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What's holding back off-grid renewable energy in Zimbabwe?

by Tonderayi Mukeredzi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 9 September 2016 09:00 GMT

The corporate owners of this micro solar power plant in Harare no longer rely on grid electricity. TRF/Tonderayi Mukeredzi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Zimbabwe's renewable energy market remains littered with structural pitfalls

Zimbabwe has enormous potential to adopt renewable energy technologies, its government and experts say. Solar is particularly promising, and could supply 10,000 gigawatt hours of electricity per year - more than the country’s current total power production - if the funding were available to fully exploit it. 

But as a discussion heard in Harare last month, the renewable energy market is littered with structural pitfalls. These may hamper the development of off-grid power, increasingly styled as the quickest and cheapest way to get clean energy to millions of poor people without electricity. 

Here are some of the potential problems identified at the energy discussion involving government officials, businesses and sustainable energy groups: 

Policy gaps

The government has committed to provide an adequate and sustainable energy supply through formulating an effective regulatory framework and policies, and promoting greater use of new energy sources. But the environment is not yet conducive to a renewable energy revolution. 

While the National Electricity Act of 2002 opened up the energy sector to independent players, and an Energy Policy was enacted in 2012, the country lacks a specific policy for renewable energy. 

Sosten Ziuku, director of renewable energy in the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, said the government is still developing many of the critical policies that will catalyse renewable energy use. A Renewable Energy Policy is expected by year-end. 

Other key policies on biofuels and feed-in tariffs, a renewables “readiness assessment”, a rural energy master plan and an energy systems development plan are all at various stages of drafting.

But even with the energy policy that is in place, implementation is lagging, Ziuku said.

“We have also observed that there are no specific long-term targets, clear action plans, timelines, and implementation strategies for renewable energy,” he told the discussion. “More importantly, we don’t have reporting, monitoring, and evaluation frameworks to guide progress.”


Access to finance is another major impediment, with a lack of adequate financing models to promote the uptake of renewable energy technologies. 

Much can be learned from affordable pay-as-you-go systems championed by the private sector and non-governmental organisations. But energy access experts say other financing channels for solar systems - such as mobile payment systems and micro-loans for clean energy investments - are limited.  

On top of this, Fungai Matura, an energy expert with SNV Zimbabwe, said skepticism is high among local financiers towards backing solar projects.

William Ponnela, chief executive of solar products firm Zonful Energy, identified the lack of finance as a major bottleneck for consumers and distributors, with many manufacturers demanding cash up-front and companies selling products for high prices.

While solar products are duty-free, the country does not have fiscal incentives in place for investors, such as feed-in tariffs, tax rebates and renewable energy certificates, which have proven to be key drivers of renewables in European markets.

And in general, Zimbabwe has a high political risk profile, which makes it an unattractive destination for foreign energy funding.

Ziuku said that without clear tariff structures for grid-connected green projects, conflict was likely between private players and the Zimbabwe Energy Supply Authority (ZESA), which owns the grid and is also a competitor.

Power Purchase Agreements between ZESA and independent power producers need to be clear, he added.  

At least 23 independent producers have been licensed, but most of their projects have yet to start owing to financial difficulties. 

Quality control  

Without standards and guarantees for most imported solar technologies, the energy market is largely unregulated, resulting in the importation of substandard products.

The high failure rate of imported technology has choked off the solar market but trust in the technology is rebuilding, Ponnela said.

The market lacks skilled installers, with the majority of electricians claiming to be solar installers without proper training, he added. Meanwhile, after-sale service for solar is virtually non-existent.

The Standards Association of Zimbabwe and the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) are still drafting many of the required solar standards, including regulations for solar water heaters, lighting products, the solar PV industry and energy management.

ZERA’s director of renewable energy, Tobias Mudzingwa, said the authority is building a dedicated solar PV equipment testing laboratory which would check components such as solar modules, batteries, charge controllers and inverters. It is also funding the establishment of a test centre for solar thermal systems. 

Strategies for off-grid power

Organisations working to boost access to energy say that for off-grid systems to work effectively, forthcoming policies must include targets, milestones, and monitoring and evaluation protocols for all types of renewable energy.

They are also calling for mandatory standards for solar components and installations, as well as enforcement mechanisms for warranties and guarantees to safeguard consumers.

Also critical are the promotion of viable business models, fiscal incentives, ease of doing of business, and help for suppliers to offer the right technologies to the market, they say.

Chiedza Mazaiwana, Power for All Campaign spokesperson in Zimbabwe, said the campaign is building government capacity to develop policy and regulatory frameworks that can promote accelerated growth of the off-grid renewables market.

It is also supporting business and civil society to adopt affordable business models to speed up the deployment of decentralised renewables, and working with the media to increase public awareness of their efficacy. 

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