Zimbabwe may be an accidental pioneer and become the world’s first off-grid economy, as people, business and even state departments turn to solar panels and battery packs to keep the lights on.
Batteries, especially, are becoming a hot item, as they offer some relief to crippling power outages that last for most of the day.
Usually, petrol or diesel generators provide standard backup power but in Zimbabwe, fuel, like pretty much everything else, is in short supply.
In early September, Bloomberg reported that Econet, the country’s largest mobile phone provider, would deploy hundreds of Tesla Powerwall battery packs to its communications towers.
California-based Tesla will supply 520 Powerwalls at 260 Econet sites. Each battery pack costs $6,500 and can supply up to ten hours of continuous electricity. The Powerwall uses lithium-based chemistry, which gives it much greater energy storage than lead-acid batteries.
The Powerwalls will be installed by Distributed Power Africa, a Zimbabwe-based company specialising in solar-battery installations. DPA is also a subsidiary of Econet.
“We ran a pilot project for about a year and it worked just beautifully," says Norman Moyo, chief executive of Distributed Power Africa. “The Powerwall is well suited to the challenges of Africa. It has robust security features, so it can’t be used when stolen from a base station.”
Due to the low availability of electricity of only around six hours per day, solar panels are used to charge towers during daylight hours, when they will also recharge the Powerwalls. Battery power can then be used at night. DPA worked closely with Tesla, which flew engineers out to Zimbabwe to help with the design.
“These are bespoke Powerwalls designed specifically for mobile base stations. All the telecoms providers operating across Africa are struggling to improve uptime of their base stations. This combination of solar and lithium batteries will go a long way to ensuring telecoms keep their services running,” Mr Moyo says.
Others are also going off-grid. Energy minister Fortune Chasi said in September the government would convert state-run fuel stations to solar, and would provide incentives for more businesses to do the same. All state airports are also being converted to solar.
“People will no longer be consumers of energy but its sources,” Mr Chasi said on his Twitter account on Monday. The government was also looking at incentives for electric cars, he added. In the meantime, it has issued tenders for seven solar farms around the country.
The government has set a target to secure at least 1,575 megawatts of power from solar by 2030 - about the same amount of electricity the country produces today from a range of sources. Also being considered is legislation enabling ‘net metering’ - that is, allowing citizens to sell electricity generated from private panels back to the grid.
For this to be viable, however, off-grid storage will also have to be developed.
For now, this means lithium batteries, which are the best technology currently available. Coincidentally, Zimbabwe is also the fifth-largest producer of lithium, and potentially a global supplier of the material.
It currently only has one operating lithium mine, but others are on the drawing board as the price of lithium goes up on the back of escalating worldwide demand. The mining ministry estimates Zimbabwe could supply up to 20 per cent of the world’s lithium.
Lithium production will form a central part of Zimbabwe’s economic planning, the mining minister Winston Chitando, has said.
“We are one of the few countries which are blessed with lithium resources and the more we can have in terms of lithium value addition, the better for the country,” Mr Chitando told state news service The Herald.
Currently, Zimbabwe’s only mine is the Bikita operation in the north of the country, which produces lithium concentrate. However, the country has large reserves that have yet to be exploited.
One business hoping to do so is the Kamativi Tailings Company, which is about to begin extracting lithium from the waste dumps of an abandoned tin mine.
Managing director John McTaggart says the company has access to around 1.5 million tons of lithium, enough to put six million Tesla Model 3s on the road.
He believes that capacity for lithium batteries could be scaled to a level where even industrial users switch to stored electricity generated by the sun.
“We’d like to get to the point where mega battery packs become the norm for industry,” says Mr McTaggart. “Econet has been spending a huge amount on fuel, and they’ll save millions a year by converting their towers to battery-solar energy.”
Other companies are following suit. Regional cement producer PPC says it will begin work on solar and storage at its two main factories in the country. Zimbabwe’s largest cold storage company, Bousted Beef, has also just announced similar plans.
Batteries could even provide an answer to the millions of Africans currently living without power. Many villages across the continent, including thousands in Zimbabwe, are nowhere near major power lines, which makes getting electricity to them a costly exercise. When the sun goes down, these settlements shut down too, making activities such as studying and homework impossible.
Using solar panels with battery banks would provide electricity around the clock.
“Light and the internet are revolutionising education across Africa. Electricity is more than just a luxury, it is a way out of poverty,” McTaggart added.
Cost, however, remains an impediment. Although the government has cut import duties on solar panels and batteries, a survey by the state-owned Herald published in September shows a solar-battery array for a household still costs around $4,500 (Dh16,526).
The country is also now being flooded with counterfeit panels and batteries as opportunists take advantage of the demand. At the same time, battery theft is becoming rampant, both in Zimbabwe and in neighbouring countries.
In South Africa, batteries are being stolen at such a rate from cellphone towers that MTN, the largest mobile provider in southern Africa, has permanently closed 53 base stations and put another 89 on hold.
“We’ve seen that most of these batteries are leaving South Africa for Zimbabwe, as a result of electricity blackouts,” says Yusuf Abramjee, a crime activist and consultant in Johannesburg. Zimbabwe-bound buses and trucks are now routinely stopped and searched by police.
“They're sold openly on the black market. We’ve alerted customs about the situation, and we need stricter border controls,” says Mr Abramjee.
Given that many Zimbabweans are not likely to have access to grid-based electricity anytime soon, embracing off-grid, self-generated and stored electricity may be their best solution. For many, any increase in electricity will be a relief.
In the long term, Zimbabwe could even lay the basis of an off-grid energy industry that could help other African countries, many of which also struggle with electricity shortages. For now, though, Zimbabweans would probably welcome any relief from long days without energy.
“Honestly, a solar powered Zimbabwe would be great,” says Kenneth Machiya, a medical student in the capital, Harare. He says his days are spent planning studying, shopping and work activities around power availability.
“Imagine not having to worry about electricity.”