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Will Chinese investments in Zimbabwe's renewable energy help to mitigate climate change?

by Andrew Mambondiyani
08 Oct 2015 at 18:03hrs | Views
Women and children sell firewood in the city of Mutare
Mountains surrounding the eastern border city of Mutare in Zimbabwe are now standing forlornly naked having been stripped bare of all trees in the past decade.

The lush vegetation once associated with the mountains is long gone, leaving behind an aura of death as city residents have turned to the mountains for firewood on the back of crippling electricity outages in the country.

The critical shortage of electricity in the country has heavily weighed down the government's efforts to fight climate change through the provision of clean and renewable energy.   

The permanent secretary in Zimbabwe's Ministry of Energy and Power Development, Partson Mbiriri admitted that the electricity situation was critical when he said: "We're short of energy and we want to resolve power in the shortest possible time".

Zimbabwe needs about 2 200 megawatts of electricity at peak consumption but is currently generating below 1 000 megawatts and the country is now pinning hope on Chinese investments in the renewable energy sector in Zimbabwe.

At the Fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Beijing, China, in July 2012 the two sides agreed to prioritise infrastructure and strengthen cooperation in electricity, energy and other areas of infrastructure development.

They also agreed that China would continue to adopt measures to help African countries build capacity for climate change adaptation and mitigation and sustainable development.

In addition when Ambassador Lin Lin was posted as Chinese envoy to Zimbabwe a month after the fifth FOCAC conference, he said: "A major issue that I want to look at is that of power generation. We hope to engage investors for the construction of hydro power stations".
As Ambassador Lin Lin bade farewell to Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe in September this year after a three year tour of duty he said he was happy to see one major Chinese investment in the energy sector taking off.

The expansion of the Kariba South Hydro Power Station which will add 300 megawatts to the national grid upon completion in 2018 started late last year.  Sino Hydro Corporation, a Chinese state-owned hydropower company, is implementing the project through a US$533 million China Exim Bank loan.

On completion, Kariba South Power Station will change the face of power generation in Zimbabwe as it will generate 1 050 megawatts up from the current capacity of 750 megawatts.

"We are on schedule and we anticipate that the first generation unit will be commissioned in December 2017 and second in March 2018," Zimbabwe Power Company managing director, Engineer Gwatidzo said.

In a statement, Sino Hydro said the company wanted to complete the construction of the Kariba South Power Extension in the shortest possible time.

"We took consideration of the strong demand from Zimbabwe Power Company to shorten the construction period in order to increase power generation in the shortest possible time. The construction was cut to 40 months," the company said.

The Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa recently revealed that work on Kariba South Hydro Power Station was progressing well with excavations on units 1 to 4 as well as the powerhouse pilot tunnel and construction of the upstream coffer dam having been completed.

However despite the critical electricity shortage in the country, some Chinese investments in the renewable energy sector have been derailed or delayed by the Zimbabwe State Procurement Board. The procurement board in September this year cancelled price bids from four companies that complied with the technical requirements and funding for 300 megawatts solar projects in Insukamini, Munyati, and Gwanda. Chinese companies ZTE Corporation and Chint Electric Company were some of the companies affected.

 Powerway South Africa, a subsidiary of China's Powerway Renewable Energy Company also announced plans to invest $160 million to construct a solar plant in Zimbabwe but the project has not yet started.

An expert on China-Africa relationship, Friederike von Colln of the Central European University in Hungary told this journalist in September that in general FOCAC provided a solid framework for addressing climate change through investment in renewable energy.

"Trade and investment related to climate change mitigation feature on the agenda for the upcoming conference (in South Africa December 2015), so there is a good potential for continuation of enhanced cooperation building up on previous initiatives," von Colln said.

At the fourth Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in November 2009 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, China announced the 100 clean energy projects across the continent which includes small-scale energy projects focusing on solar power.

As Zimbabwe does not have fully developed energy infrastructure in place, the promotion of renewable energy can increase access to electricity, increase supply and improve energy security while at the same time leapfrogging emission-intensive economic growth.

 The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that Africa has the second largest potential for generating electricity of renewable energies after Asia. This potential can play an important role of increasing electrification rates without increasing greenhouse gas emissions and therefore support sustainable development.

 However, von Colln was quick to add that Chinese investments were a double edged sword.

"While environment and climate friendly investments are definitely on the rise and voluntary guidelines exist for overseas investments, Chinese companies continue to invest into projects with harmful consequences for the environment especially in mining and forestry," she said.

But, whether Chinese investments will help to address climate change mitigation will therefore depend largely on the policy and legislative environment in Zimbabwe.

"It might be difficult to arrive at a general conclusion for the whole African continent, as much will also depend on the will and commitment of African leaders and society to steer investments into climate friendly direction," von Colln said.

And she added: "Civil society organizations should play an active role in monitoring project implementation and compliance with national standards and provide independent assessments."

As the Zimbabwe State Procurement Board continues to frustrate efforts by Chinese companies to invest in renewable energy, experts on the China- Zimbabwe relationship say the lack of adequate regulatory and policy frameworks are preventing Chinese investors from fully venturing into the renewable sector.

But President Mugabe said: "A new Procurement Bill will be drafted and tabled in Parliament before end of 2015 which will emphasize devolution of power to award tenders to procuring entities".

However, as the State Procurement Board delays awarding tenders for the solar projects, many people in rural and urban areas continue to cut down trees for firewood.

 In some residential areas power cuts are going for more than 12 hours per day making selling firewood a brisk business. Every day, women, men and children from peri- urban communities are seen trudging around cities selling firewood.

A recent study by the Resources and Environment revealed that a high demand for firewood in Zimbabwe's urban areas was causing massive deforestation and land degradation in the country.

But hopes are high that completion of the expansion of the Kariba South Hydro power project will help boost electricity supply in the country.
"As you can see the government has now brought electricity to us and we hope this will help us stop the wanton cutting down of trees. We now have a clean source of energy. We hope the expansion at Kariba will help us," Elliot Nzarayebani from Mpudzi Resettlement Scheme about 50 kilometres south of the city of Mutare said.

Mpudzi Resettlement Scheme will benefit from an electricity project by the Zimbabwe Rural Electrification Agency which has upped rural electrification projects in anticipation an increased power generation at Kariba Hydro Power.

Rural Electrification Agency employees work on a rural electricity project in Mpudzi Resettlement Scheme

However in Rusape about 100 kilometres northwest of the city of Mutare, a firewood seller, Tapiwa Makoni seemed to enjoy brisk business on the back of the crippling power cuts.
"Power cuts are good for us in the firewood business," Makoni said with a chuckle.

This feature was funded by a grant from the China-Africa Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department at the University of the Witwatersrand (South Africa)

Source - Andrew Mambondiyani