Phillipa Mukome-Chinhoi Features Correspondent
The prices of solar panels, batteries and other accessories have remained high despite the recent move by Government to remove duty on all imported solar kits.
This means the high prices of solar goods remain a burden on the poor who are trying to shift to renewable energies given the rolling out of power blackouts by the country’s main energy utility – Zesa.
The majority of the poor are turning to renewable energy that offer better prospects of a sustainable solution to the country’s energy crisis.
Despite Government’s noble intentions to widen accessibility to solar products, most people still cannot afford to buy the solar components as prices are still too high for them.
When Government removed duty on solar products last month, many thought it would bring down prices and make them widely accessible to the majority of the people in the country.
The Government removed duty on solar equipment to reduce dependence on power on the national grid as individuals and companies would have alternatives.
Many people applauded the intervention by the Government through the import waiver believing it would make them more cost-effective to encourage a transition to more renewable energy resources.
However, a snap survey by The Herald showed that prices of most home solar systems have actually increased from $25 000 (US$2 500) to around $45 000 (US$4 500) or more for a full home solar system installation.
Zesa’s rolling blackouts have led to a huge spike in demand for solar panels and storage batteries.
This has led to a scramble for solar components by those who can afford pushing up prices beyond the reach of many.
As suppliers battle to meet demand, prices have shot up.
This has seen rampant profiteering by dealers taking advantage of the energy crisis spurring those people across the country who can afford it to try to go solar.
Many dealers and suppliers attributed this to rampant profiteering and massive demand due to power cuts that are now lasting up to 18 hours a day.
The lowest paid civil servant earns $665 and cannot afford to buy expensive home solar systems.
Even the majority of wage earning workers in the private sector are hardest hit too.
Some dealers were charging $999 for a 60 SL-SK 403 average size type of a home solar system while a 120 system SL-SK 407 was going for $1 319.
Ordinary solar powered lamps of varying sizes and quality are going for between $89 and more than $500.
A top range full-set for a home solar system now cost between $6 999 and $45 000 depending on the size, brand and output.
Parallel market foreign currency rates have also made the situation worse. Most prices are being rated using the US dollar, usually set at US$1 to $10.
Given the cost of solar systems, the majority of the poor are now relying heavily on charcoal and wood fuel for cooking and heating, something which has led to massive deforestation across the country.
Some were buying cheaper brands or fake solar products which often break down easily, leading to frustration and loss.
“The market is awash with so many fake solar products,” said one Harare dealer. “These products often break down creating friction between buyers and suppliers. I’m not sure how the Government or the Standards Association of Zimbabwe can deal with this. People are being robbed and something must be done.”
Analysts say the cost of putting solar systems in place in Zimbabwe still remains high, holding back expansion of the clean power source.
A Solar City Shop trader said importing solar equipment was still very expensive despite the scrapping away of duty.
“The equipment is generally heavy and this tends to push up freight charges. This forces us to increase prices too,” he said.
“Only solar panels and batteries are duty free and the rest of the components which include cables and consolers still attract charges. One cannot do any installation with only a panel and a battery.
“Removing duty has been a great step forward for the country but as dealers we have other cost – buying forex on the black market, bills, fuel and other overheads that we need to cover.”
Some people have resorted to importing solar products from South Africa and Botswana, where the prices are almost half of those being charged locally.
“Demand for home solar systems in South Africa and Botswana is unprecedented. Many people are going there because its cheaper,” said a Harare-based banker.
“I bought mine in South Africa for about US$1 200. I have encouraged many to go there because local dealers are ripping us off.”
Demand for solar systems has spiked in recent months because of load-shedding.
For most people, there has been a pressing need for them to keep on running regardless of power cuts.
Many are looking at solar panels and batteries to survive through the energy crisis facing the country.
Some who find the panels plus the battery too expensive are only buying batteries and inverters.
The batteries can be charged with Zesa power when there is electricity and then used to power some household appliances during the rolling blackouts.
“When there is load-shedding, you can use Zesa power stored in the battery to keep the lights on and the TV and Wi-Fi,” said Mavis Moyo of Greendale.
“You cannot use an electric kettle, geyser and stove because it requires more power. I use the batteries and inverter because I cannot afford solar panels.”
Some energy experts say this means consumers will be using more Zesa power in order to charge their batteries, to draw on during load-shedding later on.
The average charged battery could give up to four hours supply depending on size and brand. Energy experts also say there was no “one size fits all” in solar power installation and consumers should get a professional to work out what their electricity consumption was, where they could reduce and what they needed.
“This helps a lot and can save consumers money,” said a solar trader in Harare.
Unreliable supply and surging prices of Zesa power is driving consumers and businesses off the grid as renewable energy becomes a top priority. Mass migration into solar will reduce heavy reliance on Zesa giving the country a long-term sustainable solution to the power crisis.
Competition and partial improvement of Zesa power supply may drive prices of solar products down over time.
Manufacturing solar products locally could be one better way for Zimbabwe to cut down costs, create jobs and widen access to renewable energy.
The Government has set a target to get at least 1 575 megawatts of power from solar by 2030, about the same amount of electricity the country produces today from a range of sources. It has also increasingly called for expansion of renewable energy to meet power shortages and attain sustainable development goals.
Renewable energy investors, however, say they would like to see even more change in Zimbabwe’s clean energy policies, such as more relaxed licensing rules for small producers.
This, they hope, could see a rapid adoption of renewable energy in the country.
So Zimbabwe needs to refine its energy investment policies, explore ways to bring about competitive prices for solar products as well as invest more into research on solar innovation.
Only through such strategies, can the country widen access to renewable energy to the majority of the people.