Malawi Turns to Coal to Address its Energy Crisis

Solar and wind could help increase energy access for millions unconnected to the grid

Malawi’s is in the midst of an energy crisis. For the past four years, the 10 percent of the country that’s connected to the energy grid has been facing frequent power outages that last two to three days at a time. An estimated 90 percent of the population is not connected to the grid, though the government has been promising to change that.

photo of solar installation malawi
Malawi is responding to a dire energy crisis by constructing a new coal plant. But at the local level, some communities have turned to small solar arrays for energy. Photo by Jon Strand.

Economically, the crisis has affected the nation greatly. Many small and medium businesses that depend on a regular power supply have had to rely on their own generators — an added cost — or been forced to close down. The healthcare sector has faced major problems as well, particularly when it comes to the care of patients who rely on ventilators or other machines to stay alive. And even the government hasn’t been unscathed — the sitting of Parliament was suspended last December due to power blackouts.

The Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM) and the newly established state-owned Energy Generation Company (EGENCO) have been telling the nation that the blackouts will end soon, and President Peter Mutharika has said on a number of occasions that his administration would deal with power crisis. A big part of their remedy is coal.

The government has turned to China for $600 million in funding to invest in a coal-powered electricity plant that will generate about 300 MW of energy. Malawi already produces some coal, but with the ongoing crisis, the country plans to increase production to feed this new plant. Some coal will also likely be sourced from neighboring Mozambique.

Malawi currently has the installed capacity to generate some 439 MW of energy, most of which comes from hydropower. In practice, however, the country generates only about 300 MW — hydropower can be unreliable, and an ongoing drought has decreased energy supply. Hydropower will likely continue to pose a challenge due to a number of factors that include climate change, which is likely to make droughts more intense and more frequent. “Malawi will continue to experience power cuts unless the country receives above normal rainfall for five consecutive years,” ESCOM’s former CEO Evelyn Mwapasa told The Guardian.

Deforestation is also a problem. Malawi has a 28 percent per annum deforestation rate, the highest in Southern Africa. Deforestation can lead to erosion and sedimentation, which can in turn impact the rivers essential to hydropower plants.

In addition to the coal plant, Malawi is also addressing the energy crisis by investing in diesel power generators. The government has purchased generators from Indian company Aggreko. These diesel generators have unfortunately, proved unreliable. Instead power blackouts periods have increased to over 8 hours a day. It has also been reported that the genset diesel is being stolen.

These gensets were supposed to supply the country with an additional 78 MW of energy to be distributed through ESCOM national grid. But they largely have failed to improve power supply.

Malawi’s per capita emissions are among the lowest in the world, but coal and diesel energy sources are not compatible with the nation’s commitments under the Paris Climate Accord, which it signed in 2015. Renewable options would be more in line with climate mitigation goals. Ted Nace, director of Coalswarm, a US-based group that advocates for coal alternatives, says they also just make more sense.

“Cost wise, both solar PV and wind power are cheaper than building coal power,” says Nace says. “Moreover, new renewables capacity can be deployed in just months rather than years, and renewables can be sized much more flexibly in response to demand. That’s why so many proposed coal plants are being cancelled across the developing world in favor of photo voltaics and wind. Climate concerns aside, it has simply become more practical these days to deploy renewables than new coal mines and power plants.”

At the local level, some communities have begun to embrace solar themselves, installing panels that support their homes and businesses. Both USAID and India have announced plans to invest in renewable energy in Malawi. And ESCOM has indicated that it plans to use solar, as well as additional hydro facilities, to add capacity to the grid.

What is clear is that the situation is urgent. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and access to energy is a vital part of economic development. “Industries are being closed due to the energy crisis, rendering people jobless, and yet the government seems not to be serious about it,” economic commentator Chikavu Nyirenda has said of the situation.

Construction on the coal-fired power plant began late in December 2018. But one can still hope that climate-related concerns as well as economic factors will ultimately tip the balance in favor of renewables.

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