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Why Zimbabwe's Cool-Sounding Plan To Give Away Millions Of CFLs Isn't A Good Solution

It sounds like a forward-thinking energy policy, but giving away the bulbs won't solve the country's electricity problems, and the money could be spent on developing truly innovative solutions.

Zimbabwe's power supply is erratic, to say the least. The country imports nearly half of its power from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and it still has to turn off power supplies for up to 10 hours at a time just to keep up with demand. In an effort to curb power consumption, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) recently decided to hand out 5.5 million CFL bulbs at a cost of $12 million—a move that will save 200 MW of electricity (the country uses 2,200 MW per month). It sounds like a revolutionary program to modernize inefficient lighting. But crunching the numbers shows that the money could probably have been better spent elsewhere.

"Zimbabwe’s electrification rate is about 34 percent (about one in three people in the country have access to reliable electricity). So, what I think what must be taken into account when financial resources like this are being invested are the benefits you're going to get over the long-term," explains Robert Freling, executive director of the Solar Electric Light Fund, in an email to Fast Company. "Certainly, energy efficiency programs provide numerous benefits, but I believe that overcoming energy challenges lie in changing the energy infrastructure itself—how electricity is produced, distributed, managed, and ultimately used—so that it better serves the country’s population."

In other words, the CFL bulb exchange program is a short-term, cheap solution to a long-term problem that requires a revamped electricity infrastructure (a new power plant could cost up to $60 million, five times as much as the lightbulb giveaway).

Instead of spending $12 million on CFLs, ZESA could instead have invested the money in small-scale solar solar systems (though this would admittedly take customers off the power grid, which ZESA might not like). "Zimbabwe has an abundant amount of annual sunshine, so these types of systems would be particularly effective," says Freling.

In Morocco, for example, the government offers subsidized rooftop solar systems to homeowners for $100 each. In one Kenyan village, residents rely on $12 solar chargers that can juice up desk lamps and phone chargers. And the Rural Energy Foundation helps Africans in rural areas get loans for solar systems that can cost up to $630—but that be repaid within a year with the savings from charging batteries and avoiding kerosene.

As Freling notes, the $12 million "could enable small-scale solar systems to be implemented throughout the country to provide tremendous benefits to the communities they're in, while at the same time lessening the stress on the existing electrical grid." That sounds much better than a bulb exchange program.

[Image: Flickr user Paul Keller]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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