Senior Business Reporter
ZIMBABWE is facing probably its worst power crisis post-independence, as demand for electricity outstrips supply, resulting in rolling power cuts cutting across the whole country.
Demand for power in the country currently stands at an average 1 700 megawatts, but internal supply averages just under 1 000MW, at best, leaving a gap that either needs to be imported or alternatively shed off grid.
Zimbabwe has two major power stations — Hwange with rated capacity of 920MW but only manages a maximum 700MW (due to antiquated equipment), assuming all units are in production and Kariba South, a 1 050MW plant that is currently allowed to do a maximum 358MW due to law lake water levels.
Three other small thermals (which average 120MW each) namely Bulawayo, Munyati and Harare, are occasionally brought back on line (a sign of the desperate situation) after being decommissioned, do very little to help the situation.
It can be argued that the detrimental power shortage rocking Zimbabwe is essentially a result of about three broad factors, which can be classified as predictable and unforeseen, avoidable and inevitable (in certain instances) if the right things were done on time.
Specifically, the issues entail drought experienced last year, challenges around requisite funding (forex) for maintenance and bridging imports and lack of investment in new generation.
Probably, the reason why the country suddenly finds itself in the dark is the magnitude of the unforeseen effect of the drought experienced in Kariba Dam’s catchment area, stretching 2 700 kilometres along the Zambezi River, which supplies water for power generation at Kariba Dam.
Energy and Power Development Minister Fortune Chasi affirmed this position, however, pointing out Zesa could have minimised the problem if it invested in alternative sources.
“Part of it (power shortage) has to do with the hydrological issues at Kariba Dam, and I have said we have a responsibility to manage risk. I am advised that may have something to do with global warming and we can’t avoid that,” the minister said.
“I also believe that if Zesa had planned for alternative sources of power, that would be much better.”
Because of the drought in the Zambezi River’s catchment, little water flowed into Kariba Dam this year, which peaks around May, resulting in water rationing by Zambezi River Authority for powergeneration at Kariba, by Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Latest statistics show that Kariba is left with only 29 percent of live water, which is water that can be used for power generation. The lake was designed to operate with water levels between 485 metres and 475 metres, in terms of power generation, but is left with less than 5 metres headroom and faces the threat of depletion.
Below 475 metres, Kariba Dam’s remaining water can only be used for recreational purposes or tourism and other activities such as fishing.
If depleted, the lake, even if significant rains are received in the next successive rainy seasons, would take several years to fill up to capacity, which would further worsen the situation.
The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), which administers the affairs of the Zambezi River, which is shared by the two riparian countries, has since cut water usage for power generation at Kariba by both Zimbabwe and Zambia, reducing power output.
ZRA has allowed Kariba to generate a maximum 358MW until end of this year to avoid use of too much water and depleting the lake. Kariba South has an installed capacity of 1 050MW following completion of a 300MW expansion project in 2017.
Notably, Kariba was always meant as a peaking power plant, which should kick in when demand is highest in the morning and evenings, but due to limited internal capacity, it often carries day and night time load.
Former Zesa chief executive, Engineer Ben Rafemoyo said while issues that include lack of investment in new capacity and unviable tariffs had constrained the State power utility’s capacity to provide adequate electricity, the drought last year had worsened the situation.
“What has happened is that there was a drought and droughts are predictable, but not to the extent that the region has experienced; I am told this is the worst it has ever been in the last couple of decades,” he said.
“So that again has been a big limitation; the machines at Kariba are okay; we have good machines at Kariba, 8 in total, which could be running if there was sufficient water.”
Zimbabwe has also faced challenges keeping Hwange, the country’s second largest major power plant, in the best possible condition to generate power due to serious foreign currency limitations to import spares.
By its nature, Hwange Power Station is base load station, which was designed to carry the demand power load at all times unless for those units undergoing maintenance at any given time.
However, Zesa officials are on record saying the plant has in recent years foregone statutory and major maintenance exercises due to foreign currency limitations. Some of the postponed maintenance exercises are actually now posing serious hazards to workers.
Hwange was completed in mid-1980s and has outlived its 25-year lifespan, a development that has seriously compromised the level of its reliability.
“First of all, let me say there is always a system development plan on which Zesa works, this is updated on an annual basis.
“But like any plan, it must then be supported by funding, both local and foreign currency. Unfortunately, the cost in terms of running Zesa Holdings, are largely forex denominated in that you import spares and if you have to fill the gap by power imports, that also requires forex,” Engineer Rafemoyo said.
He also noted that Zesa was facing serious working capital and capital expenditure limitations due to a non-viable tariff, which was last reviewed 8 years ago, amid fears in Government adjusting tariffs higher could spike costs of doing business and burden citizens.
“It is not a secret that the tariff (9,83 cents per kWh) which they are operating on is a 2011 approved tariff.
“And to expect that eight years later, they can still manage to provide a good service on the same level of income I think that will be missing the point.
“So in terms of both their Capex and their operating expenditure, which must be supported by that tariff, which has not been varied since 2011, limits how much they can do in terms of maintaining the existing plant and also to expand the system,” Eng Rafemoyo said.
Hwange Power Station, which is the next big station and because it is an old power, requires strategic spares so that when a unit is down they bring it up quickly. Zesa does not have those strategic spares in stock and its reliability has drastically reduced.
And due to reliability issues, Hwange Power Station was doing only 496 megawatts on Friday last week.
Similar sentiments on the issues blighting Zimbabwe in terms of power were shared by former CEO Engineer Josh Chifamba who only left Zesa early this year.
“Fundamentally, (current shortage) has to do with sector viability; the last time Zesa increased tariffs was in 2011 and ministers have always been tinkering with the problem like firing boards, talking about restructuring and not doing the meaningful things.
“And the meaningful thing is that they should address the commercial viability of the power sector, not necessarily of Zesa Holdings.
“Where the current (energy) minister (Fortune Chasi) is going when he says we must discuss the issue of tariff; he is going into the core of the issue. To say that let’s withdraw (power generation) licences of people who are not using them is not the solution.
“The fact that people are not using those licences is the symptom of the problem; the fundamental problem being that the sector is not viable,” he said.
“We have a very well developed sector development plan, which looks right up to the year 2040 and it is a least cost development plant, which says the next project we do must be least cost project,” Engineer Chifamba said in an interview.
He also noted in instances where certain projects were supposed to be prioritized, focus was diverted to power initiatives that did not have immediate benefits to the country.
Zimbabwe also finds itself between a rock and a hard surface in that while the country could import from the region, that option has been constrained by outstanding debts from earlier imports.
Zesa owes regional suppliers, principally Hydro Cahora Bassa of Mozambique and Eskom of South Africa a combined US$83 million, which Eng. Rafemoyo said was also part of reasons why the utility was battling to resolve the acute power deficit.
“And lately, because we allowed the bill as a country to go to what it is now (US$83 million), suppliers in the region who had excess power to sell to us have now limited supplies.
“I think from South Africa we are getting 50 megawatts and 60MW from Mozambique, which is an additional 100MW, but that is not enough,” Eng Rafemoyo said.
“To solve the current problem, the quickest is to resolve the debt issue with those who can supply power to us so that they can continue to supply because that does not require putting up a plant, which will take some time,” he said.
Minister Chasi told the media this week that there was no short cut to the current power crisis, but pledged to engage Eskom over the debt and for a (power) bailout.
Engineer Rafemoyo also said while it was common to hear people talking about putting up solar power plants and other initiatives to resolve the current power situation; the solutions were medium to long term.
“The second (immediate solution) in line, as far as I am concerned is to avail foreign currency to quickly buy those spares which are quickly required to make sure that the existing plant at Hwange and the small thermals are able to run and bring power to the grid.
“And after that, then we can talk about these solar plants, we can talk about mini hydros and so on, but those are not solutions to our current situation and current I mean today’s darkness.
“So I am not blaming anyone, Zesa’s plans are there but have not been supported with the necessary resources.