands would be tied. As they are making decisions they also consider how those decisions are going to affect their people. For example, the issue of power crisis was predicted a long time ago but there was no investment to preempt that possible deficit.

L.R.M: In what way do you think the expansion of the North and South Kariba expansion projects is helpful?

D.M: You know the expansion was necessitated by the increased demand. So it was necessary and is helpful. In terms of blackout, yes we still experience blackouts either out of shortage or a mechanical cover. That’s why we are saying let’s resort to solar as an alternative source of power. And also technically, these interconnections also may trigger blackouts in other member states.

L.R.M: Is solar energy a reliable source of power?

D.M: No, it is not reliable and let’s not shy away about talking about it. It’s just a stop gap measure. The challenge is that when there is cloud cover generation drops down meaning there will be a bit of unreliable in terms of the power we get from solar. One of the reasons why solar is preferable is that according to experts setting a solar power plant does not cost much and in terms of money and period. Countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia are mining countries and you cannot say that miners can rely on solar for their operations.

L.R.M: How far are you in terms of rural electrification?

D.M: In Zambia in terms of rural electrification we are very low. I know Zimbabwe you are much higher. Right now the figures are not very impressive. We are looking at not more than 5 percent access to power. When we are talking of access, we mean those people who are connected and are able to use electricity. Anyone who is near the grid we don’t consider that. According to our rural electrification master plan we were supposed to move to 51 by 2030 at a cost of US$50 million percent rural electrification but the programme has been hampered by shortage of finances.

L.R.M: What remedies should be put in place to deal with the current regional power deficit?

D.M: This one I have mentioned before. I think the solution is to invest in the diversification of power. We have to really think of the favourable technologies we can use. In the case of Zambia, we relied more on hydro power and when we were hit with a deficit, we had nowhere to go. As we speak in Zambia, through the help of World Bank, we are undertaking wind resource mapping where they will give us some indications on where we can put some wind power plants. They are doing some solar as well. Even though I said it’s not reliable, but as a stop gap measure it can help. Already there are some private companies that are doing some geothermal drilling. We want to go that route as well. In any case what we want is to diversify the power generation so that we can bring other technologies that we can rely on in times of drought. So I think all the other countries have to diversify power generation.

L.R.M: In your assessment, would you attribute the low investments in the region to the unreliability of power supply?

D.M: As a region, reliability is one of them and also in terms of policies. These people who are coming, they want to come into a country where their investments are protected. Those are some of the issues that we need to focus on. Basically, we need to create an enabling environment for investors to come. We are also trying to lobby that some of the components for the alternative energy must come into the country duty free.

L.R.M: Thank you so much honourable for granting this interview.

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