Enhancing the resilience of critical energy infrastructure in Zambia

The critical energy infrastructure of many African countries is coming under immense stress as droughts caused by climate change continue to pose serious threats to energy security. In Zambia, droughts have become a major feature of the climate – in 2015/2016, the country faced one of the worst for 30 years – with dire consequences for the energy sector. While the overall actual impacts of the 2015/2016 drought are yet to be ascertained, previous droughts have resulted in significant reductions in energy productivity. Worse still, climate change is expected to make weather patterns more variable, extreme and unpredictable, with drought periods more frequent and intense. In these circumstances, technology diversification – a major component of energy resilience – is crucial for avoiding severe energy insecurity.

The Kariba Dam supplies around 1,626 MW of power to most parts of Zambia

The IWSN research team at Monash South Africa recently completed a study of technology diversification as it relates to critical energy infrastructure in Zambia. It revealed that the country has limited technology in terms of diversity, which is contributing to reduced resilience in the form of lower power generation capacity and continuous power shortages (load-shedding). Zambia’s critical energy infrastructure is predominantly hydro-based, thereby making it more sensitive and vulnerable to climate change events such as rainfall variability. In the past few decades, there has been little technology diversification in Zambia, but such diversification can be a key determinant in creating prerequisites for enhancing the resilience of critical energy infrastructure to cope with droughts and to mitigate against energy crises.

Excluding wood fuel, hydro power is the most important energy source in the country. It contributes about 10% to the national energy supply. The country’s installed hydropower generation capacity is about 95% hydro technology based, with the remaining generation mix at 5%, comprising diesel, thermal, solar and heavy fuel oil. During the 2015/2016 drought season, this limit in diversity impaired the capacity of the country to generate normal energy power levels. There was a deficit of about 1,000 MW between 2015 and 2016 largely due to the drought and associated limited technology. While Zambia as a country has a potential hydropower capacity of about 6,000 MW, its installed generation capacity is about 2,300 MW, leaving the balance largely unexploited. This gap can be attributed to the fact that the country’s critical hydropower infrastructure typically operates below normal capacity and is essentially not designed to ensure functionality in diverse conditions. As such, the country has begun prioritising technology diversification in order to enhance energy resilience.

Power utility companies have been resorting to non-hydro technologies such as solar, in order to reduce the country’s overdependence on hydropower. The prioritising of solar power as a diversification mechanism makes sense in a country struggling with persistent droughts, as sunlight is not usually affected by drought. However, the country’s current solar power capacity stands at a negligible 0.06%. To address this challenge, the country has been encouraging state utilities to install solar power plants through the use of independent power producers (IPP) to ensure smooth, efficient implementation of this strategy. It is hoped that this innovative arrangement will bring on board an additional 600 MW of power into the national grid.

Distribution of available sunshine in Zambia (Source: RECP, 2015)

It is important, however, to note that while solar technology is a suitable and readily available option for diversification in Zambia, it is by far the least widespread and under-developed technology. Studies have shown that Zambia has approximately 2,000 – 3,000 hours of available sunshine annually. In 2015, data from the Renewable Energy Corporation Programme (RECP) showed that the northern region of the country usually records the highest solar irradiation of about 2,300 kWh/m2/year. It is for this reason that critics have argued for a more aggressive prioritisation of this technology. Ironically, despite the great potential solar spectrum within which Zambia finds itself, the country has not been able to fully harness this potential.

A number of initiatives mostly supported by international donors and funders (USA, Sweden and World Bank) are currently being implemented to unlock this potential. These initiatives particularly focus on accelerating private-sector growth in energy generation using Renewable Energy Feed-In Tariff (REFIT) mechanisms. Typically based on standardised power purchase agreements, these REFIT mechanisms are designed to provide price certainty to renewable electricity generators by placing an obligation on specific entities to purchase output at pre-determined prices. While still in an early phase, the development of these mechanisms has ignited the growth of novel, private sector driven, energy generation enterprises.

The IWSN research team at Monash South Africa believes that, going forward, the success of Zambia’s efforts to enhance the resilience of critical energy infrastructure will depend on, amongst other factors, the country’s ability to inculcate the principle of functional redundancy in its technology diversification strategy. In this context, functional redundancy essentially denotes the existence of multiple sources of energy that can perform the same function. The country needs to ensure the establishment of multiple technology platforms so that the energy system can still operate during periods of recurrent drought. Merely adding solar technology might not help in satisfactorily solving the country’s current energy problems. The country must have multiple sources of energy so that, for example, in times of reduced solar energy (such as on cloudy days), the energy system continues to function without any blackouts. Functional redundancy in Zambia’s energy system will offer some form of ‘insurance’ through the presence of other energy sources that can compensate for the loss or failure of other sources. In so doing, Zambia could be generating enough energy to meet the needs of strategic sectors and vulnerable communities during periods of recurrent droughts.