It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s the case in Zimbabwe where businesses and well-off residents are reportedly turning to off-grid minigrids and on-site solar, small wind and hydro-plus-storage systems in droves amid grid outages that can last 18 hours a day.
The average cost per connection for minigrids in nearly all Sub-Saharan countries has dropped by 20% over the past two years, to a point where average minigrid electricity rates are well below those charged by utilities. There are other substantial benefits.
“Minigrids furthermore provide vastly superior quality and quantity of energy to rural communities than national utilities do in most of these countries. For these reasons and many others, minigrid firms have the potential to drive transformational economic growth for the hundreds of millions for whom minigrids have repeatedly been shown to be the least costly option by key international institutions,” says the international sustainable energy association Alliance for Rural Electrification in “Energy Access from the Bottom Up: Start-Up and SME Showcase 2018.”
Renewable minigrids in Zimbabwe
U.K.-based sustainable development advocacy and project developer Practical Action has been working to foster renewable energy in Zimbabwe since at least 2008. The charitable organization has developed six solar and more than six small-scale hydroelectric minigrids in southern Africa to date, said Zibusiso Ncube, Practical Action’s project manager for sustainable energy in southern Africa.
Practical Action has also assisted in the development of a supportive policy and institutional framework for the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region that focuses on minigrids that use hybrid renewable energy, energy storage and diesel power generation.
“In Zimbabwe we have worked to bring the private sector together with other stakeholders for dialogue in improving the market environment for rural energy. We have also shared lessons from our minigrids with the private sector in order to help them as they invest in the rural renewable energy sector and market,” Ncube said in an interview with Microgrid Knowledge.
Zimbabwe faces challenges in minigrid development, including a shortage of foreign currency to import equipment and unpredictable economic policies that make planning difficult, according to Neube. At the same time, minigrids create potential for local businesses to earn profits, expand and create jobs, while helping the region improve climate change resilience, health care and education.
Essential back-up plans for doing business in Zimbabwe
Practically every business owner in the Zimbabwean capital has an on-site source of electricity, as well as back-up plans that address their two other biggest worries: when hard currency disappears and when the government shuts down the services it provides completely, according to a regional news report.
Mining plays a huge role in Zimbabwe’s economy, accounting for most of the country’s $4.8 billion of 2018 export revenues. In addition, companies operating mines in Zimbabwe number among the first to invest, and are the largest investors, in on-site, off- and grid-connected minigrids.
Anglo Platinum, Sibanye-Stillwater and Makro have done so, for example, according to local news reports. So has Zimbabwe’s national telecommunications provider Telkom, where solar PV panels up and running at its Centurion campus mark the first phase of a plan to go completely off-grid.
The economics of minigrids in Sub-Saharan has improved dramatically in recent years, to the point where some leading miners have taken a step further and formed subsidiaries or joint ventures dedicated to developing minigrids for other businesses and governments. A division of Bushveld Minerals, Bushveld Energy, also known as eXcess Africa, develops utility-scale energy storage and solar energy systems across the region, for example.
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