Bulawayo — Zimbabwe's longstanding energy crisis may get some relief from alternative power sources as the government sets out plans for solar and wind projects.
Three large solar power plants, each generating 100 megawatts (MW), are to be constructed over an 18-month period.
The Energy and Power Ministry says the ambitious initiative will require up to $750 million, with each plant covering at least 200 hectares (500 acres) of land.
But like many projects the government has announced since last year's election, it is not clear where the money will come from.
Munacho Mutezo, deputy minister for energy and power, told parliament the solar project would add 300 MW to the national grid. The government is also looking into setting up wind farms to help ease the country's reliance on hydropower from the Kariba dam.
While acknowledging the solar plans are expensive, Mutezo did not reveal whether the government had found potential funding partners.
Last year International Rivers, an advocacy group working to protect rivers, noted that over-reliance on hydropower by southern African countries was risky in the face of a changing climate that could affect dam water levels in the future.
In a report, it said reduced rainfall results in low runoff, suggesting that other sources of energy would be a better alternative for sub-Saharan Africa.
Zimbabwe's energy regulator estimates the country's energy demand at 2,200 MW. The Kariba hydropower station and the Hwange thermal power station supply around three quarters of this.
The coal-powered Hwange plant has been plagued by a lack of funding to replace aging infrastructure, despite the plant's potential capacity of around 1,000 MW.
The government-owned Zimbabwe Power Company is working to expand Hwange's capacity.
Despite potential to grow the country's energy sector, attracting investors remains a huge challenge. Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa recently announced that a few countries were showing interest in funding Zimbabwe's economic recovery efforts. The minister is eyeing the energy sector as a way to drive economic growth.
Analysts say Zimbabwe has failed to attract much international financial support to date because the government has not made clear its policies and terms for potential investors.
Some parts of Zimbabwe have not built any dams since independence from Britain in 1980, despite growing demand for electricity.
Power cuts have affected diverse sectors of the economy, with farmers especially decrying revenue losses as electrically powered irrigation systems have come to a standstill. Poultry farmers report losing business after power cuts affected incubators.
Energy deficits are also blamed for the closure of hundreds of companies in Bulawayo, the country's second city.
CHINESE CASH FOR DAMS
Chinese businesses, however, have poured funding into dam construction in Zimbabwe. The Kariba dam expansion received $320 million, while they are also financing the $120 million Gwai-Shangani dam.
But sources of funding for the solar projects have yet to be announced.
The Zimbabwe Farmers Union, a group bringing together the country's black farmers, says its members have no resources to put into solar power.
"We welcome any investment into power generation, but we hope this time something concrete happens," said Tinaye Pfute, a farmer in Midlands province.
"If we are to improve the country's food security, we certainly need more electricity," Pfute continued. "As individuals we cannot invest in that technology (solar energy). Government has more to lose if it does not implement these projects."
The African Development Bank (AfDB), working with the multilateral Climate Investment Funds, is backing some African countries to develop alternative energy sources, but these efforts have yet to reach Zimbabwe, which remains one of the most reliant on hydropower.
But the AfDB has supported rehabilitation of the country's existing power generation plants.
Under wider measures to boost power generation, Zimbabwe is working with a Chinese company on the 300 MW Lupane methane gas project, just outside Bulawayo, at an estimated cost of $200 million.
"I think what the country requires is getting the money first (to implement alternative energy projects)," said Nathan Dube, a researcher at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo.
"We have already seen how relying on hydropower has affected the country," he said. "Solar and wind energy are the country's best bet, but for (the) government talk is cheap."
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.