Bulawayo — Power-short Zimbabwe has removed import duties on solar energy-related products, from batteries to cables, and mandated that all new construction in the country include solar systems, government officials have said.

To deal with power shortages, in part as repeated droughts hits hydropower, the country will now “promote the importation [and] local production of solar equipment and the use of solar power as an alternative energy source”, Monica Mutsvangwa, the country’s information minister, said on Tuesday.

The government said it has set a target to get at least 1,575MW of power from solar by 2030 — about the same amount of electricity the country produces today from a range of sources.

Zimbabwe’s government has increasingly called for expansion of renewable energy to meet power shortages, but a lack of effective co-ordination in policies has stood in the way, energy experts said. Solar suppliers and renewable energy experts said the costs of putting solar systems in place in Zimbabwe have been too high, holding back expansion of the clean power source.

Patrick Bvumbi, who sells small-scale solar systems in Harare, said a Chinese-made 12V battery for use with a small solar system cost $75 — but import costs and taxes, plus a mark-up, meant he sold the battery locally for $350.

Net metering regulations to allow renewable-energy producers to add any excess energy they produce to the national grid have been in place since last year

Although solar panels, lamps, inverters and lanterns have been duty free, the government requires 15% VAT plus customs duty on batteries and other solar system components.

Bulukani Masola, the chair of Solahart Zimbabwe — the firm that installed solar panels to power traffic lights in Harare — said the customs duty is aimed at reducing imports of solar batteries to try to protect local firms that also manufacture the batteries.

However, local production has not grown enough to meet the expected demand as the country tries to scale up solar power, he said.

Energy and power development minister Fortune Chasi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation the aim of the new policy changes is to “encourage even ordinary individuals to come in and invest in solar projects”.

Simplifying systems

To encourage wider use of solar power the government has introduced net metering, fed-in tariffs for clean energy, and policy revisions to enable “independent power producers” (IPPs) to add renewable power to the national grid, said Misheck Siyakatshana, acting head of the Zimbabwe Energy Regulation Authority (Zera).

Industry and commerce minister Nqobizitha Mangaliso Ndlovu said the government is also establishing a one-stop-shop investment centre to help potential renewable-energy investors process all the needed permits in one place. “Our focus is to make sure that we facilitate smooth processing of investments” Ndlovu said.

Net metering regulations to allow renewable-energy producers to add any excess energy they produce to the national grid have been in place since last year, he said.

“This initiative does not require one to be licensed but only requires households or premises to register with the power distribution company,” Siyakatshana said.

A handful of projects are already set to take advantage of the changes. Econet Msasa, a mobile phone firm, became the first company to connect its solar panel installation to the national grid last month.

Renewable-energy investors, however, say they’d like to see even more change in Zimbabwe’s clean-energy policies, such as more relaxed licensing rules for small producers. Right now, for example, “if you want to invest as an IPP, you have to negotiate how much power one is going to sell to Zera” — something that can be hard to predict, said Masola, of Solahart Zimbabwe.

Aiming small 

Renewable-energy consultant Chandirekera Mutubuki, who has worked on a range of clean-energy initiatives in Zimbabwe, said she hoped the new regulations will bring swift advances in clean power.

“I think the ministry of energy and power development (MOEPD) is on the right track if we start implementing solar options. The problem is that we talk for years and do not get any actual projects on the ground,” she said. “The big megawatt plants are not the only solution. If anything, they cost too much and take way long to implement.” 

She suggested the MOEPD focus on smaller systems, including providing loans to households to install solar panels, with the money paid back through their electricity bills. “That will solve our load-shedding headache because households will be off the grid.” 

Kalani Ndlovu, a farmer who, in 2019, installed a solar mini-grid at his farm at Umguza, in Matabeleland North Province, said it has proved a good source of energy for water pumping, cooking and lighting.

“Establishing the solar system at my farm cost me about $5,000. Initially the costs might look high, but I’m enjoying the benefits from solar as sunlight is plentiful,” he said. “I’m planning to extend my solar project, to sell some of the units to my neighbours and even to the national grid.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation