HARARE – Zimbabwe’s power imports for the first quarter of 2017 went up by about 10 percent as local production slumped 23 percent, a development that local energy experts anticipate to result in load shedding if not properly managed.
With a local demand of about 1 400 Megawatts (MW), the country — which has been struggling to pay regional power suppliers that include South Africa’s Eskom and Mozambique’s Hidroelectrica de Cahora Bassa (HCB) — imported 939,2MW against a local output of 533,9MW, according to data from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) First Quarter Digest.
This was in contrast to 691MW produced in the first three months of 2016 and 866,6MW imported for the period.
Former Zesa Holdings chief executive, Ben Rafemoyo told the Daily News that the development presented a danger to the local power utility given that Zimbabwe is facing an acute shortage of foreign currency that has not only seen government fail to settle its obligations, but private companies struggling to import raw material or restock.
“The threat that one day the suppliers may switch off the power we are accessing is there especially if internal sources keep failing to fill in and plug the deficit that the country has…
“This is, in fact, a very probable result especially given that the country is struggling to produce the foreign currency needed to meet payments to regional suppliers,” Rafemoyo, said.
From about December 2015 going back, Zimbabweans had to do with massive load-shedding, which sometimes lasted up to 16 hours a day.
While the power cuts have disappeared, the country could be plunged into darkness once more if the unsustainable power imports continue, market watchers say.
Businesses are relying on generators and solar to keep running as uptake of solar solutions by businesses and homes increased significantly to curb the effects of power cuts.
Rafemoyo, who also sits on the Zesa board, pointed out that the country did not have security of supply at the moment.
Nonetheless, the country’s power utility was working on bringing an additional 300MW from the Kariba station by end of year.
“We always impress upon management as the board that it is important to get maximum benefit from the local stations.
“If all goes according to plan, one of the generators from Kariba will be online by the end of the year…
“This will add about 300MW, which will be enough to cover the supply from Eskom,” he said.
The country — with an average manufacturing capacity utilisation of 45 percent — mostly uses its power imports for domestic use; a situation power experts say is unsustainable.
Energy Council of Zimbabwe chief executive, Panganai Sithole, also said government needed to be “serious and invest in local production” to shield the country against an “impending blackout”.
“It is a very sorry state really, the one in which Zimbabwe finds itself. The country has got so many potential projects which can easily leave the country in a net surplus position but we still have power imports eating into precious foreign currency, which we do not even have at the moment.
“All the resources are available internally for the situation to be turned around but there is just a lack of seriousness. You hear about projects but never see their completion…
“This way of doing business in a situation where the country cannot even afford to pay for the imports will lead to massive load shedding soon and obviously, as much as domestic users will be affected, companies will be the biggest losers” Sithole said.
Apart from the upgrades at Kariba, the country is also working on ramping production at its local thermal stations which are Munyati, Harare and Bulawayo. To date, capacity at Hwange has also gone up to an average of 500MW on the back of maintenance work on the station, up from 300MW.
Zimbabwe Africa Infrastructure Development Group managing consultant, Martin Manuhwa, concurred with Rafemoyo and noted that the local utility company needed to intensify energy conservation efforts.
“If you look at the ZimStat figures closely, nothing much has changed. What remains worrying is that for a country that can hardly afford to pay for power imports its bulk consumers — who are mostly domestic — are failing to conserve energy.
“Surely, a lot can be done from a policy level to incentivise consumers and promote power conservation…
“It has been done in other countries and can also be done here as it will then ensure energy security boosted by local supply.
“From where we stand at the moment, it is no longer an issue of choice, because from the reports coming out of the central bank, if nothing gives we will be stuck in a situation where the power will be switched off for failure to pay,” the energy guru said.
Earlier this year, Eskom — which supplies about 300MW of electricity per day to Zimbabwe under a non-binding agreement — gave Zesa an ultimatum for the defaulting utility to honour its increasing debt presently estimated at over $70 million, saying failure to pay would leave the South African utility with no choice but to cut electricity supply to Harare.
While Zesa has been getting support from the central bank — in addressing the foreign currency reserves challenge — and customers who are into exports, particularly ferrochrome ones, the power utility continues to struggle with the payments.
“As a result of all this, you can see why it is possible for the country to have power shortages going forward,” Sithole said.