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Zambia’s March Toward Reliable and Sustainable Energy

April 26, 2021

Only 31 percent of Zambians have access to electricity. Most that do live in urban areas; only four percent of the rural population can access power. Sustainable and reliable energy are two of the primary elements needed for sustainable economic development, and Zambia has fallen behind in this regard.

Zambia is growing at a rapid rate resulting in higher demand for reliable electricity. If the Government of Zambia (GOZ) is to reach the development goals identified in Vision 2030 and the UN 2030 Agenda, it will need to embrace alternative forms of energy. But most importantly, the GOZ must provide a productive business enabling environment for private sector investors seeking to expand the Zambian energy sector.

Current Energy Sector Composition

ZESCO, a state-owned entity, owns and operates most power generation stations in Zambia and distributes electricity to both rural and urban populations. There are other co-operative stakeholders, but they comprise only a small percentage of the energy sector. Zambia’s energy capacity hovers around 2,800 megawatts (MW) and demand is steadily increasing by 150 MW to 200 MW per year.

This increase in demand is primarily due to a significant increase in copper mining. Zambia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources and naturally occurring sources of energy. Hydropower accounts for 85 percent of energy generation within the country, much of which is concentrated within three major dams: Kafue Gorge, Kariba, and Victoria Falls. The leftover energy is generated by more traditional forms such as coal, heavy fuel, and biomasses such as wood and agricultural waste.

Hydropower has a few advantages such as cleanliness, renewability, and need-based generation. Its primary disadvantage, however, is its dependence on cyclical rainfall cycles and recurring drought. Historically, Zambia has received a considerable amount of rain per year, but experts are proclaiming that climate change is beginning to alter this predictable pattern of precipitation. In 2019, the water levels within the Kariba Dam and Victoria Falls, Africa’s largest waterfall, fell to the lowest level in fifty years, rendering nearly 90 percent of available aquatic energy unusable. But even as the water fell, demand on the grid remained constant.

“When you have this huge demand, coupled with the negative effects of climate change, the power plummets from…100% production to 20%. How do you meet the demand?”
Zambian President Edgar Lungu, 2019 Parliamentary Address

The realities of drought and cyclical rainfall will continue to challenge ZESCO and the GOZ, especially as the demand for energy becomes greater. Drought will also push Zambia further away from a clean energy future as citizens look to unclean energy sources to compensate for the lack of hydropower. To combat this impending challenge and diversify the energy market, stakeholders must turn to alternative forms of energy such as solar, wind, and geothermal generation, all of which are available in Zambia.

Alternative Energy Sources

Alternative energy sources are slowly emerging in Zambia, and they serve as a capable supplement to hydropower. Boasting 2,000 to 3,000 hours of intense sunlight per year, Zambia is well-positioned to harness the sun as a reliable source of energy.

In 2017, during the peak of the drought, ZESCO began stockpiling (the technical term for this process is often referred to as load-shedding) energy to prevent demand from outpacing supply, resulting in a dramatic loss of energy. The concurrent loss of energy upended lives throughout the country. In response, President Lungu launched the Bangweulu Scaling Solar Plant in Lusaka, providing 54 milliwatts of electricity to 30,000 homes and multiple businesses.

“When there is no load-shedding… I am able to make a complete metal gate which I sold for K1500 (US$150). I am happy that government is working toward reducing load shedding through [the] use of solar energy.”
Cana Mutunta, Zambian Small Business Owner

Wind energy is accessible in Zambia, but not to the same degree as solar. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) Global Atlas for Renewable Energy, sustained wind speeds high enough to generate electricity vary quite dramatically throughout the country. On average, utility-scale wind turbines require 13 miles per hour of sustained wind. This speed is frequently achieved in the western portions of the country, which will have the greatest potential for wind energy. As opposed to solar, wind energy provides three primary benefits:

• Wind can be generated in the evening and does not require significant storage
• Wind speed is typically stronger in the winter, coinciding with the drought season
• Wind turbines do not occupy as much physical space as solar plants and/or panels

Geothermal generation is another viable source of clean, renewable energy. Geothermal energy is generated by drilling for water beneath the Earth’s surface. As the water is captured and transmitted upward, it is turned into steam. The steam is then used to turn large generator turbines, creating electricity in turn. Unlike hydropower, geothermal generation does not depend on environmental variables such as rainfall, sunlight, or wind speed.

Zambia rests in the cradle of the East African Rift (EAR), a portion of the African continent with massive geothermal potential. Currently, the EAR only produces 900 MW of electricity through geothermal generation. As investment and research increases, it has the capacity to produce up to 15,000 MW for the region. There are 80 hot springs within the country, many of which have the necessary surface temperature and flow rate to generate geothermal energy.

Increasing Access and Enabling Private Investment

Zambia is poised for an entrance into the alternative energy market, but doing so will require significant infrastructural investments, regulatory navigation, and private sector engagement. The building blocks for such a future currently exist, and several are already underway:

Power Africa, a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative, seeks to “level the playing field” for companies or stakeholders seeking to invest in the diversification of African energy sector. Across the continent, USAID works to improve and streamline the political, regulatory, and legal environment so that all investors, including those in Zambia, can enter the market on equal footing. By 2030, the Power Africa initiative will add 30,000 MW of cleaner, more dependable energy to Sub-Saharan Africa.

• The International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Scaling Solar project is an initiative that will increase scaling capacity, increase competition, and reduce political risk for solar energy investors. The project assists emerging markets as their regulatory bodies and/or governmental regimes attempt to build relationships with private sector investors. Thus far, the program has proved successful for Zambia as two new solar plants have been brought online since 2019. One of these plants is the Bangweulu Solar Park, which is currently delivering 54 MW of electricity to nearby populations.

The modern global economy requires consistent and reliable access to the electrical grid. For this to occur in Zambia, energy diversification is crucial. It is also important in the march toward middle-income nation status, the primary goal of Zambia’s Vision 2030. For many Zambians, the separation from hydropower reliance represents a transformational shift in their life. Diversification will prevent outages, provide energy to rural areas, and increase overall energy supply. This realization spells more business, more prosperity, and more development for the people of Zambia.

At WBD, we believe access to energy should be reliable and universal, as it is a keystone of sustainable economic development. We are prepared to work with governments and donor organizations to help local and regional investors diversify the energy mix in emerging markets.

Author: Jackson Stuteville, Associate at WBD, is a Policy and Governance professional engaged with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

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