Undenge’s US$200m geyser headache
ENERGY and Power Development Minister, Samuel Undenge, is in a fix over a lawsuit that he faces, if his Ministry goes ahead to implement its knee-jerk decision to unilaterally ban electric geysers with the hope of saving electricity, the Financial Gazette can reveal.
Legal experts who spoke to the Financial Gazette this week said Undenge was courting an explosive lawsuit that could cost the country dearly, if his Ministry goes ahead to unilaterally impose a ban on electric geysers without adequately compensating the affected households.
In September, Energy Ministry permanent secretary, Partson Mbiriri, announced that government had decided to impose a blanket ban all on domestic electric geysers in 250 000 households in the country.
The 250 000 figure was given with caveat that the move would save the country 300 megawatts (MW) of electricity, a figure which the Ministry says constitutes 40 percent of domestic electricity consumption.
Mbiriri said the ministry was working on a legal instrument to criminalise the use of electric geysers for domestic purposes.
All households must comply with the geyser ban by January or else they face prosecution.
The ministry, which is stranded in the face of serious power shortages, resulting from decades of no investment in the power generation sector, wants all domestic users to switch to solar geysers, but it is ambivalent as to who should meet that bill.
Pressed, three weeks ago, to clarify on who would foot the bill for replacing the outlawed geysers, Undenge admitted that he had not thought about it and he politely invited this paper to follow up with him after he had canvassed Cabinet opinion.
However, efforts to get Undenge to bring clarity on the matter were, however, unavailing as his phone went unanswered.
A survey conducted by the Financial Gazette this week revealed that each solar geyser costs an average US$600, and it would cost government at least US$150 million to replace the 250 000 geysers that the Ministry says is the total figure of the gadgets in the country’s households.
The cost of replacing the geysers could exceed US$200 million as residents bodies insist that the 250 000 figure that Undenge’s Ministry is giving is a gross understatement as they believe that the national figure is much higher, while some households — especially those in the up-market suburbs — have between three to five geysers each.
Some affluent households have a geyser for the kitchen, another one for the main bedroom, and others for the other bedrooms, with some even having the gadgets in their guest houses and staff quarters.
The announcement of the ban also caught unawares hundreds of hardware shops in the country with huge stocks of these gadgets worth millions of dollars. The shops can no longer find a ready market for them after the deadline.
The Harare Residents Trust (HRT) said this week that it was disappointed that government had decided to use a wrong tactic on a simple matter for which it was solely to blame. The matter needed moral suasion, instead of force.
“This plan was ill-conceived as it is not informed or backed by any research. Where is the Minister getting his information? What we note as HRT is that residents were not consulted and even now they are still not being consulted. The problem with the proposal that the Minister wants to get rid of electronic geysers that residents used their hard-earned money to buy and what the government is not clarifying to residents is whether they will bear the cost of purchasing these solar-powered geysers that they are insisting on introducing,” HRT director, Precious Shumba, told the Financial Gazette this week.
“What we advise as the HRT is that when government comes up with a policy it must also be able to come up with a way to replace or at least compensate those that would have been adversely affected by such a policy. Above all consultation is very important in as far as any policy position of government is concerned. It is important for major stakeholders to be consulted, so that when it comes to implementation everyone will be on the same page,” Shumba added.
He further pointed out that his organisation doubted the veracity of the figures that the ministry was giving saying this was way too low because over the years even residents in most of the high density suburbs had installed electric geysers in their homes.
Harare lawyer, Jacob Mafume, warned that the move would surely backfire on government.
“Indeed, consumers are within their rights to sue a government interfering with what is a contract matter between them and ZESA,” Mafume said.
“As far as we can see there is no legal basis on which the ban was pronounced. Our government has a habit of open-mouth-shut-mind policy pronouncement framework. They cannot seek to cause a loss without making good on that loss.”
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights programmes manager, Dzimbabwe Chimbga, described the move as sheer madness that should be stopped.
“Laws should not create chaos,” Chimbga said. “They should be done in a reasonable, transparent way.”
He said if government can be allowed to resort to a reductionist way of “solving” problems, such as this geyser ban, citizens should not be surprised to wake up one morning to the news that government has banned breakfast or lunch, if not both, in order to “solve” the serious food shortages in the country.
An energy industry expert said instead of trying to find scapegoats, government should work at holistically addressing the power shortages, which have since grown into a major national crisis.
“It is my hope that a thorough research has been done to arrive at the conclusion that the switching off (of geysers) would save as much as 300 MW.
“What I can say is that most people have been switching off geysers, particularly, since the advent of prepaid meters, motivated by the need to save power costs.
“The other thing to note is that some households use heating elements available on the market these days as well as stoves to heat their water making it important to revisit the quantification of savings. Realistically, savings could be less than 40MW,” the expert pointed out.
Experts also wondered, even if the cash-strapped government would be ready to foot the cost of replacing the electric geysers, how it would be possible to mount the proposed solar geysers on such composite properties as residential flats, some of which have as many as 200 units packed on top of each other.
When the impending ban was announced, even the government-owned media took an unprecedented step as to laugh at the move, which it described as “bizarre” as well as “hilarious, if it was not so tragic.”
“Has Mr Mbiriri and his colleagues considered the wastage of electricity through the heating of bath water through means such as open metal cans on stove tops? Unless they are making the ownership of solar geysers mandatory, such power wastage will continue anyway,” said a State-run daily in its comment.
“Are these solar geysers being made in Zimbabwe or are we going to import them? How much are they going to cost us? If we put that money towards increasing generation capacity what would we add to the grid?
“This sounds like the proposed ban of imported electric cookers. Consumers buying new cookers today have no idea what to look for to evaluate energy efficiency. But in a couple of years they may be told that their gadget has become an illegal possession.
“While we acknowledge the need for the populace to be conscientised into saving electricity as far as possible, we think the technocrats in the Ministry should be focusing on solving the real problem.”
Zimbabwe, which has a total power generation capacity of about 1 300 MW, against a national peak demand of 2 500 MW, is currently in the throes of a debilitating power crisis.
The low water levels at Kariba Dam, as well as the outdated power generation equipment at the Hwange Thermal Power Station, have exacerbated the crisis that essentially is a result of failure by the government to timeously invest in power generation.
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