At the end of May, Zimbabwe’s state monopoly, ZESA, reached a last-minute deal to continue importing electricity.
ZESA owed $43m to South Africa and Mozambique and, with part-payment and terms agreed for clearing the debt, neither country turned off the flow.
South Africa is a continental giant, but one might ask why Mozambique is selling to anyone, given 80 per cent of her own people are not connected to the grid and, even in Maputo or Beira, supply is so unreliable that homes and shops have their own generators.
But Mozambique, ranks among the world’s 20-largest exporters of electricity, chiefly from Cabora Basa dam on the Zambezi River, a short way downstream from Kariba.
And here’s the irony. Not far east of Cabora Basa and its turbines, a giant solar project has been approved, part funded by the government of Norway. Will this help the impoverished locals? Not likely given the output will simply be pumped into the same pylons that carry power across the border to Zimbabwe and South Africa.
It’s a problem repeated across Africa and the developing world.
At Soroti, 233 kilometres by road from Kampala, the largest solar plant in East Africa has more than 32,000 panels and cost $19m, some of it from British and German aid money.
But Uganda is the biggest external supplier of power to Kenya, East Africa’s largest economy, while at home only one-in-five Ugandans have the lights on.
Even the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world’s poorest countries, exports electricity to Zambia and South Africa while local supply languishes around 15 per cent. Kinshasa receives billions in aid from the US, Britain and Europe, much of it for “green” projects.
“A matter of shame”
When it comes to numbers, India has more people than all of Africa, squashed into about 10 per cent of the space. And, here, electricity is political.
In Delhi, the minister for power, Piyush Goyal says it’s “a matter of shame”, that after nearly seven decades of independence from Britain, “we have not been able to provide a basic amenity like electricity.”
In truth, they’ve done better than many former colonies, but out of 1.2 billion Indians, an estimated 300 million (more than the SADC countries combined) are yet to be connected.
At the 2014 election, prime minister Narendra Modi promised to end this within his term, and with the next vote less than two years away, he’s been racing to make it happen.
The government has also rolled out a record number of solar plants with a pledge that, by 2022, three per cent of power will come from renewables. Last year the World Bank assigned more than $600m to the plan.
But connecting just a million homes needs an estimated 10 000 acres of solar panels and, in a country where land is scarce, this has become an issue.
Former Irish president Mary Robinson who served as UN high commissioner for human rights and now heads a foundation on climate issues, sounded a caution after a rise in complaints by indigenous groups.
“Recent experience shows that renewal and energy installations can result in human rights being undermined if local communities are not consulted,” she said.
India only signed the Paris Accord, “contingent on receiving billions and billions and billions of dollars in foreign aid”. This was Donald Trump in full throttle recently as he withdrew America from the Paris deal on climate change.
True, Delhi does receive vast amounts of aid, and solar farms and wind turbines have become the new chic for donors and NGOs.
But with no sun at night, and the monsoon season when it rains for weeks, solar will provide less than one per cent of the country’s needs over the next five years. Instead, like South Africa and Zimbabwe, most of the power comes from coal.
And, like Mozambique, in spite of a shortfall, India sells electricity to neighbouring states, including Bangladesh.
In London, Dr Benny Peiser, director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a non-partisan think-tank on energy and climate, said it was, “hard to imagine a case for any kind of aid where the receiving government is exporting power while their own people go without.”
But he said “prioritising green energy schemes” was also a problem.
“Donors and NGOs may feel good installing millions of solar panels across Asia and Africa, but they ignore the fact that renewable energy is unable to provide much needed electricity when the sun isn’t shining.”
“Cheap and reliable power”
Kenya, Tanzania and Botswana are building new coal-fired power stations, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana and India are upping their use, South Africa relies on it for 93% of Eskom’s output, but if a single mine is reopened in Wyoming the green lobby treats it like an act of war.
This upsets Donald Trump who rode to office on a promise of jobs, including along the coal belt that runs through the centre and east of America.
His bombast and choice of words, attacks on other countries and endless tweets — often contradicting his own policy — have made him a target for comedians.
But it’s hard to counter his claim that, under the Paris Accord, countries like USA are expected to cut emissions now, while Africa, Asia and Latin America can go on polluting until 2030, then trim their footprint.
The president’s ire was not so much for the main agreement, but a $100bn “Green Climate Fund” that’s part of the deal. The plan is for wealthy countries to finance projects in the developing world, especially solar and wind power.
But the fact that many poor countries are exporting power while capacity remains short at home has been seized on by lobbyists in Washington.
Mr Trump’s defenders say he has not walked away from Paris, merely asked for a better treaty.
And they point to his speech: “We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair,” he said.
In or out of a global pact, Washington looks unlikely to pay for new generating plants that don’t maximize output and serve local communities.
Dr Peiser said it was important to remember that aid “comes from taxpayers’ money donated principally from the US, Britain and the rest of Europe.”
It could not be used, he said, “to generate costly and unreliable electricity in countries where hundreds of millions need the exact opposite: cheap and reliable power”
This, he said, had to include the latest gas and clean-coal technology.
Dr Peiser called on the US administration to review all aid linked to energy.
“That way, the most cost-effective projects can be selected to achieve their objective of helping poor nations to power their people and economies.”