The usefulness of sharing useless knowledge

By Mwiine Lubemba

I’ve been keeping this away from public knowledge. It was Thursday election eve August 10; I wanted to gauge the election mood. I decided to revisit a popular public bar on Mumbwa road frequented by young voting age Kanyama residents. At weekends, when there are British soccer matches, Mbereshi Empire is packed with voting age over eighteen boys and their girlfriends and I thought I would get a good sample.  But it was a Wednesday, no soccer games. I only found the usual retired civil servant farmers having their drinks. I found myself a chair in the veranda.  At 19:0 hrs, it was news time. I shifted into the dimly lit bar to listen to the news. It was a hot day and the huge industrial fan was merely blowing hot air. With election campaigns over, the main news items were boring- mostly instructive about the elections. But it was the ZESCO load shedding advert showing the depleted water levels in the Kariba Dam that raised the storm when a patron  seated next to me in a drunken state asked me a barrage of questions that most people never bother thinking about.

“Why did they increase the generation capacity of the Kariba North Bank when they knew the dam capacity would not cope or is it true that the new Chinese generators are inefficient and use a lot more water than what their design parameters say?” “And what will happen when we have two or three consecutive droughts?” “You see, even with Ithezi-Thezi on stream there is no improvement in load shedding and I don’t think there will be any improvement when Kafue lower comes on stream and there’s a similar drought coupled with increased industrial activity, new housing and rural electrification projects.” Asked, a grey-haired man in his late 60s. “Call me stupid, but I just don’t get it.” He said.

I wasn’t going to call him stupid, no matter how simple I thought the question was.

The man is retired but he’s not, like most retired civil servants- a destitute. He has a 15 acre farm; I would guess worth- 3-5 million kwacha on Mumbwa road- 15-20 minutes’ drive from Town. He has managed to educate all his kids and recently had Matebeto at his farm for one of his sons who will soon marry a very wealthy farmer’s daughter in the same area. I also like the fellow, he means no harm. He’s a friendly-welcoming-fellow who knows his bounds.

So stupid wasn’t the first adjective that came to mind, and a quick answer was something I was hesitant to give…But I did anyway.

You asked four very good questions. I said. The first question is to do with human error, but it can be corrected. The second and third are based on natural calamities that no scientific hypothesis can predict and your fourth question borders on present human miscalculation, so future generation capacities can easily be corrected to match future industrial and home energy consumption. I said without really thinking about it.

“Yeah, okay,” he responded. “But don’t you think it’s to do with too much political interference with ZESCO top brass appointments?” “I don’t know how many CEOs we have had change hands at every change of political administration.” “I think we’ve had 5 or 6 CEO, which turns out that every president has had his own CEO at ZESCO.” “And every new CEO has appointed his own new team of divisional directors.” “But who does this benefit?”

You see, most directors at ZESCO are engineers. It takes 5 years to train an engineer at UNZA and another 10 years for that engineer to become really experienced enough to be able to contribute to ZESCO operations. So, it takes a minimum of 15 years to have a useful engineer at ZESCO. Now, if 5 CEOs have changed and each one comes with his own new team of say 5 new divisional managers, the chances are that the new managers at the tail end today will have less than 10 years’ experience when they’re appointed. For example, Kaluzi’s team was fired when MMD came into power, then Robinson Mwansa’s team was fired when Mwanawasa became President, Rodney Sisala’s team was fired, then Chitundu’s team and now this team is past ready to be fired and a new team put in its place. Look at it this way; if it takes 15 years to train an engineer and we have 5 Directors going away at every change of government, simply put, that’s 15×5=75 years of managerial work experience lost. But the irony is that 5 political administrations have come with their own select team and that looks like 375 years of managerial work experience lost.

“So where does that leave everyone else? All of us little guys who depend on ZESCO for our energy.  Are we just idiots?” He paused. “Maybe I’m the idiot, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, if your goal is to build and grow the economy.”

“Oh, I see,” he said with a wry grin, as he sipped some disgusting black Brandy neat out of a glass –possibly smuggled from some back street distillery in Zimbabwe,—a drink that it probably took him years of attempts just to stomach.

Even though there were at least three very qualified retired senior civil servants at the table with a former deputy Director General in the Office of the President listening at the time, nobody else decided to weigh in.

Being the only engineer, not to mention the new guy in that group, I definitely felt like the joke was on me.

The question which I thought had a simple answer, turned out to be a loose thread that, when pulled, caused an entire belief system to unravel.

And that unravelling took place over the course of that night, as I lay awake in bed, thinking more about Zambia’s continued load shedding and its energy mix that has failed us. I thought, surely if we had not lost all those ±375 years of intelligent management work experience at ZESCO our load shedding would not be this severe.

You see, Zambia’s hydro-energy generation capacity tends to work only in one direction, so though its considered clean energy; it’s not renewable- as it does most of its power generation only when there’s water.

Solar energy has been touted as the energy of choice for Zambia. But though it’s clean, it’s also expensive as it’ll only work when there’s sunlight–so until efficient energy storage systems are discovered—solar energy is inefficient.

Similarly, new highly efficient wind turbines are now available on the market, so finally clean wind power is possible in Zambia, but even as efficient as wind turbines have become, they can only work when there’s at least some small wind blowing.

Zambia has uranium reserves. Nuclear power is considered clean but there’s always a nuclear leak possibility like Fukushima in Japan that, if not detected and corrected quickly, it can wipe out an entire population.  It’s this reason most countries are mothballing and moving away from nuclear energy options.

There are millions of tonnes of proven coal reserves in Zambia, before Kariba, ZESCO operated thermal power plants-but they were all mothballed. Today clean coal power plants are possible, but coal is psychologically unclean- some people say even clean coal technology emits some toxic gases that cause climate change.

Many of these clean energy laws and regulations have come since the European Union came into being. France and Germany are the largest EU economies.  France’s economy is heavily dependent on nuclear power for its electricity generation. France generated almost 76.4% of its electricity from nuclear in 2015, followed by hydroelectric power 10%, fossil fuels 7.5% and renewables 6.1%.

But today, because many of France’s nuclear units are old and down for inspection, France has gone back to Coal and Natural gas plants which have more than doubled. Last September alone, France power generation from fossil fuels was the highest in 32 years producing 4,132 gig watt-hours an increase of 3.5% from 7.5% to 11% of the total- nuclear power generation was the lowest since 1998.

France is today also faced with the lowest hydropower output in 10 years, which is exacerbating the tight supply situation. This October, Hydro power levels are down 25% compared to last year.

As a result energy unit prices have increased. The French next-month contract is trading at a premium of 24 euros (US$27.42) per megawatt-hour to Germany. The price rose to a seven year high of 68.15 euros (US$74.82) per megawatt-hour as of October 7 this year. We also see that Day ahead electricity jumped as much as 18% to 77euros (US$84.54) per megawatt-hour, the highest since April 2013.

Fast forward>>> to Germany, we see it’s replacing its nuclear units with renewable energy (wind and solar) as part of its energy transition- called Energiewende. Germany is mainly using coal to back up its intermittent renewable energy and as a result, it has increased its coal fired generation capacity. We see- due to the higher cost of wind and solar units, residential electricity prices have escalated and are now ±3 times that in the USA.

So while Germany gets 27.3% of its power generation from its expensive non-hydroelectric renewable energy, it is also heavily dependent on cheaper coal and natural gas for base load power to back up its expensive intermittent wind and solar power, generating over 50% of its power from fossil fuels.

If you’ve been following the global energy news lately, you’ll have noticed that the Germans want to shutter all their nuclear units by 2022 and have renewable energy provide 40 to 45% of its energy by 2025 and 80% by 2050 but replacing nuclear power with renewables has proven difficult due to the intermittency of wind and solar power. As a result German power buyers continue to use coal in fact they opened over 10 gig watts of new coal fired plants in the last 5 years alone since the PF have been in government even as this move to clean energy hype has been going on.

Germany has about 20 gig watts of lignite (brown) coal fired plants as of 2015 generating 25% of its electricity; it also uses good coal which produces another 18%. From this, we see that Germany uses poorer grade brown coal- that has the highest carbon dioxide emissions per ton when burned-a third more than our coal from the Maamba washing plant and three times as much as natural gas. Brown coal is Europe’s most abundant and least expensive domestic fuel and power plants are located close to these lignite brown coal mines.

Energy experts have predicted that despite Germany’s increase in solar and wind power use, it’s likely to miss its 2020 target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40% below 1990 levels. In fact, just last year, its carbon dioxide emissions increased by 0.8%.

So, if you’re one of those being fed and believe this climate change and clean energy myth rubbish for Zambia’s energy solutions, this sounds bleak, I know.

But the truth about Zambia’s energy solutions is: apart from coal in Southern Province, Zambia has several proven coal reserves of varying quality in Western, North Western, Muchinga and Eastern provinces. Small Scale 12-14MW Coal power plants with total project cost ranging US$13-15 million based on tariff rates of ±US$5 cents /kWh can be constructed with 70% domestic content engineered and manufactured in Zambia using local steel in these areas from the US$80 million that Mutati has earmarked for SMEs. These will complement hydro-power generation in times of drought.

Take it or leave it, the entire modern world, with all of our technology, convenience excesses, and sophistication, was created by giving people with unique thinking ability, not to mention risk tolerance, a reason to think and work harder and longer than the average person.

So perhaps bleak isn’t the right word for Zambians. Perhaps a better way to describe it is brutally straightforward.

Sharing Knowledge is King.

Little countries do not matter in this world. Only the creator does, because in the grand scheme of things, it’s going to be the creator who gets the job done when even the little that Zambians have shall be taken away from them and given to the Asians and Europeans who have plenty.

Just a thought,


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