Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority officials inspect falling water levels on the Kariba dam

Zimbabwe constructing solar plants after droughts hit hydroelectric supply

Zimbabwe is to construct four new solar power plants after falling water levels hindered its hydroelectric production.

The country is experiencing severe drought conditions that have been linked to the El Niño weather phenomenon which can cause extreme weather around the world

Zimbabwean producers of hydropower, big and small alike, are all being affected by the lack of water.

Phillip Muwungani of Chipendeke village, 70 km southeast of the fourth largest city Mutare, said his community's vision of producing its own clean electricity using water is fading.

Drought has affected water levels in Chitora River which powers the Chipendeke micro hydro plant, making electricity generation erratic.

The plant, which supplies electricity to villagers, a school, a clinic and a business centre, was built under a sustainable energy initiative backed by the ZERO Regional Environment Organisation, the Zimbabwe Energy Council and international development groups.

"The situation doesn't look good," Muwungani said. "We are not sure if it will improve any time soon."

At the national level too, drought has taken its toll on hydroelectric production. Experts say the Kariba Dam on the border with Zambia, which provides almost 60 per cent of Zimbabwe's power, could lose its ability to generate electricity in around six months' time unless water levels improve.

With an installed capacity of 750 MW, Zimbabwe's Kariba power plant is now generating less than 285 MW.

Lake Kariba, the world's largest man-made reservoir, is a little over 10 per cent full, down from around half at the same time last year, according to the Zambezi River Authority.

The Zimbabwean government has therefore decided to step up its efforts to generate electricity from solar farms.

The state-owned Zimbabwe Power Company says feasibility studies and engineering procurement are underway for three solar projects at Gwanda, Insukamini and Munyati.

Construction is expected to start this year, at a combined cost of $635m (£442m). Each solar power plant will generate 100 MW.

Although the projects have been planning stage for some time, the initial tenders were cancelled in 2014 due to irregularities in the bidding process. The contracts were re-issued to new companies last year, as the current drought-induced power crisis forced the government into action.

In October, the government signed a deal with Intratrek Zimbabwe to construct the Gwanda solar project in partnership with Chinese company CHINT Electrics, backed by a $202m loan from the Export-Import Bank of China.

Construction at a fourth solar power project in Marondera, about 70 km east of the capital Harare, will start in September. De Green Rhino Energy, a Zimbabwean joint venture set up by a London-based consultancy, will invest $400m from German investors in the project, which will start selling electricity to the national grid from the end of 2017 if the project completes on time.

The head of the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority told an energy conference in Harare in December that Zimbabwe needs investment of at least $9bn to increase its power generation capacity to 5,000 MW by 2030, from around 1,300 MW now.

The country aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services for all citizens by 2030, in line with UN goals.

In December, France announced it intends to spend billions of euros on renewable energy and other environmental projects in Africa, although the bulk of the investment will be poured into its former West African colonies.

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