Three years after the project’s initiation the massive 100 megawatt (MW) Gwanda Solar Project is yet to be fully implemented. Or was it supposed to be the 300MW Gwanda Solar Project?
Or perhaps the 10MW Gwanda Solar Project?
Facts on the ground show that all three set-ups were at some point correct.
Solar energy is often touted as a clear solution for countries facing energy deficits, but there are few countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, where it has been implemented and operating successfully.
All things being equal, a pilot project should have been carried out.
A pilot project or experiment is essentially a small-scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, time, cost, adverse events, and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project.
It is therefore a good way to reduce risk on projects that don’t fit into a life cycle well understood by the implementing organisation.
Hence it was important that Zimbabwe initially carries out a pilot solar project before full implementation.
And they did. Until they didn’t.
Latest revelations are that the Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC) initially proposed the Gwanda Solar Project as a 10MW pilot project.
But at some point it was “pressured” to go full-scale on the project.
“We were going to move into a new area of solar energy. The technical advice was that we start small with 10MW and then broaden from there. The shortage of power at the time was perhaps 1000MW . . . so it wasn’t about going into solar to meet the overall power deficit.
“Because this was a new technology we needed to study what we would run with. That was the recommendation from our engineers. But of course recommendations go to decision-makers and the decision-makers come back with decisions.
“The final decision had nothing to do with engineers, but with policymakers and decision-makers,” said Energy and Power Development permanent secretary Partson Mbiriri during a recent Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting.
The permanent secretary added that “the engineers were not comfortable with the decision for a 100MW solar power plant”.
“They were not ready for it. They needed to study and be at home with solar. Solar has this aspect that it fluctuates in terms of output. Solar energy is not available when we need it most, that morning and evening peaks, it’s available off-peak.”
The decision to turn the plant from 10MW to 100MW was under the Government of National Unity (GNU).
More interestingly, there was even a later proposal to convert it from 100MW to 300MW, with a plan having being mulled to incorporate all of the bidders for the project’s tender for the scaled-up project.
Although there are indications that discussions between ZETDC subsidiary, the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) and the bidders for the project for the 300MW proposed project, such an engagement would have been illegal as Section 30 of the now redundant State Procurement Act (22: 14) did not allow the procuring entity (in this case the ZPC) to be in contact with bidders.
“As the project was reviewed from 100MW to 300MW should we have written that in re-tendering? Run the risk of losing another 12 months? We were short of power. What would have been the most pragmatic way to resolve the situation?” asked the permanent secretary rhetorically.
The answer — in retrospect — Zimbabwe would have gained more by taking a phased approach.
Some progress has been made in terms of solar power generation in the country.
Last month Chinese electrical engineering giant, CHiNT Electric — a partner in the Gwanda Solar Project — committed a $52 million advance payment demand guarantee in a bid to unlock funding for the project.
CHiNT said was ready to provide a guarantee covering 30 percent of the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) aspect of the contract.
The price of the project was reviewed downward to $132 million from an initial quotation of $172 million.
Notwithstanding this latest development, the ZPC said recently that it was taking steps to recover part of the money it advanced to Intratek Pvt Ltd for the project.
Intratek, fronted by controversial businessman Wicknell Chivayo won the tender to develop the 100 megawatt Gwanda solar power plant in 2015, but the project is yet to take off although Chivayo was paid $5 million for pre-commencement works.
The $5 million, which was reportedly 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.
According to Zesa Holdings chief executive Josh Chifamba Intratek has to date had only cleared about 80 hectares of land instead of a targeted 200 hectares.
Last year, ZPC tendered its applications to the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA) seeking a licences to construct solar power plants in Gwanda, Matobo and Munyati to ease the country’s energy woes.
“Construction of Gwanda solar photovoltaic power plant will also involve the construction of a 15-kilometre 132kV line from the solar plant to the existing Gwanda 132kV substation; a 132kV line bay at the new Gwanda solar plant site; a 132kV line bay at the existing Gwanda 132kV substation, a 20-varb fast response reactor at Gwanda 132kV substation and substation ancillary equipment,” said ZERA in a notice.
And recently Chifamba said a legal process has since been initiated to recover the $5 million from Intratek.
“(However) that completion of the work does not necessarily have any influence on this legal process that has started, it does not preclude ZPC, should they so desire, to cancel the contract but what we are saying is work was already paid for and the contractor did not do the work and if the contractor comes and does the job or compensates our money its one and the same thing so by him going back to work he is actually compensating the money that we have already paid for and we are losing nothing,” he said.
For a country that is blessed with plentiful sunlight and at the same time blighted with constrained electricity supply, Zimbabwe’s utilisation of renewable energy — solar energy in particular — is next to nil.
ZERA has long since licensed over 15 independent power producers (IPPs) to implement renewable (read ‘solar’) energy projects, only a few have implemented these projects.
Within the region, North Africa has been implementing some huge solar projects, and Morocco is leading the way with a target to generating 52 percent of its electricity by 2030.
Morocco is constructing the “Noor Ouarzazate”, a solar plant that is seen to become the world’s largest solar power plant at completion.
Zimbabwe can draw lessons.