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‘The time for a sustainable use of renewables is now. We do not have a choice. Clean energy is the way to go.’

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Exclusive interview with Engineer Martin Manuhwa, Managing Director of ZAIDG, Zimbabwe and speaker at the upcoming Clean Power Africa conference. 

Martin Manuhwa
Martin is Vice President of the Federation of African Engineering Organisations (FAEO), President of the Southern African Federation of Engineering Organisations (SAFEO), Vice President of the World Council of Civil Engineers (WCCE) where he chairs the committee on Education, Training and Capacity Building.

Can you explain your background in terms of renewable energy projects in SADC countries?
I am the Managing Consultant of Zimbabwe Africa Infrastructure Development Group (ZAIDG), a consortium of consulting firms. My experience spans over 20 years in the field of engineering.  I worked in a number of projects involving the Integration of renewable energy systems; and de-centralised rural electrification, including small hydro electric projects, small scale solar power; renewable energy resource assessment, market assessment and planning alternative energy sources and applications.

You will address the Clean Power Africa conference in May on “A review of renewable energy policy considerations for SADC countries”.  Can you give us a sneak preview of what you will share with the delegates?
The conference will be held under the general theme, ‘Delivering beyond tomorrow’ and my paper will reinforce critical policy questions to be addressed by SADC in Renewable Energy Policies to deal with energy poverty.

The SADC Countries are confronted with a rapidly increasing energy demand in the coming decades resulting from a set of demographic, socio-economic and resource related factors. The Region has a large potential for the use of renewable energies particularly solar energy due to its high level of solar radiation. Only a small variety of solar thermal technologies, mainly solar water heaters, is used in the region.

Many inhabitants of SADC suffer from energy poverty. They are exposed to inadequate, unaffordable, ineffective and environmentally unsustainable energy services that fail to support economic and human development. Energy poverty has an effect on, and is affected by, other aspects of poverty, it is vital to explore issues surrounding it, such as gender, the youth and the underprivilleged in the formulation of energy policies.

Energy plays a vital role in improving people’s living conditions. Policy makers must fully understood this role in order to craft policies that contribute to development. Access to clean sustainable energy has become part of the international energy policy agenda in recent years. This reflects the recognition of the importance of energy in the delivery of basic services and in generating jobs and income. Energy has a direct impact on the welfare of people, it facilitates the supply of water and fuels agricultural output, helps in the delivery of health and education, creates job and contributes to overall environmental sustainability.

What are the main challenges with regards to renewable energy policies in the SADC countries?
In spite of the vital role of the energy sector in the economic and social development of the region, the sector has been faced with several challenges affecting its contribution to sustainable development.

These challenges are:

  • First, energy accessibility to some segments of the poor and rural population.
  • Secondly, is the large disparity in per capita energy consumption and energy intensity among those countries, and
  • Thirdly, the challenge of relying heavily on fossil fuels to meet their energy demand.

In recognition of the above challenges, countries in the region have been continuously revising their policy framework aiming at promoting sustainable management of the energy sector.  Varying degrees of progress have been achieved regarding the relevant key energy issues particularly on improving energy efficiency, using of cleaner fuels, promoting renewable energy and more importantly enhancing regional energy integration through the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP).

The other major challenges are the lack of curiosity and innovation in Energy Policy Research as evidenced by:

  • Renewable energy policies in SADC do not emphasize on research and innovation for renewable electricity generation, fuel production, heating and cooling. These activities will address SADC’s shared societal, industrial and environmental interests to develop sustainable economies.
  • Research to better understand and address the interfaces between different societal challenges such as assuring food security, fighting pandemic disease, managing climate change, promoting inclusive information societies, and activities aligned with the global "Rio+20" sustainable development agenda are lacking in the SADC region.

SADC need to address Policy and institutional barriers in order to accelerate the use of Renewables by its citizens.
Policy, legislative and institutional barriers for promotion of renewable energy in general and solar thermal in particular in the SADC Countries include:

  • Lack of or weak political will both at the government and private sector level.
  • Lack of national targets or strategies for promoting renewable energy resources within the national energy policy framework.  
  • Lack of or weak legal and institutional frameworks. This includes lack of legal framework for independent power producers (IPPs). In many countries, power utilities still control a monopoly on electricity production and distribution. In these circumstances, independent power producers may not be able to invest in renewable energy facilities and sell power to the utility or to third parties under the so-called “power purchase agreements.”
  • Weak or Lack of domestic R&D programs and low government expenditures in R&D

Market barriers
Renewable energy market in the region is distorted due to:

  • Week capacity of information flow. This is due to lack of industry and professional associations, which promote renewable energy technologies, disseminate information, and undertake advocacy activities.
  • Low level of consumer awareness leading to low market demand. This is due to lack of information about technologies, their availability, and their performance. Furthermore, there has been widespread skepticism about performance and reliability of renewable energy technologies due to past technology failures or weak products performances.
  • Difficulties to change consumer’s behaviors and attitudes which normally take long time.
  • Lack of national standards, testing and certification schemes that led in the past to installations of poor quality solar water heaters causing a variety of technical problems. This has caused widespread negative perception and bad technology reputation among consumers.
  • Weak capacity of local assembly/manufacturing, distribution, installation and maintenance of solar thermal technologies. This has caused some countries to rely on more expensive imported systems, and consequently low level of market penetration due to weak purchasing power.
  • Lack of training programs for renewable energy professionals, and lack of university level education in issues of renewable energy.
  • Low level of awareness of local banking sector on renewable energy, and lack of proper financing schemes. Consumers or project developers may lack access to credit to purchase or invest in renewable energy because of lack of collateral, poor creditworthiness, or distorted capital markets. This is also true in rural areas where third party finance or "micro credit" is absent.
  • Subsidies have been playing a critical role in development of rural areas and increasing access to modern energy services to the poor. The number of people under poverty line in the region is high especially in some countries of low per capita income. So, removing of energy subsidies might lead to negative social impacts.

Economic barriers
Economically, the renewable energy technologies often face unfair competition in the market due to some economic barriers. These include:

  • The subsidies provided by governments for oil and gas especially in the oil producing countries. Even though lower fuel and operating costs may make renewable energy cost-competitive on a life-cycle basis, higher initial capital costs can mean that renewable energy provides less installed capacity per initial dollar invested than conventional energy technologies.
  • High custom duties on renewable energy technologies adding to their high initial costs, and impairing their economic feasibility.
  • High initial costs of solar water heaters that face strong competition from the gas and electric heating systems which is still more economically attractive option to consumers. This is especially valid in oil producing countries., and exacerbated by low level of awareness about the concepts of Life Cycle Analysis of investments
  • The external costs to societies due to heavy reliance on fossil fuels are not considered compared to clean renewable energy technologies. The environmental impacts of fossil fuels often result in real costs to society, in terms of human health (i.e., loss of work days, health care costs), infrastructure decay (i.e., from acid rain), declines in forests and fisheries, and perhaps ultimately, the costs associated with climate change. Dollar costs of environmental externalities are difficult to evaluate and depend on assumptions that can be subject to wide interpretation and discretion.

What is your vision for this industry?
My wish is to see the up-scaling of the use of sustainable energy sources in SADC and for our Governments to multiply the use of Science Engineering and Technology (SET) in eradicating energy poverty. SET must play an important role in policymaking, including dealing with issues such as climate change. At the moment, SET, policy, politics and climate change are not as connected as they should be. One of the reasons is that policymakers many times don’t consult scientists and Engineers and this is often compounded by the fact that the science and engineering community are not as good as they should be in making sure science is taken up in policy. Engineers and scientists and researchers must run for office, participate in community boards and fight for a seat at the table when such issues as renewable energy and climate change are discussed. They should not be reluctant to be a part of the process, for the good of their country, the good of their research and community.

What will be your main message at Clean Power Africa?
There is need for the importance of energy policy serving as a catalyst for innovation. The right policy could provide incentives to come up with solutions to expand the effectiveness of energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon sequestration. The advocates of wind, biofuels and biomass in SADC should have faith that their future is secure, as countries around the world are making renewable resources the centerpiece of energy policies.
The time for a sustainable use of renewables is now. We do not have a choice. Clean energy is the way to go.

Anything you would like to add?
Policy Recommendations
Based on the above analysis, the following set of  policy recommendations needs to be adopted and implemented in the SADC Countries. It should be noted, however, that each of those countries should select the appropriate policy package according to individual national contexts.

  • Promote efficient and sustainable use of energy resources
    This is to be achieved through:
    • Introduction of appropriate pricing policies in the energy sectors that provide incentives for promoting renewable energy resources.
    • Adjust prices in a phased manner that ensures cost recovery and creditworthiness of enterprises to enable them to access domestic and foreign capital markets to finance their expansion, while protecting vulnerable groups through targeted subsidies.
  • Remove Key Barriers
    The most important issue is the economic performance of renewable energy technologies (RET) compared to the fossil energy sources that presently dominate the energy markets. In principle there are two approaches to addressing this problem, both of which are indispensable in developing promising strategies:
    • Bringing down the costs of RET and their related energy services, and
    • Abolishing market distortions that discriminate against these technologies, such as direct subsidies
  • Implement legal and regulatory reforms
    To promote the renewable energy deployment, national policies, strategies and laws should be adopted. The policy framework should foster opening up the market for competition and private sector participation. Examples are laws and regulations for inclusion of renewable energy technologies in energy sector, laws for demand side management, allocate budget for institutions working in renewable energy field and include R&D in various renewable energy programmes.
  • Establish national targets for renewable energy
  • Improve the overall investment climate
  • Develop proper financing schemes
  • Make use of the potential for carbon finance in the region.
  • Provide financial incentives
  • Establish Renewable Portfolio Standards
  • Improve energy efficiency and reduce energy intensity
  • Develop standards, testing, and certification schemes
  • Facilitate technology transfer from developed countries to SADC Countries
  • Enhance cooperation in research and development at the national and regional levels.
  • Build national capacities in solar thermal technologies
  • Encourage the creation of industry associations
  • Raise public awareness of using the renewable energy technologies