Confession of a Solar Snob

After four decades of freedom from colonialism Zimbabwe is free from electricity too.

Those of us who got into solar after seeing the writing on the wall long ago tend to be snobbish about it. Don’t you know God Giveth What The Government Hath Taken Away? Didn’t you see the ruling party ZANU PF bringing the power infrastructure to its knees? Alright, you might not have been able to afford solar installations at the time but your standby generators drank expensive fuel. Don’t you see it would have been a big saving in the long run?

Now we are eating humble pie, or at least I am. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel?

My system needs perking up from the grid when we get a little electricity at night, but a fault has stopped this supply completely for a week. The solar storage battery doesn’t recharge properly. Oh, you need more panels on the roof, the experts say. You’ve been too reliant on ZESA (Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority), you foolish fellow.

ZESA say they are working on our neighbourhood fault but they are understaffed and are getting call-outs all over the place.

My battery conks out waiting for daybreak. I have had to do what the majority of our people do. Fumble around with a torch, the flashlight on the phone or light a campfire or candles (if I had any left and the shops aren’t open yet. Simple Chinese solar lamps don’t perform well and will be stolen if left carelessly outside.)

Connect to mobile data on the phone, check for messages and listen to music – this morning it was Andrea Bocelli, Ed Sheeran and the ‘Cavatina’ theme of the excellent 1977 film The Deer Hunter.

Our mobile data fees are the highest in the region and then there’s the question of recharging the damn phone.

Without power pumping water from the source, or only from storage tanks into the house for basic hygiene, cleanliness, washing and cooking on gas, it’s a disastrous thing. Water is short everywhere. Hence I am writing this and having a glass of wine at sunset. 

It’s no secret Zimbabwe’s power generation is pathetic. Mismanagement, corruption, what ho !  I remember when condoms were slipped over small pressure valves that were leaking at our main Hwange power station; there were no spare parts to be had.

Zimbabweans (population 15 million) suffering daily 16-hour blackouts are always amazed by the cries of shock and horror when bad weather knocks out the power lines of a comparatively small number people for a day or two in developed countries.

Thirteen years ago I did a piece on this our capital city, Harare, for Air Zimbabwe’s long-departed Skyhost in-flight magazine, and the bankrupt airline itself seldom departs these days either.

My own “low density” suburb awakens with the surround-sound of the dawn chorus that no stereophonics could ever match. An artist friend of mine advises the best way to start the day is to listen to the birds for a while before switching on news programmes or beginning other stressful activities. The dawn chorus today may be accompanied by the rumble of petrol generators.”

That was then, 2010. In this time span it has gone from bad, to very bad to abominable for all except solar snobs still using big, expensive equipment. How are already battling businesses surviving? They are not, unless they fork out US dollars for their power.

You see now … that’s if you’ve got power and light.

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