ZIMBABWE is currently facing acute power shortages with some parts of the country experiencing blackouts lasting more than 18 hours. Zimbabwe Independent reporter Herbert Moyo (HM) this week spoke to Elton Mangoma (EM) (pictured), former energy minister, to find out if the situation could have been avoided and what could be done to mitigate the negative impact of the power outages on industrial production and domestic life.
HM: As former energy minister, what are your views on the electricity deficit in the country?
EM: I’m not surprised because there were some programmes that we had instituted as government (during the Government of National Unity (GNU) period 2009-2013) and these had to be followed to be able to take away the pressure off the electricity grid. These were not followed with the kind of vigour that is required to avert this kind of situation.
HM: What were these?
EM: In the short-term, we had proposed putting in biogas digesters that would produce gas continuously for cooking and for heating purposes. That programme was not implemented and yet every institution must have a biogas digester — every modern new housing development should have it. After all, the cost of a digester and the cost of a septic tank are almost the same.
In fact, I know the City of Harare has been against people constructing biogas digesters in their homes, so instead of encouraging their use, they are actually refusing. That’s where the problem is. We even had a project to put in a biogas digester at Mbare Musika, which was rejected. That would have sorted out all the vegetable waste while at the same time providing gas for cooking in and around Mbare. Biogas digesters could have been put in and around farms which have cattle and pigs. This could even have been used to generate electricity that could feed into the grid.
HM: How much electricity would have been produced that way?
EM: Well, it would have been significant for domestic use because you could use all the farms that have cattle and pigs.
HM: Were there any plans which involved Zesa?
EM: Zesa had secured funding and the expertise to be able to drill for the coal-bed methane gas in Lupane (Matabeleland North province) and the good thing is that once they had been able to drill the holes, the gas would then continuously come out to be harnessed and start generating electricity. So we could have actually started generating electricity using coal-bed methane as early as March 2013, but President Robert Mugabe refused to have that done.
HM: Who was funding?
EM: Initial funding was internal from the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC) of US$4 million to carry out the initial tests. Thereafter, we secured enough funding from the Indians to take the project further
HM: Why did President Mugabe refuse to support the project?
EM: He didn’t give reasons, but I think that since this was during the GNU it was seen as an MDC project and the kudos for the project would be going elsewhere not to him. That project would have been able to produce a significant amount of electricity.
HM: How much electricity could have been generated here? How many megawatts (MW)?
EM: We were looking at as much as 150MW, but that project would have been bigger because apart from electricity it would have been used for fertiliser. We had also proposed solar panels even at a household level. Even now solar power plants should be encouraged for the short-term generation of electricity.
HM: But there are attempts underway to have solar power projects. The Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) has invited bids for a tender for solar power?
EM: Part of the problem we have now is that the current regime wants to own the solar power plants whereas these can be done on an independent power producer (IPP) licence. Someone can bring in their plans and produce; so why are they going to tender when they don’t have the money to follow through. You should be encouraging people who have their own money to put up the plants.
For as long as government wants to do it then it will never be done because it is bankrupt. The reason why there are IPPs is precisely so; we were planning to have one IPP project, but they decided to turn it into a project that is owned by Zesa, hence it will not materialise.
HM: So are you saying Zesa should never own a solar project?
EM: We are simply saying they cannot do it alone?
HM: Isn’t that the reason why they invited bids, which were initially won by three companies, including Zimbabwean Wicknell Chivayo’s Intratrek after realising they could not do it alone? Are these not IPPs?
EM: They were doing it on behalf of government which wants to own these even if it doesn’t have the money. What we are saying is they should allowed IPPs to do what they are tendering for completely independent of government
HM: What else could be done to resolve the power crisis?
EM: In the medium-term, we had also proposed to renew the equipment at Hwange (Thermal Power Station) because that is old, the maintenance is also bad. The first thing would be to simply improve the maintenance of the equipment so that plant availability is always high, then you phase out and replace with new generating equipment. Since (Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian) Smith built these plants, the Zanu PF government has not built a single generating plant. So for 35 years, they have even failed to maintain what they found there.
I had gotten the expansion of Kariba South to a stage where they couldn’t reverse it but the expansion of Hwange has been stalling since then and as a result we have lost two years because of the stalling. We had actually awarded a tender when I was still minister, but the tender was subsequently cancelled.
The culpability starts with Mugabe and the ministers he has had. It even extends to the staff at Zesa because they have failed to deal with simple maintenance issues.
HM: What are your views on the other issue of mandatory blending of petrol with ethanol?
EM: I think the issues that I raised before are even more pertinent right now. The issue is what price is that ethanol and my investigations are that the ethanol price is way above the petrol price; so the issues of unfair pricing come in. So consumers are being forced to pay high prices.
Secondly, ethanol has a lower calorific value compared to petrol; so its price must be 70-80% lower than petrol.
Thirdly, ethanol affects a good number of vehicles and there was need to put in catalytic converters in the vehicles, but this has not been done. As a result people are now experiencing engine failure through use of ethanol particularly when it is blended at 15% as opposed to 10% or lower.
Furthermore, this sugarcane is being grown on land that has been stolen from or forcibly taken from villagers who have not been resettled.
HM: Is there any reason why government would be party to unfair pricing policy?
EM: Corruption, anything that is not transparent is corruption
HM: Is the monopoly enjoyed by one company justified even when they are failing to meet demand?
EM: I’m putting it bluntly as corruption; you don’t have to look for too many answers as the reason — it’s just corruption.