If it had not been for the fallout caused by the coronavirus pandemic, first detected in China in December 2019, Zimbabwe would by now have achieved the enviable distinction of being energy self-sufficient through the envisaged commissioning of a new unit — Unit 7 — adding 300 megawatts (MW) to the grid from Hwange Power Station (HPS).
And, with Unit 8 that would have come on line by December to inject a further 300MW, the country could easily have become a net exporter of electricity by January next year.
Local power stations are currently generating 1 500MW on average, which is about 250MW short of local demand.
This has made load-shedding inescapable, especially in the absence of imports from South Africa and Mozambique.
However, completion of the new power generating units, which will cumulatively add 600MW to the grid, would take overall capacity to 2 100MW, about 350MW more than what domestic and industrial users need.
“I am sure you have seen that the maximum that we can do for now is 1 530MW, add the 600MW and we will go to 2 100MW,” said the Hwange Power Station project site manager, Engineer Forbes Chanakira, in a presentation to members of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF) who were touring the thermal power plant last week.
But the commissioning of Hwange Power Station’s Unit 7 and 8 has now been pushed back by between 11 and 12 months.
Engineer Chanakira said: “Ordinarily, we should have been commissioning Unit 7. However, because of Covid-19 we have significantly been affected in various ways. So we are currently at 72 percent. . .
“With this delay, we envisage that Unit 7 will be commissioned by end of September 2022; that is assuming all things being equal.”
In the interim, the shortfall — compounded by repairs to the Kariba Dam Wall, where two units have to be taken out every six hours, and an unreliable 38-year-old plant at Hwange — is being covered by imports from the region.
ZESA Holdings executive chair Dr Sydney Gata indicated that Zimbabwe had recently concluded a deal with Zambia’s power utility, ZESCO, to unlock 330MW to cover the deficit.
“Last week, Monday last week, I signed a contract with Zambia to be assisted with 100MW, which should start any time now and also another 230 MW from January onwards . . . that’s 330MW from ZESCO. That is going to drastically reduce load-shedding,” he said.
Zambia commissioned the first unit of the US$2 billion 750MW Kafue Gorge Lower hydropower station on July 23 this year.
Zimbabwe, however, could not have relied on expensive imports had it been able to complete projects such as Gairezi Hydro Power Station (30MW), Batoka Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station (2 400), Gwanda Solar Project (100MW) and Mutare Peaking Power Plant (120MW) that could have added in excess of 1 450MW to the grid.
But the projects, some of which Dr Gata described as “white elephants at birth”, were reportedly affected by lack of bankable feasibility studies.
It has since emerged that the Batoka project — initially mulled about 50 years and jointly pursued by Zambia and Zimbabwe might not progress as fast as envisaged because of the inherent elaborate procedural steps needed for it to proceed to project development stage.
“It might not be as fast as we thought because we did not, as Zambia and Zimbabwe, have a detailed feasibility study that would establish the market,” observed Dr Gata.
It, therefore, means the most realistic project to make Zimbabwe not only energy self-sufficient, but a net exporter in the shortest possible period is the ongoing Hwange Power Station expansion. The project has immense benefits in terms of employment creation and skills transfer as well through interaction with various consultants and stakeholders.
At peak, the project will have 5 000 employees on site. Hundreds of young local project managers have already been roped in to assist in implementing what is probably the largest local engineering project.
They are essentially helping plug the skills deficit caused by the brain drain.
It is believed that there are officially 450 ex-ZESA staff working in Eskom alone, while in Australia, one provisional authority has 65 former ZESA engineers.
According to Dr Gata, it is highly likely that some of the engineers might be outsourced to assist in constructing the Mpanda Nkuwa hydroelectric dam project in neighbouring Mozambique. This is after the recent engagement he had with Mpanda Nkuwa Construction and Development Office director Mr Carlos Yum.
Construction of the US$4,2 billion dam, which will lie on the Zambezi River in the western province of Tete, will begin in 2024 and is designed to generate 1 500MW — more than twice the capacity of the Hwange expansion project — most of which will be sold to South Africa.Notwithstanding the benefits that are accruing to Zimbabwe, local companies are not benefitting as much as they did when the HPS’s Units 1 to 6 were constructed in 1983. Despite having about 47 percent of the EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contracts back then, as steel was sourced from Ziscosteel and CAFCA supplied the transmission cables, local companies’ share in the present project is only 10 percent, translating to an estimated US$150 million since the works are valued at US$1,5 billion.
Engineer Chanakira said: “We also view it (the project) as an economic enabler in terms of economic development. We are looking at part of the materials and equipment coming from the local market . . . The scale is not as envisaged during the time of project development. So here we have 10 percent of the EPC (engineering, procurement and construction) contract.”
As the world tries to transition from coal-fired power stations to protect the environment, this has inadvertently affected some planned projects to increase ZESA’s power generating capacity.
The planned US$100 million Munyati Repowering Project that was being bankrolled by China to restore output to 100MW is now effectively dead in the water after Beijing recently cancelled the deal after President Xi Jinping announced on September 21 this year that China “will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad”.
While the announcement blindsided ZESA, the power utility is understood to be in negotiations with a South Korean firm to explore the possibility of using new waste-to-energy technology that could be best suited for Harare and Bulawayo thermal power stations.
The utility is also looking into the possibility of leveraging on a series of gorges on the Kafue-Zambezi catchment complex that could generate 14 500MW and be used as a “natural battery” capable of increasing the contribution of renewable energy sources into the local energy mix.
Such a project, however, will have to be pursued in conjuction with other regional utilities.
It might as well find ready financiers as banks switch to alternative green energy projects.
Overall, Dr Gata literally sees a bright future, as he is confident that if it all works according to plan, Zimbabwe might be exporting power by the end of next year.