Too little too late for Zimbabwe and Zambia –Solar Water Heaters - Will South Africa be next?

James Green, SESSA Solar Water Heating Chair

Several years ago when talking to senior management of ZESA (the national power company of Zimbabwe) the subject of solar water heaters was discussed. One ‘what if scenarios’ was, could solar water heaters benefit the limited power supply if the hydro from Kariba MW output fell? Not surprisingly the answer was ‘Yes’ but at what cost, and with Zimbabwe’s economy in a very fragile state, little if any monies could be found to incentivize consumers to go solar. Nothing happened.

Now in November 2015, Zimbabwe has been enduring powercuts for 20 hours a day. The reason is the catastrophic low levels of water in Kariba, and reduced hydro output. A similar story also exists in Zambia, powercuts of 8 hours a day, which is seriously impacting on copper mining and also agriculture for pumping irrigation.

Fishing on the mighty Zambezi upstream of Victoria Falls in October, I was advised that 2015 was the 2nd year in succession when the rains had failed. The rains that fall in Angola and upper Zambia, had been modest, and the huge flood plains that provide the breeding grounds for billions of baitfish had been a small fraction of normal rainfall years.  For me it resulted in only 1 lost Tigerfish, in contrast to 15 caught in the same period some 10 years ago. 

Looking at this vast river it was hard to believe that there is not enough water going into Kariba. The reality however is that the levels were up to 7 meters lower than what is experienced in a normal rain season. With the long range weather forecasts for the SADC region at November 2015 showing a drier season than the norm (November to April), attributed to the 7-year cycle of El Nino, or generally attributed to climate change, the picture is bleak. 

Kariba is in trouble and it would be a safe bet to assume that power for Zimbabwe and Zambia is going to get worse before it gets better. ZESCO ( the Zambian national power company) has already announced plans to import electricity from Mozambique from Scottish powered electricity generation ships. Fortunately downstream Cahora Bassa hydro, which provides approximately 4% of Eskom power is in better shape. 

There are reasons for this. At Kariba they generated far more power from hydro in 2014 and in early 2015 than they were meant to, meaning that far more water went down the Zambezi into Cahora Bassa than there should have been. Additional feeder rivers including Luangwa flow into Africa’s 4th largest man made lake.  But with far less water coming down the Zambezi, and poor rains projected, Cahora Bassa could before long be in a similar state to Kariba.  This could impact seriously on Eskom come the 2nd half of 2016.

Hydro is clean energy, (ignoring the heavy carbon footprint of constructing these huge dams), but they require rain and lots of it. Water is, as we are being constantly reminded a special resource, and there is increasing evidence of droughts and changing weather patterns, and potentially another 4 years of El Nino, having reached record temperatures being more severe than ever before. 

And so back to solar water heaters. In Zimbabwe they announced a plan for 250,000 solar water heaters to remove power off the grid. With only approximately 1,000 installed to date, it would seem unlikely that it could ever happen. They can’t save power because they haven’t got it to save.  Zimbabwe’s economy is in dire shape, and ZESA’s monthly income from reduced electricity sales is estimated to have fallen by $25m per month. Will the sales of solar water heaters and rooftop solar PV increase? Probably, but the consumer will be doing it because they want hot water and electricity, not because of the government. 

In South Africa the recent bout of no load shedding is being met with acclamation (within Eskom anyway), and promises of none before May 2016, is welcome news, but it seems to ignore the failing economy and less demand from ferrochrome smelters, steel manufacture and much of the mining sector in contraction.

If and when Cahora Bassa suffers the same fate as Kariba, Eskom could well be looking for additional power savings. Solar water heaters of course can remove typically up to 10 kWh per home per day, but Eskom (as this blog as frequently pointed out) is not really interested in saving power, when their job is to sell it and on their terms. 

So with the Kwacha in Zambia having lost 40% of its value against the US $ in only 10 months, similar to the Rand over a longer period, farming and mining in trouble in Zambia and parallels in South Africa, a lack of forward planning in Zimbabwe and Zambia are real potential tell tales of what may be around the corner in South Africa, and it may just be down to the fact that it doesn’t rain.

In all probability although all the warning signs are there in neon, nothing will be done here, and for me as a fisherman is unlikely to get any better either.