EDITORIAL COMMENT: Reverse, re-tender solar energy projects

Solar panel

We are unhappy that, after companies were awarded tenders to build three solar power projects in 2015 amid much publicity and with lofty promises for greater energy security, no development is taking place at the designated farms.

Senators expressed their unhappiness at the state of affairs on Thursday. They quizzed the Deputy Minister of Energy and Power Development, Cde Tsitsi Muzenda, on the lack of progress of the solar projects. They said while the country has abundant sunshine and potential for solar energy projects the projects have not yet started.

Sen Muzenda said some companies who won tenders lack the financial muscle to finance the mega projects while in other cases disputes among shareholders delayed progress.

“Most of our solar projects have been having challenges in that people bid, they are given permission to do whatever they are supposed to do but at times those people would not be having [financial] resources,” she said.

“There is Gwanda, Munyati and the other one, all these projects were supposed to be on course but funding has been our greatest problem. You are aware that most of what is supposed to be used, the solar panels and so forth are imported so the capital outlay is quite massive. With the Gwanda project, the challenges have been that the people who were supposed to finance it were not happy with the local partner and they have had to have changes to whatever they had agreed to. Right now I am not very sure how much that solar project was going to contribute in terms of megawatts. . . However, most of our people think that if you are appointed as an independent power producer, you will recoup in two to three years, but that does not happen, it takes close to five to 10 years for you to enjoy the profits. So, that has really been our greatest problem, but we are hoping that very soon the Gwanda one will be on course.”

The $202 million Gwanda project has been especially controversial and there have been calls for it to be reversed. Intratrek Zimbabwe, owned by Mr Wicknell Chivayo, won the tender for the project in October 2015. It should have taken off, especially given that Intratek was paid $5 million for pre-commencement works.

The $5 million, which was allegedly paid without a bank guarantee as required, covered activities such as feasibility studies, topographical surveys, borehole sinking, site clearance, geo-technical surveying, site fencing and construction of administrative structures.

It is a shame that our country is blessed with so many hours of sunshine all year round yet we do not have solar projects of note. What we have is a few thousand household solar systems for lighting and heating purposes. It is a bit uncoordinated, which must not be the case given the potential we have as a country.

Hydro systems are useful but they are not reliable all the time especially when low rainfall, as happened two years ago, is received. We remember the Zambezi River Authority and the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) issuing almost daily updates on the dwindling water level on Kariba Dam and its impact on the hydro plant’s capacity to generate electricity to its name-plate capacity.  Other hydros elsewhere are small, thus not that significant on a national scale.

Coal has been doing great for our country over the years, but has its weaknesses — that it is not environmental friendly and that it is non-renewable. A third option, wind can be harnessed as well but its potential for utility scale generation is in doubt.

Taking the challenges with the foregoing energy sources into consideration, solar can, and should, go a long way in securing the country’s energy base. The Government did well in promoting private sector investment in projects to feed into the grid, hence the issuing of tenders for Munyati, Insukamini and Gwanda.  The three were expected to generate 100MW of electricity each and the project cost was $570 million.

It now turns out that those who won the tenders lack the financial wherewithal to execute them as fast as we expect. As this happens our country continues to spend scarce foreign currency importing 350MW from Mozambique and South Africa, a lot of money in the prevailing hard currency crunch.

Yesterday, ZPC was producing 1 121MW and we haven’t experienced load shedding in recent months. This is commendable but the reason why this has been the case is that industrial demand is low as most factories and other high energy users aren’t working at full throttle. There will come a time when production capacity will obviously grow and this makes it imperative that more investment is channelled into widening the national energy mix. And solar must be the most obvious way to go.

But the lethargy we are witnessing at Gwanda, Munyati and Insukamini is a cause for concern. Winners of the solar tenders have to pull up their socks, and do so now. If they fail, there will come a time when the Government would have to re-look at the tenders versus the progress or lack of it on the ground with a view to legally getting rid of sluggards for re-tendering to be done and much faster progress achieved for the sunshine we are wasting to be harnessed to power homes and industries.

Article Source: The Chronicle