/ 5 July 2023

Zimbabwe and the Just Energy transition: An opportunity to expand rural electrification

Zim Just Transitio
The global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, to which Zimbabwe has committed, is an opportunity for the country to reach these development goals.

Access to energy is one of the priorities of Zimbabwe’s National Development Strategy (NDS 1) for economic growth, which envisages a prosperous and empowered upper middle-income society by 2030. This strategy envisions gross national Income per capita at over US$5 000 in real terms by 2030, with energy supply highlighted as one of the major economic growth enablers. Increasing access to electricity is one of the most effective ways of fulfilling Zimbabwe’s development goals and improving the quality of life for the country’s rural populace. 

Under the strategy, the priority is not only the development of reliable, adequate, low-priced power, but increased household electricity access, from 52.2% in 2017 to 72% in 2030. The country continues to experience significant electricity shortages, though, partly due to obsolete infrastructure and vandalism as well as growth in demand. Access to electricity in Zimbabwe has grown only slightly from 32.3% of the population in 2014 to 52.75% in 2020, according to the World Bank. By contrast, Kenyans’ access to electricity has grown from 36% to 71% over the same time. There is also a huge rural-urban electricity access divide in Zimbabwe, with only 37% of the rural population having access to electricity by 2020. This figure has probably deteriorated since then. As part of its commitment to bridge this divide, the post-independence government embarked on the Rural Electrification Programme (REP) in 1983. This programme initially targeted growth points or development service centres in rural areas. However, the target was later expanded to countrywide rural electrification, with dedicated funding through a rural electrification levy. Although notable progress has been made, countrywide rural electrification is yet to be realised. 

The global transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, to which Zimbabwe has committed, is an opportunity for the country to reach these development goals. By tapping into its solar energy potential Zimbabwe can “leapfrog” its presently excluded rural constituency into a  clean and sustainable energy future. The concept of “leapfrogging” has gained increasing popularity within the just transition discourse. The concept, as defined by Professor of Environmental Geography at the London School of Economics and Political Science Dr Richard Perkins, is when industrialising nations skip conventional economic growth stages by adopting contemporary resource-efficient technologies to reduce post-consumption repercussions, such as pollution. Greater emphasis on solar and other renewable energy sources will also help Zimbabwe to offset major long-term risks associated with investing in coal – a fuel source which not only has deleterious impacts on Zimbabwe’s environment and ecotourism sector but may see reduced global demand in the coming years. Any investments into coal risk becoming stranded assets in the near future. 

Zimbabwe’s current energy mix and strategies to increase supply

The Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC), although facing challenges, registered improved power supplies this month (June 2023). Citizens in various parts of the country acknowledged a reduction in blackouts, with some citing an  “unusual” experience of at least a week of consecutive days of power supply. This positive development has been attributed to the rising water levels in the Zambezi, given its hydropower generation, as well as expansion interventions at the Hwange power station

Zimbabwe’s energy sources are a mix of hydropower (70%), coal (29%) and renewables (1%). The country’s major hydropower station is the Kariba South hydroelectric power station. The country also has four thermal power stations in Bulawayo, Harare, Hwange and Munyati. The Hwange Power Station is the largest coal-fired power station in the country (originally 920MW) and the 14th largest thermal station in Southern African.

The energy sector contributes approximately 49% to the country’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. With part of the rural populace still off the grid and electricity demand for the country on the increase, there is an opportunity to leverage the country’s high solar energy potential. Through its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), Zimbabwe has articulated a commitment to the decarbonization agenda  and reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. However, ongoing investments in coal, particularly by Chinese companies, means that coal will remain central to the country’s energy mix for the foreseeable future. The NDS 1 notes that Zimbabwe has vast coal deposits and currently has five coal-to-coke processing plants. The country envisages job creation and generating revenue from the export of coal, coke and coke products and has plans to establish more coal-to-coke processing plants during the NDS1 2021-2025 period. 

One of the NDS 1 strategies in establishing coal-to-coke processing plants is the expedition of the establishment of coke oven batteries through provision of land and expediting the processing of mining title applications. The country’s ongoing investments in coal mining run contrary to its 2015 Paris Agreement commitments and the global energy transition agenda. The NDS 1 calls  for multi-stakeholder partnerships to enable exploration of the country’s coal bed methane gas resources, which are the largest in the region. With 85% funding from China’s Sinohydro to the tune of $1.4 billion, the Hwange thermal power station is  undergoing expansion to 920 MW through two additional 300 MW units. One of the new 300-megawatt (MW) coal-fired power generating units started feeding electricity into the national grid in March 2023. The second one is expected to be generating power in October 2023. However, continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, while seemingly attractive in the short-term, risks huge long-term losses. The International Energy Agency cautions that  while there has been a peak in coal use in 2022, mainly due to the impact of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, through to 2025 “growth in renewables will supply lion’s share of additional power demand, with coal and gas filling the remaining modest gap.”

Despite these investments in thermal energy, more than sixty percent of the population still lacks access to clean energy sources. Given the challenges with obsolete infrastructure and the heightening water scarcity, the country’s current, largely thermal and hydro power mix has no capacity to meet the needs of its excluded rural constituency. Renewable, clean solar energy offers an effective way forward. A 2018 study carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scholars Goksin Kavlak, James McNerney and Jessika Trancik, evaluating the causes of cost reduction in photovoltaic modules from 1980 to 2012, indicates that costs had fallen by 97%. The study also notes that government policy to help grow markets around the world also played a critical role in reducing costs. The continuing reduction in costs and Zimbabwe’s ideal environment for solar energy production is an opportunity to expand the rural electrification programme. This will be an important step in fulfilling both the  NDS 1 vision of access to modern energy by targeting the larger part of the populace. It will also set the country on the path to its commitment of a 33% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

One of the important aspects of NDS 1 is the government’s commitment to enable Independent Power Producers access to the country’s electricity market. A good example is the Old Mutual Solar Project partnership. The Old Mutual Investment Group Zimbabwe (OMIZ) is investing US$21,5 million into independent power producer, Centragrid Private Limited to support the production of 25 megawatts (MW) of solar power to be fed into the national grid. Such partnerships are key to addressing what is often one of the major hurdles in policy implementation: funding. Partnerships between the government and Independent Power Producers can be a gamechanger in exploiting the country’s vast solar energy resources for the benefit of the already excluded rural constituency.

Sikhululekile Mashingaidze is the lead researcher in the Human Security and Climate Change programme at Good Governance Africa.