Can energy-efficient lightbulbs help Zimbabwe reach its climate change goals?

The country is banning older filament lightbulbs and fluorescent tubes, a move the nation hopes will help ease its power crisis. 

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
A store manager holds a 100-watt incandescent light bulb at Royal Lighting in Los Angeles. Zimbabwe is banning older kinds of lightbulbs in an effort to reach its climate change goals.

In 2015, Hope Dzimunya began changing the lightbulbs in her house, replacing the old bulbs with energy-efficient ones.

For her, the reasons were both environmental and financial.

“There are at least nine bulbs in my house and they are all energy savers, they last long,” says Ms. Dzimunya, who works as a waitress in the mining town of Bindura, 50 miles (80 km) north of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

Dzimunya decided to switch over even though she had missed a handout of low-energy lightbulbs to households a few years previously.

In 2011, struggling with a 20 year power crisis, ZESA Holdings – the state power utility and Zimbabwe's only power supplier – rolled out a $12 million campaign to distribute millions of free energy-efficient bulbs.

The company hoped the campaign would encourage users to give up the more familiar but inefficient filament bulbs and fluorescent tubes, as part of measures to conserve energy.

Now the government is trying to push all consumers to switch to more efficient lighting – by banning the older kinds of bulbs.

Cutting emissions

The switch could have a dramatic impact on Zimbabwe’s climate change goals, preventing the equivalent of 1,300 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions over the next 13 years, according to the government’s plan drawn up under the Paris Agreement on climate.

Zimbabwe aims to cut emissions by 33 percent – or 17,300 gigatonnes – by 2030, mostly by increasing investment in hydro and solar power and by improving energy efficiency, the government plan said.

Nearly 40 percent of Zimbabwe's electricity supply comes from thermal power plants, 39 percent from hydro-power – which has been hampered by drought in recent years – and the remainder is imported, says ZESA Holdings.

Power shortages

Banning energy-inefficient bulbs should help ease the country's power crisis, says the country’s energy regulator, ZERA.

At their worst in 2015, the shortages left thousands of homes without electricity for 18 hours a day.

Power outages also cut production in the key industries of manufacturing and mining by over 55 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to a survey carried out by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries.

Overall, Zimbabwe needs about 2,200 megawatts of electricity at peak consumption.

“The banning of inefficient lighting systems will reduce the country’s electricity demand by 30 to 40 megawatts,” Gloria Magombo, chief executive of ZERA, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The ban was introduced in January, and ZERA expects the switchover to more efficient bulbs to be completed by the end of the year.

The energy saved can be used by the mining, agriculture and manufacturing sectors, Ms. Magombo said.

Retailers and wholesalers who continue to stock the old-style bulbs, or consulting engineers that recommend inefficient lighting, are liable for a fine or face six months in jail.

Hanging onto old bulbs

Conventional lighting still accounts for up to 15 percent of lighting in Zimbabwean homes, schools and businesses. And there is some resistance to switching over.

In Bindura, Hope Dzimunya says the initial cost of purchasing the energy-saving lights may be off-putting to many consumers.

“The disadvantage is that they are expensive at first, but you don’t have to replace them for up to two years if you buy the right one,” she said.

That is not always an easy choice, since consumers can be deceived by counterfeits. Dzimunya spent up to $5 each for her bulbs, but fakes that cost just $1.50 require replacement at least three times a month, she said.

Experts say the LED bulb’s average price of $3.50 (compared to $0.50 for the obsolete filament bulbs) pales in significance when compared to its long-term energy and cost benefits.

LEDs can provide up to 50,000 hours of light – the equivalent of five-and-a-half years’ continuous use, said Norbert Nziramasanga, an electronics engineer and former director of the Southern Centre for Energy and Environment in Harare.

By comparison, the filament bulb burns out within 1,000 hours of use, making it at least seven times as expensive to buy over the same period, he said.

Mr. Nziramasanga said the LED consumes just 15 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy per year when used for eight hours a day, costing $1.50 on average annually, while an incandescent bulb uses 130 kWh – making it nearly nine times as expensive to run.

The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries would like to see government back up the ban with incentives such as tax breaks to promote manufacturing of energy efficient lighting, said Busisa Moyo, who heads the industrial lobby group.

But that is unlikely to happen, said ZERA’s Magombo.

“No financial support will be provided to help either traders or consumers ... as incentives are already in place, which include scrapping of (import) duty on CFLs,” said Magombo.

With over 100 consumer action centers spread across the country, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, a semi-autonomous consumer representative body, has been working to promote efficient energy use in households since 2012, according to director Rosemary Siyachitema.

Combined with ZESA Holdings’ distribution of bulbs, the council says its outreach is finding currency with users.

Marshal Chinyerere, a hotel chef in Bindura, replaced his old bulbs with the handouts three years ago.

“The new bulbs have helped reduce consumption of electricity in my home,” he said. 

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