Hydro power investments under threat
Jeffrey Gogo Climate Story
The intensity of the current energy crisis, which in part results from the water shortages at Kariba, demonstrate not only the threat climate change poses on future financial investments into hydro power, but also that hydro can no longer be relied upon to make Zimbabwe energy secure.
At a time the country seeks to boost power generation, the option to invest into hydro-power provides little guarantee for reliable power supplies now and in the future, as the 750 megawatts-capacity Kariba Hydro Power Station has ably illustrated, snapping to 63 percent of capacity following just two consecutive drought seasons.
And in a vicious ecological cycle, the rising domestic and global climate risks will only exacerbate the water shortages at Kariba (or at any other hydro-electric power plants) that are fuelling Zimbabwe’s worst power crisis ever.
Now, with meteorologists forecasting poor rainfall this summer, Zesa Holdings chief executive Josh Chifamba has warned that capacity at Kariba will likely decline to as low as 33 percent, or 245MW, by January 2016.
Targeting to increase the share of renewable energies in the national energy mix to 10 percent by 2020, Zimbabwe needs to explore fully the options at its disposal, solar or hydro, complemented by cleaner energies like biogas, before committing huge finances into projects whose future is uncertain.
According to the National Energy Policy, Zimbabwe is targeting a combined 1,500MW of hydro power from the expansion of Kariba by 2016 and a new plant at the Batoka Gorge four years later, funds permitting.
There are plans also to build hydro stations within inland dams and rivers at Pungwe providing a cumulative 24MW in two phases, Tokwe-Mukorsi 12MW, Gairezi 30MW and Kondo 100MW.
These projects face climate threats similar to those that have seen Kariba, the country’s main hydro-electric power plant, teeter on the brink of closure, a very realistic prospect as the country faces yet another drought in the 2015 /16 season.
Investments into hydro energy will now need to be carefully weighted against the anticipated future changes in the climate, changes that will undoubtedly impact water availability.
The impact on energy pricing resulting from increased water scarcity will have far-reaching socio-economic consequences.
We have already noted what an unforeseen snap at Kariba can do to electricity prices.
According to Energy and Power Development Minister, Samuel Undenge, power utility Zesa Holdings will soon seek a tariff increase of 42 percent from US9,86c per kilowatt hour to US14c per kilowatt hour to boost new investments into contingency power plans.
For the investor, how will the uncertainty of pricing, and that of water availability, affect the future flow of financial investments into hydro power projects?
Investors are looking for projects that are safe and secure, the kind that in the long run will deliver efficient energy systems, at sustainably affordable prices, to drive economic and social growth.
At a time of climate change, where water in dams like Kariba, rivers, lakes and streams is expected to decline by as much as 50 percent by 2050, according to a 2012 World Bank report, “Turn Down The Heat”, just how much security can be drawn from large-scale hydro energy investments remains a matter of conjecture.
But the scales are rapidly tipping against Zimbabwe, or any other country, building their energy future on hydro power just so they meet their emission reduction quotas under global climate agreements.
It goes without saying that hydro power faces significant competition for water from thirsty economic sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing.
And we have yet to factor in ballooning household water needs, but, clearly, the scale of potential future demand for a receding resource like water weighs heavy on hydro power.
If that is not enough, existing and future large hydro power plants built along the Zambezi River Basin, such as Kariba and Batoka, are ill-prepared for climate change, says a 2012 report from International Rivers, a global ecological NGO.
Hydro power projects around the Zambezi are poorly evaluated for the risks from natural hydrological variability, which is very high in that area, much less the risks posed by climate change, the report says.
Further, the Zambezi Basin exhibits the worst potential effects of climate change among 11 major sub-Saharan African river basins, and will experience the most substantial reduction in rainfall and run-off, according to the UN climate science panel.
Warming in this basin will be significant, estimated in the region 0,3-0,6 degrees Celsius within this century while evaporation rates are expected to be higher.
In the context of clean energy development, hydro power presents practical options for neutralising greenhouse gas emissions, but the risks arising from climate change Zimbabwe can ignore at own peril.
These are risks policymakers will need to carefully consider in their plans to deliver a future that is energy secure for all.
It is important to note that while solar as a source for cooking, heating and lighting is fairly widespread in many homes across the country, it does not feature as a prominent source of energy in the national mix.
It is only last month that Government approved the construction by independent producers of three separate solar power plants of 100MW capacity each at Gwanda, Insukamini and Munyati.
Despite its potential, solar has struggled to take off in Zimbabwe, a nation with one of the highest solar radiations in the world.
Now, as investments into hydro power look increasingly risky, solar, a much reliable energy source, continues to knock on the door with real prospects of long-term climate-proof viability. Who can hear solar knock?
God is faithful.