By Christine Juta
Why do we experience power outages?
The electricity supply industry is divided into three main segments – generation, transmission and distribution.
Each of these has distinct roles which feed into each other to ensure that electricity supply meets demand at all times.
A failure in any of these segments of the electricity supply industry may result in a power outage.
In Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) accounts for much of the installed generation capacity although there are some Independent Power Producers (IPPs) which also feed into the grid.
This total installed capacity represents the sum total of all the power the country could generate from the different power plants.
In practice, the actual power generated is often less than this installed capacity because of variations in demand and other factors affecting plant performance. If for any reason, there is a shortage of generation supply, for example unexpected failure of a generation unit, then there is not enough electricity to keep everyone’s fridge running.
Good planning, ensures adequacy of available generation resources and maintains a reserve margin.
Transmission and distribution system failures can also result in power outages. The Zimbabwe Electricity Transmission and Distribution Company (ZETDC) is responsible for transmission of electricity from the power stations, distribution of electricity and retailing to consumers.
While failures in the distribution network are more common, these typically affect a relatively small area.
On the other hand, transmission failures are less frequent but can have widespread impact especially where there are regional interconnections across countries. Both the frequency and duration of power outages, reflect the service quality and have a bearing on consumer willingness to pay for electricity.
In some cases, outages are planned, to allow maintenance of either generation, transmission or distribution infrastructure.
Of 5-star hotels and knee-jerk reactions
Recently, an underground cable fault affected several residential and commercial consumers in Harare, including the prominent Meikles Hotel. Social media was awash with screenshots of a letter communicated to guests by hotel management who had resorted to deliver buckets of hot water to residents upon request.
The hotel had been operating on a backup diesel generator and was unable to provide air conditioning and hot running water for the duration of the fault. One can think of several reasons why a leading hotel should consider more sustainable long-term solutions in future.
Globally, nearly half of the energy consumed for heating and cooling is for water heating as well as space heating and cooling in commercial and residential buildings.
Studies show that electricity costs account for a significant portion of operating costs for businesses in the tourism industry.
In Zimbabwe, the electricity (Solar Water Heating) Regulations of 2019 ban the installation of new electrical geysers in all residential houses, commercial buildings (including hotels), health institutions and educational institutions. While this regulation may work for new buildings or those under renovation, financial incentives are required to prompt hotels to upgrade existing buildings. Although solar water heating systems generally have a short pay back period, upfront costs may still deter investment.
However, given the increasingly lower costs of solar water heating systems, coupled with frequent power outages threatening service quality, establishments such as hotels stand to benefit by transitioning from the traditional electric water heaters.
What could be done differently?
While acknowledging the failure of the utility to provide a reliable service, the scope of this discussion is limited to the consumer perspective.
For large companies or hotel chains, decision making often takes place at the executive level, thus franchises of large chains may have limited capacity to make decisions on solar water heating investments.
The case of the diesel generator powered 5-star hotel running bucket water heating system as a knee jerk reaction to a prolonged power outage, reflects a common challenge in organizational decision making.
Businesses, including hotels continue to treat energy use as a technical issue and not a strategic concern.
Failure to prioritize energy management and taking reactionary measures in response to power outages and other external influences is a missed opportunity to harness the potential contribution of energy to the bottom line. A strategic blunder, that may well cost a good hotel its reputation!
Christine Juta is a PhD Candidate at Power Futures Lab, based at the Graduate School of Business of the University of Cape Town. Her research explores the role of new business models and enabling technology innovation in the political economy of the next wave of power sector reforms in Africa, especially focused on market design, system operation and regulation.