Why renewable energy won’t end energy poverty in Zimbabwe

16328421 – victoria falls from the air in the afternoon zimbabwe

Ellen Fungisai Chipango, University of Johannesburg

Zimbabwe is one of the African countries that hopes renewable energy technologies will help to address their energy problems. About 42% of Zimbabwe’s households are connected to the electricity grid.

The country has huge and diverse renewable energy potential. Its sustainable energy portfolio could include solar, hydro, biomass and, to a limited extent, wind and geothermal. Zimbabwe put forward a National Renewable Energy Policy in 2019. The policy aims to have 16.5% of the total generation capacity (excluding large hydro) from renewable sources by 2025. This increases to 26.5% by 2030. These are among the goals it has presented to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and they are promoted in its climate policy.

For policy makers, non-governmental organisations, the private sector and some researchers, it’s a given that renewable energy technologies are the answer. They could meet Zimbabwe’s growing energy demand and achieve universal access sustainably. At face value this is appealing – but the devil is in the details.

My research looked into how renewable energy technologies are understood and how they could alleviate energy poverty in Zimbabwe.

I found that they’re only one piece of the puzzle and other pieces are habitually missing. No matter how well designed and efficient technologies are, their effectiveness is linked to the country’s political economy.

Socio-economic and political factors keep conventional energy out of reach of the poor. My study shows that they can do the same with renewable energy. These factors may even worsen inequality. Adding renewable energy technologies into the existing energy sector structures is like pouring new wine into old wine skins.

The research

I analysed how policy makers and implementers have highlighted some aspects of energy poverty rather than others. This has led to renewable energy being touted as an antidote to energy poverty.

From the data, the following political and economic factors emerged. They explain why renewable energy isn’t a magic bullet for energy poverty:

The politics of energy and technological dependency: China has become a source of finance for large-scale energy projects in Zimbabwe. This is true for both coal-based and renewable energy generation.

What’s seldom acknowledged is the skewed nature of this relationship. China has global dominance in renewable energy technologies. For example, the Chinese solar PV cell and module makers quickly dominated global sales. And the country’s wind turbine producers are poised for significant exports.

The influx of cheap and poor quality Chinese goods to Zimbabwe hasn’t helped. These include electrical equipment such as solar panels.

Energy as a tool of accumulation: For China, energy poverty in Zimbabwe is an opportunity for its economic growth. The unequal distribution of economic power keeps Zimbabwe energy poor. Accumulation is happening at one pole and energy poverty at another. To illustrate this, consider a poor rural household: would it risk investing in a solar panel and a battery knowing that the equipment might be of poor quality?

This isn’t only true for households, but also countries. Because most renewable energy technological resources and expertise are concentrated in China, they would need to be transferred from this region of technological dominance to Zimbabwe. This makes Zimbabwe more technologically dependent.

It’s a vicious cycle where the powerful country invests in these technologies, sells the product in the name of addressing energy poverty, ploughs the profit back in as new investment, and begins accumulation once more.

This is made possible by accumulation’s close relative: public-private partnerships. For example, the National Renewable Energy Policy promotes public-private partnership and private participation through tendering for off-grid technologies. When the interests of the private sector are put at the heart of infrastructure planning, public-private partnerships are likely to replicate the energy inequalities that served the powerful and ignored the economically weak.

Renewable energy technologies would work if, somehow, they did more for the poor than for the powerful. But in reality, the opposite is true.

First, the private partners (independent power producers) aren’t ordinary citizens, but the economically powerful and politically connected.

Second, the flawed nature of the tendering system cannot be overstated. It’s normally associated with corruption and political interference.

What’s more, this elite group tends to benefit from the state’s intervention.

In a bid to address the concerns of investors and developers, renewable energy projects are exempted from customs and general excise regulations. This is guided by legislation such as the Value Added Tax Act and its regulations. For the investors and developers, the goal is to increase supply – and for them to benefit in the process – despite the socio-economic problems and inequalities this generates.

Going forward

Renewable energy technologies are politics by other means. The way forward lies in challenging the political and economic fundamentals of this technology.

Renewable energy technologies are not a wholly independent variable in the development process – they depend on socio-economic and political relations. If those aren’t addressed, universal energy access through renewable energy technologies will remain a dream.

Ellen Fungisai Chipango, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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May 9, 2021 10:55 am

Let me put it this way: coal power hasn’t ended it either…

all those proposed coal plants in the disaster zone which is Zimbabwe are just vapourware.

but individual solar panels, solar lanterns DO make an immediate and worthwhile improvement in peoples’ lives.

Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 12:22 pm

Batteries, Griff.
What about their supplies of batteries?
Solar lanterns are as useless as ashtrays on motorbikes unless they can be run off rechargeable batteries.
(Hint – you don’t need a lantern when the sun is out and can run off power directly from a solar panel. Lanterns are used at night. When the sun is not out. Then batteries are required to make the lantern throw off light.)

Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 1:12 pm

Absolutely right.
I would never rely on grid in such a country.
Rooftop or even mobile China-solar panels plus batteries (again, China-made 18650 packs) solve the problem completely.Coal, etc. are out.Of course, you need a machine gun to defend this treasure, but hey! That’s normal down there.

Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 1:44 pm

Griffter, Zimbabwe is calling …they need you….without Mugabe, they don’t know what to do….also, inform them of the NEEF…National Environmental Educational Foundation.

Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 2:21 pm

Of course griff can’t prove anything he claims, but he will always say what he is paid to say.

Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 3:38 pm

Zimbabwe gets 19% of its electricity from coal. Close to 0% from solar. Zimbabwe has HUGE potential for Hydro power, about 17,500 MW. Solar potential? About 300 MW. Solar isn’t the answer.

So what’s the problem? Zimbabwe went through a period of hyperinflation. Their inflation rate is still very high. The people’s meager savings were completely inflated away – they can’t begin to buy an individual solar panel with a rechargeable battery – that’s just a stupid, ignorant thing to say. The average Zimbabwean earns about $600 USD per month – the median salary is even lower. Even a tiny 100 W solar panel with a battery and inverter costs ~$1200 USD. Are you really suggesting that they should buy one and not eat for 2 months? You do know that if one was donated to a poor family it would just get stolen or confiscated, don’t you?

Rich Davis
Reply to  meab
May 9, 2021 4:52 pm

No, I’m sure he is really suggesting that they be given the solar panel/batteries/inverter and it should be paid for with your tax money, and mine. It’s carbon justice dontchaknow? 14.7 million people in Zimbabwe, say 4 per household, that’s a mere $4.4 billion. Then we can move on to the rest of the 1.22 billion Africans, maybe cost us $365 billion to give’em all a kit. Then they can run a couple of light bulbs at night and maybe use a hot plate to cook. Refrigerator? Not so much.

Well to be honest, it’s a way better idea than shutting down our economies.

Rich Davis
Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 4:26 pm

What Zimbabwe needs is a sane government to start with. They aren’t going to get any globalist organizations to lend them money for hydroelectric dams or coal-fired generators that would allow them to monetize their own natural resources. If investors could hope to make and keep some profit building and operating the hydroelectric dams even for a period of time, then it could be done through markets. But so long as the place is a kleptocracy run by Mugabe’s lieutenants, it is never going to get better.

Reply to  griff
May 9, 2021 11:48 pm

Griff, mate,

I know you won’t answer this but I’ll try anyway.

We have finite funds.

  1. Should we spend £trillions on unreliable, intermittent sources of energy-saving with no immediate saving of life, or
  2. Spend a few $billion on providing clean water and sanitation and save the lives of 800,000 men, women, and children annually?

Pick one. A simple “1” or “2” will do.

No long-winded excuse for not doing the right thing.

Reply to  griff
May 10, 2021 6:00 am

Zimbabweans should bally well trust the likes of griff and co from your past colonial powers as they’re only here to help-
Smart Charging Trial | AGL
Think of them as lots of paternalistic Mugabes all looking out for you.

Reply to  griff
May 10, 2021 3:35 pm

griff, you clearly know nothing of Africa … money allocated to the construction and maintenance of its fleets of thermal power stations is simply stolen by the political ‘intelligentsia’ … no money = no construction, no maintenance and no fuel. And that my boy is what Africa is about.

May 9, 2021 11:02 am

Thank you for the revealing, but sad analysis. Many realists see the same dangers from the “green” poliltical machine. While China pushes highly promised solar/wind solutions to make a quick buck, they personally engage in rapid development of the more economical and reliable fossil fuel and nuclear energies … https://newtube.app/user/RAOB/kf3DIEm

Reply to  John Shewchuk
May 9, 2021 11:07 am

Who’d a thunk the Chinese might be saying one thing and doing another?

Bruce Cobb
May 9, 2021 11:46 am

It never turns out well whenever victoria falls from the air.

Abolition Man
Reply to  Bruce Cobb
May 9, 2021 5:39 pm

Didn’t she land on Prince Albert in the can?

May 9, 2021 11:51 am

“Renewable energy” is China’s passport into under-developed, but resource rich, countries.

Make no mistake, “green energy” is the bitcoin token equivalent of modern colonialism.

Like bitcoin, green energy has no underpinning tangible financial benefits. It’s “value” is only comprised of whatever favorable perceptions can be imbued in consumers by promoters.

May 9, 2021 12:15 pm

Why renewable energy won’t end energy poverty in Zimbabwe
Title too long

Why renewable energy won’t end energy poverty

Abolition Man
Reply to  leitmotif
May 9, 2021 5:41 pm

Hey, the griffter gets well paid by it!

May 9, 2021 12:39 pm
  • “I found that they’re only one piece of the puzzle and other pieces are habitually missing. No matter how well designed and efficient technologies are, their effectiveness is linked to the country’s political economy”
  • “China has become a source of finance for large-scale energy projects in Zimbabwe.”
  • The influx of cheap and poor quality Chinese goods to Zimbabwe hasn’t helped. These include electrical equipment such as solar panels.
  • “Renewable energy technologies are politics by other means.”

Very, very good.

Peta of Newark
Reply to  dk_
May 9, 2021 1:35 pm

Nailed it:
Quote: (slightly modified) “The influx of cheap and poor quality Chinese goods to almost everywhere is scandalous. These include electrical equipment such as LED Light Bulbs

(The guy doing those videos is, for anyone with any engineering curiosity, A Real Hero)

Gotta see his one about rechargeable batteries. The fun starts at about 13 mins in…

Rich Davis
May 9, 2021 4:12 pm

Probably beside the point to most people, but I’m a stickler for accuracy. The falls shown in the picture and the land behind them is in Zambia. The land in the foreground is Zambia as well. Zimbabwe is on the far side of the Victoria Falls bridge and off to the left. There are some falls on the Zimbabwe side (Devil’s Pool Victoria Falls), but they are not shown. You can check it out on Google Maps.

Reply to  Rich Davis
May 9, 2021 7:11 pm

And out of the two, I think Zambia does a whole lot better. They also have hydro if I remember, but the infrastructure is poorly maintained and they had some droughts recently which made hydro practically useless. Zim will never get out of the mess of its own making. Anyone who thinks otherwise will be taken out back and shot.

To put it another way. If every government building has a mandated portrait of the dear leader, you know nothing positive is going to happen while that portrait hangs over the door.

May 9, 2021 4:29 pm

Whether it is coal, gas, solar, biomass or hydro that is going to supply electricity to the grid, only 42% of the households are connected to this grid. In order to get people out of energy poverty, a massive extension of the current grid is required.

Abolition Man
May 9, 2021 6:04 pm

Renewable energy can’t relieve energy poverty in Zimbabwe; because unreliable “renewable” energy CANNOT relieve energy poverty, PERIOD! END OF STORY!
Other than hydroelectric, “renewable” energy like solar and wind are too diffuse and too expensive to ever lift a country out of energy poverty! You need dense and reliable sources like coal and other fossil fuels; like all of the Western nations used in their climb to 1st World status! Excess unreliable energy may take some of them back to 3rd World status if they are not careful with how much they let it infect their energy systems!
Zimbabwe has many political and economic problems from years of being run by kleptocrats! Trying to rely on unreliable energy will not help, only hinder!

Matthew Sykes
May 10, 2021 1:32 am

What will end poverty in Zimbabwe, is British Colonialism, and that’s what the new president has done, bought back the white farmers, to much celebration, to get agricultural production going again.

Climate believer
May 10, 2021 1:39 am

Great, not satisfied with b@ggering up the country once, the communists are having another go at it.

Bill Rocks
May 10, 2021 8:21 am

I have a crisp 10 billion dollar bill from Zimbabwe. 2008 Harare. The paper on which it is printed is worth more than its monetary value.

I was nearby and worked with some who were affected by the exodus of landowners and farmers in 1995. Collapse of food production and starvation followed. Very long, sad situation.

Today, “Renewable energy technologies are politics by other means.”

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