JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
THE humming of diesel generators in Lusakaâ€™s Northmead shopping area has now become a familiar sound as the country faces its worst energy crisis ever, caused by a partial drought last rainy season.
For six decades, Zambia has depended on the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River to generate hydro-electricity, but low water levels in the dam have over-stretched the generation capacity, resulting in a power deficit of over 700 megawatts and extended hours of load shedding.
And as the rainy season sets in, many are now hoping that the situation will change. Inevitably, the weather has become a talking point and a rainfall in one part of the country is quickly reported with excitement via social media.
However, with changing climate due to global warming, the rainfall is becoming increasingly unpredictable and unreliable.
The United Nations agency for children, UNICEF, this week expressed fear that countries in southern Africa will be hit by severe drought conditions due to the warming of waters in the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon known as El Nino.
Neighbouring Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa are already experiencing droughts, according to UNICEF.
And in some parts of Zambia, that flashing bolt of lightning and roar of thunder that announces a downpour are still absent from the sky.
â€œWhat could happen if there was no rain for the next three months?â€ Paolo Marandola asked a hashed audience of about 400 energy experts and investors gathered at a conference to discuss the energy crisis last week in Lusaka.
The conference was called by the Ministry of Energy and Water Development with a view to finding a lasting solution to the power deficit.
The answer to Professor Marandolaâ€™s question seemed all too obvious â€“ solar power.
â€œAll countries in Africa must switch to solar because we have sufficient sunlight here,â€ said the professor, who represents a number of Italian companies with interest to invest in Zambiaâ€™s energy sector.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar could become the worldâ€™s largest source of electricity by mid-century, providing about a quarter of its power.
In fact, the IEA predicts that by 2060, solar power will account for a third of the global energy requirement.
Many countries in Europe, including those with limited sunshine, such as Sweden, are already switching to solar energy.
With 174,000 terawatts, the sun is an inexhaustible source of energy.
And Africa, which has some of the sunniest spots on the planet, offers huge potential for solar energy.
At the conference, the newly-appointed Minister of Energy and Water Development Dora Siliya took a bold step to face stakeholders, barely two weeks on her job.
If Ms Siliya was overwhelmed by the huge responsibility she faces, she did not show it, but she did express frustration at the inertia in her own ministry to approve private investments in renewable energy.
â€œWe need to collapse the box,â€ she said.
The box Ms Siliya was talking about is the business-as-usual attitude, in her ministry.
â€œToday is not the day for the blame game,â€ she said. â€œWe all recognise that this is a crisis, and if there is a crisis, we canâ€™t do things as usual.â€
She suggested streamlining the processes involved in obtaining operating licences to reduce on the time one has to wait before approval of a project.
Her suggestion resonated well with the audience, who applauded in support.
Several speakers at the conference complained about the government bureaucracy they had to deal with in trying to establish a business in the renewable energy sector.
â€œIf the ministry had given us permission to start our project four months ago, we would have added 50 megawatts to the grid,â€ one delegate said, sounding frustrated. His sentiments were received by a round of applause from the audience.
It was clear he spoke for many in the sector.
â€œIf investment in solar is what is on the table now, we must be flexible enough as government to provide the necessary incentives,â€ Ms Siliya said.
Two major factors were identified as obstacles to investment in renewable energy.
One of them is the issue of unattractive tariffs, a point already discussed at various fora.
Comparatively, Zambia has the lowest electricity tariffs in the region, at six cents per kilowatt-hour.
â€œThe price is ridiculously low,â€ said Prof. Marandola.
He said many companies would be willing to invest in power generation if the price was above 13 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The second factor is the power purchase agreement (PPA), which is a prerequisite for a private firm to offload power onto the grid, in this case through Zesco.
Without a PPA, firms cannot borrow from banks to set up any project.
But what affects the PPA is the same problem of low tariffs.
Zesco is unwilling to buy electricity at cost-reflective prices, and then subsidise the price when it sells to consumers at six cents.
POLICY IS KEY
For Prof Marandola, investment in the renewable energy sector in Zambia can only be driven by the government.
He said the government must come up with a clear policy that will give guidelines on the development of solar energy. He also said government must come up with incentives such as tax rebates to encourage private businesses to invest in solar power generation.
â€œWhat could happen if all shopping malls installed solar power, or if all the mines installed solar power, even just for administration purposes?â€ Prof Marandola asked.
He added that the best way is for Zambia to produce its own solar panels in future, to avoid the cost of importation of solar panels.
Currently government, through the Citizenâ€™s Economic Empowerment Commission and newly-created Industrial Development Corporation and the Zambia Development Agency, is encouraging investing in renewable energy.
But it is not just switching to alternative sources of energy that will save Zambia from the current crisis. There is also need to use available energy efficiently, says Caesar Leonardi, managing director of Zuba Renewable Energy Limited.
He said Zambia could save a lot of energy by switching to energy-saving lighting bulbs.
In fact, it is said that if all Zambian households switched from incandescent bulbs to LED bulbs, the country would save about 100 megawatts on the grid.
Ending the Zesco monopoly was also identified as a possible solution to the energy crisis.
â€œUnless Zesco is given some level of competition, we will not achieve good results,â€ said Nic Money, who is an expert in geothermal energy.
And the minister seemed to agree. â€œMonopoly creates inefficiency and manipulation,â€ she said.
At the close of the conference, Ms Siliya seemed satisfied with the solutions she had heard, more so perhaps with the cordial manner the meeting had been conducted.
Ironically, Ms Siliya recalled reading a report when she was Deputy Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry in 2006, which predicted that Zambia would face power shortage in 2015, now she has to deal with it.
The minister left Mulungushi International Conference Centre with a promise to take to Parliament the concerns raised by the meeting.
JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka