Southern African power crisis stems from post-liberation history

File pic: Power cut

THE electrical power crisis that has enveloped southern Africa has its roots in our post-liberation history. Prior to that, the utilities created by the States of southern Africa exhibited considerable foresight and planning. This was led by the power utility of South Africa which had visionary leadership at the time and like China in the past 50 years, turned their huge coal reserves into a cheap source of electrical energy. They installed enough power generation capacity to feed their own markets and to supply the deficit in their neighbours.

In Zimbabwe and Mozambique, their governments invested massively in the Kariba and Cahora Bassa dams with a combined capacity of 3 600 megawatts of cheap hydro electricity. The Kariba Dam remains the largest man-made dam in the world in terms of water storage capacity. These investments were well ahead of their time and contributed massively to regional power demand.

Southern Africa moved from the era of colonial and white domination to Independence and democracy and the new governments took for granted their self-sufficiency in power and did little to make the necessary investments to maintain self-sufficiency and to replace aging infrastructure. By the time they woke up to the fact, it was already too late to avoid a crisis in supply and distribution.

New power projects were planned — Medupi in the northern Limpopo River, Batoka in Zimbabwe and Zambia on the Zambezi River, but were bedevilled by corruption and poor project management. Zambia pulled the plug on Batoka and when the Medupi Power Station came on line — at three times the original cost, it failed massively and is still not producing. While this was happening, the older coal-fired power stations in the region were gradually coming to the end of their useful lives.

Then came the movement to restrict coal-fired power because of concerns about emissions. This was fully justified and I can remember driving through parts of the Transvaal and being shocked by the smell of the emissions from huge power plants and industrial installations like Sasol. In Zimbabwe, the power station built under sanctions during the Rhodesia era at Hwange Colliery with 900 megawatts capacity began to fail — old age and the mixed origin of secondhand components secured under UN sanctions. The older power plants in the main cities also served their time out and faced closure.

We were saved from a real crisis by two things, the collapse of the economy under the late former President Robert Mugabe which reduced power consumption and the decision to increase the power generation capacity at Kariba. The latter started in Zambia where they doubled the generation capacity on the northern bank and we followed with a similar expansion on the southern bank. Zambia went ahead with two dams and power plants on the Kafue River as well as a new “clean” coal-fired plant at Mamba coalfield in the south of the country.

But demand has continued to grow in the region — by about 5 000 megawatts a year. At the same time, power production started to decline and today the region is probably short of 15 000 to 20 000 megawatts of energy on a daily basis. This is not for want of trying and in both 2020 and 2021, new power generation capacity for roughly 5 000 megawatts a year came on stream throughout the region covered by the Southern African Power Pool. Even so, overall, the power generation situation deteriorated.

The main problem is South Africa but the situation on the Zambezi has also given rise to concern. When the Kariba Dam was designed it was on the basis that 100 years of rainfall records showed that the sustainable power generation capacity of the dam was about 1 100 megawatts on both sides of the wall. With the expansion of generation capacity to 2 200 megawatts, the yield of the dam has been doubled. That is what we see today — the water available for power generation has been exhausted and we are being forced to reduce generation to river flow levels.

This situation is being compounded in Zimbabwe by rapid growth in demand for power following the change of government in 2017.

Power demand is now growing faster than at any other time in our history. If we cannot meet demand, it will stifle growth and development throughout the economy. The same applies to the region as a whole.

In trying to meet our projected demand for power, we face two institutional bottlenecks — the US sanctions which essentially isolate us from global capital markets and the financial inability of our national utility Zesa Holdings Limited, to support any large projects for the time being. What nearly all States have been doing during the period of complacency about power has been to sell power below cost. This has meant that all utilities are heavily in debt and do not have the resources to maintain or expand the system.

This has been corrected in recent weeks but it will take time to restructure the Zesa balance sheet.

So how do we move forward? We need to maximise imports for the next few years and to do this, the major power consumers in Zimbabwe have agreed to import power at their cost and this is about to start. The next opportunity that presents itself and which can be implemented quite quickly is to develop our solar potential. The main problem with solar is how to balance the power supply from this relatively unreliable source with either hydro or natural gas — the reason being that you have to be able to supply power when weather conditions reduce solar energy deliveries to the grid. The potential is limited but we cannot ignore its potential and steps are being taken to develop solar capacity in areas where we can feed the new power into the grid and balance it with existing power sources like Kariba. All of these new power plants will be privately owned and operated.

Gas represents a major opportunity, but depends on developing the sources of supply. None presents themselves as an immediate opportunity except perhaps the Buzi gasfield in Mozambique. Muzarabani represents potential but little else. Once the major gas find in northern Mozambique becomes available, this is the best option going forward to meet regional demand.

Once we have exhausted these immediate opportunities we then have to look at the major opportunities that are available. The potential of the Zambezi River is only partially exploited and a number of projects present themselves - the Batoka and Devils Gorges, the North Bank Power Station at Cahora Bassa, the new high wall dam at Mpanda Nkuwa and then the barrages on the river below this new dam.

All together the potential could approach 20 000 megawatts.

But in the end it seems unlikely that we can afford to ignore coal as a source of energy.

Zimbabwe has enormous reserves of coal and despite the problems associated with coal-fired power stations, this is an opportunity we cannot ignore. I think we have to look to new high technology coal-fired plants that would limit emissions to a great extent and be clean.

The Indians have just completed such a plant at Mamba and even though it is quite small (300 megabytes) it is very clean and may be the sort of project we can replicate here.

There are solutions to the power crisis we face, but they require support by the global financial industry and the private sector.

In addition, we have to learn from past mistakes and make sure that corruption and poor decision-making do not derail these efforts.

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