Access to clean energy: What role could the Chinese play?
Climate Story Jeffrey Gogo
With the addition 300 megawatts more from the Kariba hydro-electric power plant earlier this year, new light was shed on the role of renewable energies not only as a means to improving electricity access in Zimbabwe, but also meeting national climate goals under the Paris Accord.
Hydro-power already accounts for about two thirds of the country’s internal electricity generation, but thousands of people, particularly those in rural areas, still go without power every day.
Much of the problem is due to a lack of investment in the energy sector, the power import burden and users defaulting on electricity bills.
But things are starting to change.
The $533 million expansion of the Kariba Hydropower Station added a huge amount of electricity to the national grid, bringing capacity at the plant to a total 1,050MW. It is one of the largest investments in energy in Zimbabwe over the past three decades, funded by the Chinese, an emerging key financier of clean energy projects across Africa.
The Kariba works represent a key step in the delivery of access to electricity in Zimbabwe, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) number seven.
Launched in 2015, the SDGs outline 17 specific goals and 169 targets covering climate change, poverty, inequality, sustainable development and others.
According to the UN, Goal seven seeks to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.”.
It is not clear how many households have been connected after completion of the expansion at Kariba.
But hydropower could help deliver a new world of clean and cheap power to the millions of Zimbabweans in rural areas without power.
Only about 13 percent of the more than 7,5 million people who live in rural areas here have access to electricity of any kind, official data shows.
Overall, studies by the University of Zimbabwe show that more than 60 percent of citizens are not connected to the electricity grid.
Blended price, transformative change
On pricing, the effect of Kariba may not be direct, yet sufficiently effective for the consumer to feel the difference.
State-run power utility Zesa Holdings pays about 4 cents per Kilowatt-hour (KWh) for electricity generated from hydro at the Kariba electric power plant.
That compares with about 18 cents/KWh paid to South African power company Eskom for electricity imports.
By doubling hydropower generation Zimbabwe is not only trying to keep the final selling price of electricity low – which in effect reflects a blend of different prices from different power suppliers – but also help keep the lights on in many homes countrywide, new connections and old ones.
Zimbabweans currently pay about 40 percent less for electricity compared to the regional average, though a low rate of electrification in rural areas could pose significant challenges towards assisting people in those areas to cope with climate change and it’s sidekick, poverty.
Increased access to renewable energy is widely seen as a key buffer to climate and economic shocks and difficulties.
Grid connections are transformative, but Zimbabwe and Africa, both reliant on agriculture to drive economic growth and to sustain livelihoods, will have to go a step further, says Dumisani Chirambo, a researcher with a German university.
“Africa arguably needs more projects that can improve rural electrification and link energy access to agriculture development,” Chirambo states, in a new study on the potential of renewables in the continent.
“But in the status quo most projects just focus on increasing generation capacity and national electrification rates, thereby inadvertently leading to higher electrification rates in urban areas and higher levels of vulnerability in rural areas,” he said .
Chirambo suggests that “a possible way to overcome this might be to urge policy makers in the global south to make provisions for climate change mitigation focused programmes to have special consideration to divert more resources to the least electrified and least attractive energy sector investment countries.”
Off-grid clean energy supply in rural areas has expanded rapidly in Zimbabwe in recent years. Thousands of homes have connected to PV solar mainly for lighting, while private and public sector – led projects in small hydropower and biogas are being used in clinics, schools and households for cooking and lighting.
It is such smaller initiatives that hold more promise for fast tracking electricity access towards achieving SDG 7, enhancing social and economic progress and tackling climate change.
The expansion at Kariba dovetails with Zimbabwe’s commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change, to cut carbon emissions by 33 percent by 2030, mostly through increased investment in hydro and solar power, improved energy efficiency and transport efficiency.
To do that, the country needs about $55 billion in international aid for mitigation only, with a small fraction of this amount funded by Government.
But global finance, which tends to favour emission reducing projects, has not flowed at the scale needed to drive real change in the developing world, particularly Africa.
Chirambo says up to $100 billion is required each year to drive the renewable energy revolution in Africa south of the Sahara, where more than 600 million people are without electricity, but only about 5 percent of the money comes through.
That’s largely due to inadequate funding from traditional financiers in the West, perhaps a lack of commitment, stringent funding requirements that are usually tied with human rights demands, and other factors.
The US’ Power Africa initiative from a few years ago, which has missed its clean energy delivery targets by a country mile, meeting just a fifth of its funding targets, is particularly notable for linking its energy finance to human rights issues.
Only four countries in Africa have successfully prepared the investment prospectus, the last requirement in a fairly long list of rigorous demands for funding under the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.
But China could be of help.
The Asian country now plays an important role in world affairs, not only in driving FDI in Africa, but also finance specifically designed to tackle climate change, Chirambo says.
China has increased climate funding under its China South-South Climate Cooperation Fund for Climate Change to $3,1 billion from about $50 million a year.
That’s in addition to the $2 billion it was paying under the South-South Cooperation. And the funds are usually without strings attached.
Zimbabwe needs to claim its share from the funds by drafting bankable clean energy projects.
God is faithful.