Zimbabwe to construct first utility geothermal power plant




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Project aims to reduce Zimbabwe’s reliance on hydropower energy sources, which are under threat due to climate change. Chimbwatata Springs in Binga where the geothermal power plant is being developed.

Zimbabwe announced that it will construct its first utility-scale geothermal energy Independent Power Producer (IPP) and support the reduction of greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions in the country, of which the energy sector is the highest contributor.

The initiative emanates from the Green Resilient Recovery Rapid Readiness (GRRRR) and Geothermal Energy Development Project in Zimbabwe, which was identified as a key area of intervention after the investment plan and the GRRRR support for Zimbabwe were approved under the Green Climate Fund, according to Diana Tapedzanyika, project coordinator, Climate Finance Department at FBC Holdings Limited.

Zimbabwe’s total energy generation in 2021 comprised of 29 per cent from non-renewable sources and 71 per cent from renewable sources, with hydropower (at 69 per cent of total energy generation) comprising the largest share, according to the Climate Change Management Department (CCMD) under the Ministry of Environment, Climate and Wildlife.

The department said, however, that increased drought frequency, rainfall unpredictability and reduced water levels exacerbated by climate change have severely impacted hydropower levels, causing intensive load shedding, increased reliance on fossil fuels, fuelwood and electricity imports to make up for the deficit.

They added that the objective of the Geothermal Energy Development Project is to increase access to clean and reliable energy. According to CCMD, there is currently no operational geothermal IPP project in the country and the plant will complement and integrate with other existing energy systems.

They added that there are currently four existing Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority power stations, the Kariba South Hydroelectric Power Station and the coal-fired Harare, Bulawayo and Munyati thermal power stations.

The project will involve the design, construction, financing, operation and maintenance of a 10MW geothermal power plant, located in the Chimbwatata Hot Springs in Binga District of Zimbabwe, CCMD noted.

Binary cycle geothermal technology was considered best and appropriate based on the proposed site conditions, which produces electricity as well as the potential exploitation of waste heat as an additional revenue stream, said the department.

Electricity generated will be distributed through a transmission line under the responsibility of Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC), they added.

In 2021, Zimbabwe’s share of global GHG emissions was only 0.03 per cent, but the country is highly sensitive to extreme climate events despite its very low contribution to global GHG emissions and is ranked among the top 10 countries to be most affected by climate change, the officials of the department said.

At least 84 per cent of the current hydropower energy in the country is generated by the Kariba South hydroelectric power plant, the biggest power plant by installed capacity in Zimbabwe and the biggest source of domestic electricity supply in Zimbabwe.

Water levels in Lake Kariba dam, which feeds the plant, are reported to have dropped to below 1 per cent at the end of 2022, compared to 20 per cent a year earlier. This is reported to be causing an energy crisis in the country with power cuts lasting many hours and also impacting neighbouring Zambia.

The CCMD said that given the energy generation mix being significantly dependent on hydropower, climate change-induced decreases in mean levels of precipitation are impacting hydro-based power. This highlights the need for alternative sources of renewable energy such as geothermal energy and minimising the use of fossil fuels, it added.

Zimbabwe has various renewable energy resources that have to date not been fully exploited. These include solar, hydro, wind and geothermal. There are no installed geothermal electrical energy plants despite 32 potential geothermal energy sites being identified by the Ministry of Energy and Power Development, the officials pointed out.

The project aims at reducing Zimbabwe’s reliance on hydropower energy sources by diversifying its energy mix and ultimately lowering the energy sector-based emissions compared to the business-as-usual scenario, according to the department.

Geothermal power generation is one of the best options to provide additional capacity to the grid to meet the growing power demand, they added.

Resultant short-term intervention measures created by higher incidence of droughts have included increased thermal inputs in the energy mix, massive load-shedding and severe power cuts, according to CCMD.

Various capital build electricity projects are proposed to increase generation capacity in Zimbabwe but the projected costs for the plants are beyond the financing capacity of the power utility, said Tumai Murombo, professor of law at Witwatersrand University in South Africa, in a presentation on the potential for low-carbon renewable energy, who acknowledged that the country has immense access to renewables ranging from solar and wind to biomass and biofuels

Unless the utility enters into joint ventures or private international capital which it is allowed to play a role, most of the projects will fail to take off, he added.

There is continuing aversion to solar projects by the power utility as well as the private sector, despite the country’s substantial solar potential owing to its geography, Murombo noted.

Ordinary solar system energy outputs are low and cannot provide power for cooking, heating or productive purposes such as welding, grinding or charging batteries commercially.

These constraints on solar have seen it play only a limited role in developing countries where, unfortunately, the bulk of solar energy is abundantly available throughout the year.

Other potential alternative energy sources in Zimbabwe include wind, methane gas, nuclear and biofuels, they added.

“These are not touted as solutions to the current energy crisis, but they could be used to complement and supplement thermal and hydropower,” Murombo said.