Should Zim pursue Sengwa thermal power project?

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BY MITCHELL MAHACHI

Zimbabwe has been grappling with a huge electricity deficit over the last few years and many plans have been presented to take the country out of the perennial power outages that have plagued and affected industrial output, putting a damper on the economy.

The country’s power generation capacity in February 2016 was estimated at only 845MW, against a peak demand of 2 200MW and an installed capacity of approximately 1 940MW. To augment its power, the country has had to import electricity from South Africa, Mozambique, and the DRC.

The Zimbabwe Power Company embarked on expansion projects for the Hwange Thermal Power Station and the Kariba Hydro Power Station in 2014. However, the Kariba Hydro Power Station was severely affected by a significant drop in water levels to around just 11% of operating volume in 2016. In order to improve the situation, a number of projects were initiated by the government including Munyati 100MW solar plant, Insukamini 100MW solar plant, Gwanda 100MW solar plant, Mutare 120MW Peaking Power Plant and these are at various stages of implementation.

Given the foregoing, the government of Zimbabwe has stacked its hopes on the construction of a US$3 billion, 2 100MW coal thermal power plant in Sengwa, Gokwe district, by Rio Energy (Pvt) Ltd with financial assistance from China.

This should surely solve the problems of the ailing southern African economy and set it on a path to economic recovery. However, there are a number of skeletons in this project which cast a dark shadow that makes one wonder if this really is the panacea to the nation’s problems.

At a time when the whole world is clamouring to decarbonise and attain carbon neutrality by 2050, our nation is talking of investing US$3 billion in fossil fuels which are a net source of GHG emissions. The IPCC observations and scientists are clear that anthropogenic emissions have caused a warming of the climate system and even the ocean temperatures have increased to depths of at least 3 000m.

Reports suggest that since 1751, the world has emitted over 1,5 trillion tonnes of CO2 with China identified as the leading emitter. As agreed at the Paris Agreement, to reach the climate goal of limiting average temperature rise to below 2°C of pre-industrial times, the world needs to urgently reduce these GHG emissions. Fossil fuels, particularly coal, have been identified as larger emitters of CO2 which has a greenhouse effect thus warming up the earth’s atmosphere. Currently, some of the warmest areas in the world are already above the 1,5°C indicated in the Paris accord.

So what is holding back the Sengwa Coal Power Plant project, one might ask? After all, the project is aimed at addressing the energy deficit in the country which remains critical to the country’s economic recovery, social and economic development and transformation. The project may create jobs for those in the community and the country may export surplus electricity to neighbouring countries and that is about all the benefits from the project.

The flip side, however, is heart rending. Coal power plants require vast amounts of water. Hwange Power Station (900MW) uses an estimated 112 000 cubic metres per day (112ML). This is equivalent to water required by 280 000 households per day. Then multiply this by three to get to the requirements of Sengwa coal plant. If the Sengwa project comes on board, this means that around 450ML of water will be drawn from the Zambezi River on a daily basis, enough water for 1,1 million households per day.

The picture is even grimmer when one takes into account climate change predictions for the region. It is estimated climate change will cause an annual rainfall decline of between 5% to 18% and an increase in droughts. Sengwa River is reported to have been dry since 2012.

The production output at Kariba Hydro Power Station, Zimbabwe’s major emission-free power source had to be reduced by a third around 2016 to 2019 owing to reduced water flow.

Given the drought and low rainfalls predicted, there is a high likelihood of Sengwa coal power plant becoming a white elephant before it even begins operations, leaving the country with a huge unserviceable loan. Even more worrisome is the fact that should there be any major work that needs to be undertaken, there is a risk of failing to find funding partners as most financers are shunning coal investments.

Hwange power plant provides a barometer from where we can make informed deductions on the impact of coal power plants. A recent study by the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG) — an organisation whose primary focus is the adverse effects of extractive activities on poor communities — detailed how years of coal mining has left Hwange town engulfed in coal dust, leading to respiratory diseases like lung cancer and asthma. Coal mining has ruined vegetation and left areas which are characterised by stunted sooty trees that show little signs of recovery. On the other hand, underground smouldering of the coal deposits is reported to be producing fires that have proved to have detrimental social, economic and ecological impacts. Soils and rivers have been contaminated by acid mine drainage, thereby affecting aquatic life.

The greatest blemish in the drive to establish coal power plants in the south eastern part of the country is a reversal of all the momentum towards cleaner energy. This began with the hosting of the solar summit in 1996. Understandably, the technology was still relatively expensive and hence it did not make much waves. Subsequent to this, the government crafted the national climate change response strategy and the national climate policy of 2017. It has also ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, and the Kyoto Protocol.

As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Zimbabwe has set its intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) emission reduction at 33% by the year 2030.

To achieve this, the country’s INDCs stress renewable energy development as a goal in tackling emissions and developing the national energy grid.

It is, therefore, retrogressive that the country continues to expand fossil fuel projects at a time when the whole world is fighting to get to carbon neutrality.

In a new development, the country is hosting the International Renewable Energy Conference and Expo 2021 from April 14-17. Surprisingly, the theme is, “Positioning Zimbabwe as Africa’s Renewable Energy Hub by 2030:  Transitioning to a carbon free future”!

It is not enough to discredit fossil power plants without juxtaposing the two technologies. The implementation costs for a 2 800MW station are nearly the same for both energy types but the similarities end there. Coal power plants take up to 10 years to complete while a solar power plant may be connected to the grid in three years. Coal-powered plants need coal to run on while solar power is free. Coal power plants need a reserve of coal for production while solar power is unlimited. Coal power plants emit CO2, NOx and SOx while there are no emissions with solar power. In terms of safety, coal power plants cause ground water pollution while solar power has no major safety concerns.

Clearly, the sun “casts a dark shadow ”on coal power plants and the government is better off going on a carbon-free energy path than the “dirty coal”. We may take a cue from countries like Germany which despite being in the temperate region, has a whopping 40GW of solar power installed capacity. Closer home, countries like Rwanda and Morocco recently installed decent solar power plants. Zimbabwe is reported to have one of the best solar radiation belts in the world and averages 2 100 kilowatt hours per square metre p/a and 3 000 hours of sunshine per year. This makes solar power not only viable but essential. Ironically, the best areas in this belt lie in the same area where the Sengwa coal plant is planned for.

The future is green energy. Given the scarcity of institutions funding coal power plants, it would not even be surprising if some investors were to shun investing where they know that coal is the major source of energy in the country. As we speak, the European Union has come up with a European Green deal which among other things will see products from countries perceived as not doing enough for climate protection being taxed heavily. The honourable thing to do is to amend the Sengwa coal power plant to solar plant. We should do away with the water guzzling, atmosphere emitting and environment polluting coal for a change if we are ever to achieve carbon neutrality.

  • Mitchell Mahachi is a masters student in climate change management at the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences (HSWT) in Germany. He writes here in his personal capacity.