Zimbabwe’s unreliable electricity supply makes it the biggest adopter of solar systems in Africa

Edwin Chabuka Avatar
Solar panels on roof

Zimbabwe’s electricity situation has not changed much. Our total power generation output is currently just over 25% of the national demand. Load shedding has been a way of life for decades in the country and those who can afford it either have backup power solutions or have switched to alternative forms of power.

In a survey done of 34 African countries, only 43% of households enjoyed an electricity supply that is available all the time or most of the time. Only 4 countries in Africa enjoy 100% availability of electricity and these are Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. As for the survey, of those 34 countries, Zimbabweans are the biggest adopter of solar for backup electricity as a percentage of the total number of households.

46% of Zimbabwean households have backup/alternative power solutions with 45% of it being solar. In contrast, only 2% of South African households use solar as a form of alternative energy and only 4% of households use backup power. 96% of South African households solely rely on the national grid for power. Zimbabwe also ranks 3rd on the list for alternative energy solutions owned by households. All households using backup power are the owners of that backup power.

42% of Zimbabwean households are relying on alternative forms of power and only 27% are relying on power from the grid. This ranks Zimbabwe 3rd on the list for households using alternative sources of power. Between 2016 and 2021, there has been a decrease in the proportion of households with electricity that is always available or mostly available to the order of -7%. This puts Zimbabwe in the bottom 5 on progress in electricity availability.

The biggest contributors to this phenomenon

Zimbabwe started facing power challenges at the advent of the millennium. These power outages kept intensifying throughout the hyperinflation era and peaked during the global economic crash of 2008. During this period, the integrity of public infrastructure deteriorated including power generation infrastructure.

Diesel and Petrol generators were the first wave of power backup solutions that were employed by Zimbabweans in the mid to late 2000s. However, their popularity quickly waned due to hyperinflation and an acute fuel crisis that gripped Zimbabwe in the late 2000s. Solar became a viable alternative. Its qualities of being low maintenance, quiet and clean are what awarded its popularity, and has been the preferred choice of alternative power since the advent of the 2010s.

So Zimbabwe had a bit of a head start compared to its neighboring countries when it came to the adoption of alternative energy. Close to a whole decade for the population to work on alternative sources of power. Such households are now close to double those that are purely relying on the national grid for power.

As for the decrease in the progress on electricity availability, it is 2-fold. On one hand, the infrastructure has massively deteriorated. Harare and Bulawayo thermal power stations had to be derated for safety reasons. This means they can no longer produce the capacity they did when they were constructed because of wear and tear. This had put more load on Hwange and Kariba power stations to meet the national demand. Hwange power station might have an impressive installed capacity of 920MW with an additional 600MW being added to it to bring its rating to 1520MW.

However, its current output is 436MW at the time of writing with the 2 additional units still not yet running. Thermal power stations demand a lot of resources to run and maintain and it’s a game of catching up that Zimbabwe is playing just to keep them running.

On the other hand, Zimbabwe was 4th on the list of African countries with the cheapest electricity rates at US$0.01/kWh as of December 2021. It’s the cheapest in SADC as well. Something that we consumers will really appreciate but comes at a cost.

Electricity being imported into Zimbabwe to meet the energy deficit is being bought at regional rates and sold to consumers locally at a loss. And so utilities are unable to earn enough revenue to reliably supply power. Not only that, it makes the energy business very undesirable for Independent Power Producers (IPPs). They have not really proliferated in Zimbabwe in the way they could have simply because the rates public utilities are charging do not make it a competitive market. So no additional players to contribute to the grid as a result.

Earlier last year, ZETDC was said to have an electricity connection deficit of 350 000 houses. It’s a growing deficit in that the rate of proliferation of new housing settlements is greater than ZETDC’s capacity to connect these homes to the grid. And even if they do, the grid already cannot meet current power demands so it’s just a deteriorating situation the more houses are connected.

Prepaid meters are also a double-edged sword for utilities. They have guaranteed revenue collection and reduced the credit they offer clients which was turning into a significant pool of bad debts. But also, those who trusted the utility’s estimates and paid were now seeing a massive drop in their electricity bill after switching to prepaid meters. This is because they only charge you for electricity consumed, which reduces with the increase in load shedding. All this to say the utility is bleeding cash from every angle and thus the capacity to quickly turn around the supply side of things is highly unlikely.

The public utility is no longer the main power provider

Zimbabwe is at a very interesting place. Electricity supply has been unreliable for such a long time that alternative sources of power are now acting as the primary and preferred source of power. Energy independence is what solar is providing for 45% of households in Zimbabwe.

It may have very high setup costs but after that is basically free energy for the life of that solar system which is predominantly dictated by the usable life of the batteries. What has also contributed to the solar revolution is that ZIMRA stopped applying duty on PV cells (Solar Panels) and inverters and only a 20% duty on batteries.

Our taste of energy independence is something that works to the utility’s detriment. A majority of households that are purchasing off-grid solar systems are households that can afford to pay for electricity but cannot afford the erratic availability of this electricity.

In essence, these are a public utility’s most valuable clients. The remaining clients solely relying on the grid for power are mostly households that cannot afford solar systems. Households that might not be able to consistently pay their electricity bill or wade an increase in electricity tariffs to the regional average, something that utilities stand to gain from.

Senior government sources said a local company (name supplied) has been contracted to install a 5 kilovolt (Kva) solar system at a cost of US$ 14 000 each for top chefs who include ministers, senior government officials, commissioners and army generals.

The Standard

The above quote shows the level of hope we can have of Zimbabwe meeting its power demand. We have a really long way to go. And if nothing is done to alleviate this, more and more households will be built with off-grid power solutions in mind. That 45% figure of households switching to solar will grow and the opportunity for utilities to earn enough revenue to turn the electricity supply situation around will be lost.

If the energy market can be a free market that allows IPPs to charge sustainable rates, there will be a decent portion of Zimbabwean households that will gladly pay a bit more for the guarantee of 100% availability of power. But until then here is something to make you decide on which solar system to get.

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24 comments

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  1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

    One day, at a green energy conference, a government official will boast about these solar statistics. 😩

    1. Edwin Chabuka

      It matters not how we got here…but that we got here lol

      1. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

        The journey is just as important as the destination, if others want to follow (or not follow) your path.

    2. The Empress

      Well it would be a lot less embarrassing than what they did in Scotland. Boasting about the huge coal reserves the country has nd looking for investors to help mine more coal. πŸ€¦πŸΎβ€β™‚οΈ

      1. Lancet 3 suicide drone

        Trust me…when real heavy industry starts kicking we will need all the coal we can get … Solar and wind are great renewables but they can’t feed a hungry industry that’s why China and the US are coal demons.

        1. The Empress

          Renewable energy is the only way forward and any every effort must be directed towards reaching the goal of lower coal use

        2. Imi Vanhu Musadaro

          Heavy industry from where? No one wants to start a plant where there are power problems. If you just want to make burglar bars you need a 5kv generator per 2 welders and a bender. Now imagine a semi-automated car plant. You’ll be producing 2 cars a month if you rely on ZESA only. So, besides the assembly line machinery, the investor needs an almost equal investment in backup power.

          Anyway, with our massive coal reserves, we still have an abundance of loadshedding.

        3. The Empress

          You are putting the scotch cart before the donkey. To have heavy industry you have to have electricity first!
          In Zimbabwe the powers that be behave as if the book they read in 1985 on electricity generation contained the final chapter and verse on electricity generation and no further reading is needed since they already know what’s in the book. And they learned that electricity is generated in big power plants requiring massive investment.
          But here is the thing there have been a few more chapters added on!
          Yes solar power might have some short comings but compared to building a new coal fired power station or a new hydroelectric dam. Solar is cheaper and faster to get online.
          And most importantly for a poor country like Zimbabwe,unlike alternative sources of electricity eg coal/hydroelectric whose power generation capacity and other parameters are quite literally set in stone. Solar is very modular, meaning extra capacity can be added on as and when funds become available. So you can start of from a 100MW plant adding on to it whenever possible to it’s production capacity over the years until and when you are satisfied. And the building costs keep getting lower as the technology improves.
          You can only dream of β€œheavy industry” when you have the electricity otherwise its just a waste of time talking about it.

  2. S.K

    We need to take that figure to a whooping 90 percent at least. In households Zesa will only have to be used for backup purposes, on a long streak of rainy days πŸ˜€πŸ˜€. It’s funny I know, but it goes to illustrate my disappointment towards the utility.

  3. Ra

    It was such a nice luxury being at a house with solar. I’d be there just watching TV or browsing the net when I’d suddenly hear the neighbourhood cheering for ZESAπŸ˜‚ I’d always be like “but when did ZESA go?!”. Returning to the reality of the grid sucked

    1. Locomo

      What happened? How did you leave the solar powered house?πŸ˜‚

      1. Ra

        I was just visiting! Stayed 1 week and the solar never missed a beatπŸ˜…
        Only thing it didn’t run was the gas stove.

  4. The Empress

    Sunshine Tax!
    This maybe the only way government is going to be able keep subsidising the less fortunate citizens of Zimbabwe with cheap electricity without drowning zesa in more than it can bear. Simple we tax sunshine falling on solar panels!
    There’s is no other choice, if this is not done the price of electricity is going to have to rise drastically nd that’s not an option
    . Let’s call it a Sunshine Tax.

  5. Tavarwisa

    It’s really an embarrassment to say Zim has the most learned people, and we have infrastructure deteriorating at alarming rates. Looks like post independence there has never been proper planning and forecasting – which sector is thriving? I wonder..ZESA is just the tip of the melting iceberg

    1. …Bob the Builder?

      Yah, some of these pre-independence institutions had development plans that could have seen us through to the beginning of the 2000’s in terms of adequate capacity (‘adequate’ as in just enough to get by in the end. Development should not stop). We can argue the suitability of some those plans for a post independence, ‘integrated’ Zim, but the mega projects like the highways and city planning expansions could have been very useful, even if only used as templates.

  6. Disgruntled GMB worker with a diploma in IT

    “Most learned people” learned in what exactly? Literacy just means being able to read and write. It has nothing to do with logic. Also,most of those that go to University have no idea what they learnt after they graduate. Just a bunch of half baked graduates boasting about having degrees. Sooo many engineers in the country. But no innovation. Sometimes we have to act on our own and be innovative and learn to solve our own problems instead of waiting for some heavenly investor from Europe, Asia or America. Vanhu vakungo ngwavha ngwavha. People no longer want to be employed. They prefer to be self employed so that they can manage themselves. Kwahi ndozviitira zvinhu zvangu ndega. These guys are not even getting taxed. They take all the US and leave it across the boarder. Until people are serious about the country. Don’t expect any difference. Just work on yourself and get yourself that passport and Visa. Then leave the continent for greener pastures elsewhere and never come back!

  7. ☭

    We need to make a lot of lithium batteries here and say goodbye to Zesa

    1. 3man

      I don’t see how making a lot of lithium batteries can make things better. Even if they produce those batteries, they will only be reachable by the same few people who already have it all because I can guarantee you that they will charge exorbitant prices way out of the reach of many. Point is, Zimbabwe being Zimbabwe and having been blessed with a vast mineral resources, we are still finding ourselves in an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle. Even if we were going to miraculously find the dearest mineral resources as big as the whole of Zimbabwe, we will still be in this mess unless someone or something changes.

      1. Ma Gets

        Australia did an interesting experiment with neighbourhood power storage systems with Tesla. The solar power generated in the area was stored locally in a shared battery for use at night by the community. If the cost is shared by an entire neighbourhood, it should be something new local mid to upscale gated real-estate developments can look into.

        It’s a good self-help idea, but it’s ultimately not accessible to most and won’t help the larger national situation at hand much (though it doesn’t need to as it would be a privately funded solution)

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        2. The Empress

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