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Global warming: Is solar energy best way to go?

FOR about 30 years, the potentially devastating effect of heat-trapping emissions has been gracing pages of the global press, as well as dominating regional and global fora at which warnings have been repeatedly issued regarding the need to put in place mechanisms to mitigate the perils of climate change.


Despite this setting the alarm bells ringing, Zimbabwe is still to take heed.

With climate change posing one of the major threats to humanity’s shared interests, the country, currently facing a major energy crisis, is grappling to find ways to deal with global warming.

Zimbabwe, like other Southern African Development Community (Sadc) countries, depends on fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, which have, however, been condemned worldwide because of their high pollution levels.

The country also heavily relies on hydro-electricity, which is under threat due to drying rivers, as the climate gets warmer.

While hydro-electricity is a clean and renewable source of energy, the increasingly irregular rainfall patterns have rendered river water an unsustainable source of energy.

Already feeling the heat are Zambia and Zimbabwe, which share part of the Zambezi River and co-own the massive water body — Lake Kariba — a critical power source for the two countries.

The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA), responsible for the management of the basin from which the two neighbours draw water for hydro-electricity, has been forced to reduce water allocation for electricity generation from 45 billion cubic metres per annum to 33 billion cubic metres, due to dwindling supplies, as the Zambezi River’s major tributaries upstream of Kariba have dried up.

The poor inflows have triggered a sharp drop in the 280km-long lake’s level to a mere 32%, following a prolonged drought in southern Africa.

Around this time of the year, the lake normally would be more than 75% full.

ZRA has since instituted stringent water rationing, giving the two countries enough water to produce just 358 megawatts for Zimbabwe and 392 megawatts for Zambia.

As a result, the two countries have introduced load-shedding, causing distress in industries and among domestic users.

ZRA predicts that by August the situation would have worsened, when most of Zambezi River’s tributaries run dry.
They have also warned that power generation at Kariba could be completely decommissioned by October, unless even more stringent water rationing is put in place.

These developments come despite repeated warnings by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) that warmer weather was rendering hydropower projects unsustainable.

They also come amid calls from energy experts to invest more in alternative cleaner sources of energy like wind, gas and solar.

“Hydropower is the most dominant renewable and low carbon energy source generating slightly above 15% of the total world electrical energy. Hydropower generates energy from water and any change in the natural water cycle caused by the climate change has an impact on power generation. The effect of climate change on hydropower is mostly influenced by the change of the river run-off. The change of precipitation and temperature are the major driving factors. Increase of extreme climate events and enlarged erosion, furthermore pressures the hydropower production,” the UNFCC warned in its 2018 report.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency also said at the end of last year: “Increases in temperature will likely increase our energy demand, as well as change our ability to produce electricity and deliver it reliably.”
With the help of the Chinese, Zimbabwe recently invested US$533 million into the Kariba South Power Station Extension Project. The project, which was touted to be a significant solution to the country’s power deficiencies, was envisaged to add another 300 megawatts to the national grid.

Its benefits are, however, under threat from global warming, hence the need to consider other sources of energy.
Zimbabwe is also currently investing US$1,4 billion towards the extension of the Hwange Thermal Power Station, to add units seven and eight.

Thus, so far, coal and oil, roundly condemned for high emission of greenhouse gasses, the major catalysts of global warming, are now the only available alternatives.

With projections of a future global economy likely to consume more energy, especially with the rising energy demand by developing countries, the effects of fossil fuels on climate change is increasingly becoming a major talking point among environmentalists, energy experts and even governments.

The need for a delicate adjustment to the use of cleaner sources of energy, other than hydro-electricity, is now more topical in the developing world than ever before.

With the developed world fast promoting renewable energy from water, wind, waves, solar and biomass, developing countries like Zimbabwe and Zambia are being caught up in a complex energy crisis web, for failing to exploit alternative sources of energy.

But many argue that Southern Africa is capable of harnessing these clean energy sources and gradually phase out fossils.

What lacks, they say, is political will.

“For the first time in history, we face an energy crisis, not because we might run out of energy, but because we are using it in the wrong way. Up to now the energy industry was judged by two metrics: Its contribution to energy security and the cost of energy delivered to the consumer. To this we must now add a third: Its success in reducing the emission of ecologically harmful gases, chiefly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere,” energy expert Panganai Sithole, who is also director of the Zimbabwe Energy Council, said.

“We can simply make it mandatory that all low-density houses should have solar water heaters and help them by removing import duty on the alternative energy sources. It does not take any money for government to implement this. Imagine the amount of power we could save with this policy,” he added, while encouraging the Zimbabwe government to court investments in renewable energy and allow independent power producers the opportunity to easily get into power production business.

Corruption and maladministration have also hindered progress in that regard, as evidenced by the case in which Intratrek, a company owned by controversial businessman Wicknell Chivayo, was paid US$5 million to establish a solar power plant in Gwanda in 2014, but ended up doing virtually nothing.

“We are not even harnessing solar as a source of power despite the amount of sun we get. There has been endless talk of a solar power plant in Gwanda, but we haven’t seen its progress years after it was launched. Gas, for example, attracts serious investment everywhere in the world. Mozambique is realising the benefits of its investment policies and we are importing supplementary power from there,” Sithole said.

Newly appointed Energy minister, Fortune Chasi, who last week fired the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (Zesa) board over incompetence, has threatened to recover the money from Intratrek in order to get the project done.

“I expect either the project, as initially conceptualised, or the money,” he said.

Chasi also challenged Zesa to think about exploiting other sources of energy.

“My interest is that we ensure that we have a good mix of skills in that board and that we have men and women of integrity and experience. But not only that, we need strategic thinkers at Zesa, which means that we need people who are alive to the power issues in the country. By that I mean people who are aware of the hydrological conditioning of Kariba Dam, meaning that they will come up with strategies to counter the developments at Kariba Dam to ensure continuity of supply of power.”

However, other energy experts think differently, arguing that the environmental concerns around power generation were being pushed by rich countries at the expense of developing countries.

Founder of Harare-based energy firm, Energy and Information Logistics, Francis Masawi, noted: “Rich countries complain about it, yet they managed to achieve their development using coal and oil and they can now afford the expensive alternative sources.

“True, solar is available, but the technology is not sufficient here. We must be allowed to utilise the resources we have. When we would have developed to their levels, we can start talking the same language and start thinking about the expensive clean energy they are talking about.”

Despite what many climate action groups advocate for, energy experts looking at capacities of all technologies seem not to see a realistic possibility for a rapid shift into 100% renewable energy any time soon.

They have several scenarios for the future of energy production, in light of climate change mitigation, and these include increasing nuclear power as a renewable energy source, something which has already sharply divided opinion, as some feel the answer to climate change is not nuclear.

There are worries related to uranium, such as radiation problems and its usage in making nuclear weapons.
Zimbabwe has to find its own space in this global energy discourse.

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