The Electricity Grid during the Energy Crisis and Energy Transitions in Zambia

Essay, 2018

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 The Zambian Energy Crisis and the Grid
2.1 The Grid as Manifestation of the Social Power Relations
2.2 Copper, Hydropower and the Zambian Energy Crisis (2015-2017)
2.3 Experiencing the Energy Crisis
2.4 Postcolonial Trajectories and Current Attempts for an Energy Transition

3 Conclusion

4 References

1 Introduction

Zambia is at the juncture of forming the future of its energy sector. The energy crisis from 2015-2017 revealed the vulnerability of the power generation sector, which is largely dominated by huge hydro-electric power projects from the late 1950s, and led to an increased political and social awareness for the necessity of an energy transformation in the country. While the energy crisis has brought into light the entanglement of political and economic interests and social inequalities which are strongly connected to the powerful copper industry and its emergence during the colonial era, these patterns are likely to be reproduced channelled by their manifestation in the grid infrastructure. Thus, the questions arise how the electricity grid and its breakdown mediated and exacerbated inner-societal imbalances, and how the crisis that was tied to this infrastructure opened up one particular way of overcoming it. To explore these matters, this essay will firstly outline the meaning of electricity and the grid in anthropology and social science. Secondly, it will take a look at the events in Zambia which accumulated to the so called 'energy crisis'. Thirdly, it will discuss the experiences made by Zambians during this period and their interconnectedness to social and political life, and fourthly, analyse the dependences of the envisioned transformation on historical structures and current practices that are manifested in the grid.

2 The Zambian Energy Crisis and the Grid

2.1 The Grid as Manifestation of the Social Power Relations

When people think of electricity, they think of a neutral power that can be produced from a range of fuels but is the same everywhere. Contrary, anthropology and social science point toward the manifold ways in which electricity is deeply intertwined with social life since electric power is always mediated through plants, grids and other devices (Gutpa, 2015: 556) and changes the meaning of things (Winther/Wilhite, 2015: 571). It opens up various opportunities for human life: enhanced education and increased security through lighting, reduced expenditure of time by replacing physical work with electricity and social gatherings at night, to name only a few. While the associations with progress and modernity seem obvious, the need for universal electricity access is seldomly questioned (Winther/Wilhite, 2015: 570), and only few people forgo voluntarily the advantages of grid connection living a certain lifestyle called 'voluntary simplicity' (Vannini/Taggart, 2015: 27). People's understanding of electricity depends on their cultural and historical contexts (Winther/Wilhite, 2015: 574) and also on their experiences. Especially in the global South, the existence of a grid does not necessarily imply the connection with it. This in turn does not ensure quality, uninterruptedness and reliability, whereas this is the norm in most Western countries. These context-dependent understandings of electricity are demonstrated on the example of 'blackouts': the bare possibility of a 'blackout' implies the divergence from a standard which is barley met in many countries of the world (ibid.: 558-559).

As much as electricity is a social project, it displays social power relations and underpins dominance. Regarding Latour's thought, energy requires attention as it changes the state of affairs (Kesselring, 2017: 71). The grid is one object visualizing this and having very concrete consequences for societies. It creates dependencies and feelings of belonging what is not only used by states but, more fundamentally, enables the organization of power for governance practices (Boyer, 2015: 533). As the grid requires a stable ratio between supply and demand, the existence of the grid creates a need for its constant use as well as for reliable and controllable power fed in (ibid.: 533, 534).

McDonald (2009: xv) argues that infrastructural inequalities and decision-making control of electricity, exemplified on the case of South Africa, can be understood by analysing capitalist activities and markets what he calls 'electric capitalism'. The mining sector as well as industry in general are the actual profiteers of electrification (ibid.: xvii). Others mention a disbalance in social science's attention to neoliberalism and emphasize the necessity to analyse the concrete interconnection between electric infrastructure, social norms and power relations (Mains, 2012: 22). These underlying social power aspects of the grid become most evident when it breaks down (McFarlane, 2010: 139).

Considering the global climate crisis, it becomes clear that the global South cannot follow the energy course of the global North (Gutpa, 2015: 564). In the context of energy grids reproducing existing structures, a transformation toward renewable energies faces several challenges. Nevertheless, Stirling (2014: 83) discusses the opportunities for restructuring the persistent socioeconomic regimes in situations of transformation.

2.2 Copper, Hydropower and the Zambian Energy Crisis (2015-2017)

The Republic of Zambia is a landlocked country in Southern Africa surrounded by eight other countries. With a steady and fast population growth since its independence from the United Kingdom (UK) in 1964, the population number of former Northern Rhodesia ranges around 16 million today (Ngoma et al., 2018: 126). Located in the sub-topic climate zone, Zambia comprises nine provinces subdivided into 72 districts (Sismasiku, 2004: 21, 23).

From independence on, Zambia was ruled exclusively by the United National Independence Party (UNIP) until 1991 when its voting out raised hope for a more democratic multi-party system (Baylies/Szeftel, 1992: 75). Today, these expectations have been partly fulfilled albeit restrictions of the freedom of expression and the media exist (Freedom House, 2018) but problematic development from the colonial and early postcolonial period are still immanent: the mid-1960s were driven by strong expectations about 'modernisation' in which the intensive copper mining played an integral part (Ferguson, 1999: 2). Zambia was seen as a 'middle-income country' (ibid.: 6). But a declining demand for copper worldwide put an abrupt end to these hopes and can be interpreted as shock for the belief in promises of modernity, urbanization and prosperity by Zambians (ibid.: 7, 14).

Meanwhile, two major hydroelectric power projects were realized that were thought to support the growing copper mining and to release Zambia from energy supply of Zimbabwe: Kariba North and Kafue Gorge (Owen, 2016: 9). Even though these dams are far from the 'hydroelectric statecraft' which Folch (2013: 54) analysed in Paraguay by the ways the materiality and symbol of the Itaipú Dam were used in favour of the Stroessner regime, they depict some aspects of nation-building. Tischler (2014: 1048) argues that the emerging of the Kariba dam scheme was shaped by the transition from colonial to postcolonial period. The neglect of the rural, poor population, the one-sided dependence on copper mining, and the initial planning process under the UK's rule account on today's inequalities in Zambia between rural and urban population.

Nowadays, hydropower amount to 94% of the national energy mix with 2,257MW installed in 2014 (IHA, 2017). As mining consumes above 50% of the total electricity (Owen, 2016: 7), the strong link between copper industry and energy production is still evident. Zambia's Energy Supply Company Limited (ZESCO), nationalized during the 1960s, is the central electricity supplier (Kesselring, 2017: 96).

In sharp contrast to this heavily electricity-based economy but in accordance with Tischler's (2014) observations of inequalities and with the general situation in the electricity sector in Africa (McDonald, 2009: xv) stands the fact that only 78% of Zambians are connected to the grid. Although electricity prices are one of the lowest in Africa due to huge governmental subsidies, these numbers are not only a result of insufficient grid extension but also of peoples' inability to afford the tariffs (Ngoma et al., 2018: 126). Therefore, the importance of different fuel sources is comprehensible: for lighting candles (27.7%), grid-electricity (22%), paraffin (20.3%) and solar power (2.9%) are used. Wood (85%), charcoal (29.1%) and electricity (16.9%) are used for cooking. The electrification of rural households (3.1%) and urban households (22%) is remarkably different causing much lower numbers of usage of electricity for lighting and cooking and higher usage of diesel generators in the countryside (Kesselring, 2017: 96-97).

In the context of these developments and inequalities, the Zambian energy crisis happened between 2015 and 2017. It was caused by a power deficit of 975MW at peak time occurring due to a dramatic decrease in energy generation of the two mega hydropower stations (Ngoma et al., 2017: 126-127). Since electricity grids rely on a balance between supply and demand (Gupta, 2015: 556), the political response was an increase in energy imports of more than 6000%. In addition, and probably more visible for Zambians, a load-shedding program from June 2015 to March 2017 was established by the national grid operator ZESCO. This deliberate stop of electricity supply rotated all eight hours between all Zambian districts according to a schedule. It affected especially households while the copper industry was largely excluded from it due to its menace to dismiss 30% of labourers to balance to economic losses (Kesselring, 2017: 100).

The reasons for the enormous discrepancy in the grid were a combination of social and economic factors. Droughts are regular events in Zambia with eight droughts experienced between 1900 and 2013 (Masih et al., 2014: 3642). But the growing population, urbanization, high consumption of richer customers encouraged by the mentioned subsidies and an increasing electricity need from the copper industry were crucial factors that made the energy demand ascending during the last years (Owen, 2016: 5, 21). On the supply side, the electricity sector was vulnerable due to low diversification of production types, weak infrastructure due to low investments by ZESCO resulting from the pressure to offer small tariffs (Owen, 2016: 7; Ngoma et al., 2018: 126).

2.3 Experiencing the Energy Crisis

The events surrounding the energy crisis have been analysed regarding two aspects: peoples' change in practices (Ngoma et al., 2018), and peoples' experiences of inequalities during the load-shedding (Kesselring, 2017). One strategy adopted by households was a switch from grid electricity to other energy forms. People shifted to candles for lighting (60%), charcoal for cooking (87%), and the hot water for heating (60%). Shifting work into time slot when no load-shedding was announced was another strategy. A third strategy was saving energy by omitting hot water for bathing or by preparing uncooked dishes (Ngoma et al., 2017: 135). In finding a predominant range of adaptation strategies, the authors draw a picture of how the interruption of energy supply affected peoples' life when they previously consumed grid electricity. They call it: 'climb[ing] down the energy ladder' (Ngomba et al., 2017: 126). The strong concentration on a few strategies suggests a common experience being made by Zambians during these two years. Their habits and daily practices were shaped by the absences of electricity which could only be experienced because its consumption had been normalized before.

Beyond these changes in habits, the load-shedding was also analysed regarding its potential to reveal social differences. They became visible through lights being enlightened in mines, their surrounding residences for company employees, or areas for civil servants at night. They were spared from the supply interruptions (Kesselring, 2017: 100). As Gupta (2015: 557) puts it, infrastructures 'become visible only when they break down'. But disparities among the Zambian who were affected by the load-shedding program were also noticed. People perceived others being privileged by more favourable load-shedding schedules, and gender inequalities were intensified when women had to replace the electrical power with physical power. Mismanagement due to corruption, that was blamed for the energy crisis, was the impulse to engage into government-critical debates with neighbours, friends or colleagues. Even though everyone was affected by the same phenomenon, the stratification of society was increased additionally to existing social and material inequalities as the lack of electricity made people perceive them stronger than before as they were made 'visible' (Kesselring, 2017: 100).

Taken together, all these experiences Zambians' made during the energy crisis, accumulate in a common perception of the energy crisis among electricity consumers. Beyond indirect influences through news coverage or increased commodity prices, which everyone could make, those experiences were direct. With this situation as starting point, politicians begun to try to solve the energy mismanagement by improving legislative frameworks and winning international investments and donors.

At this point it seems arguable to ask in how far people without a regular connection to the grid are excluded from these debates and the trajectory of the country. As 78% of Zambians life off the grid so that the experiences of the energy crisis made by electricity customers were never 'shared' by the huge majority of the population. Gupta (2015: 559) gives a similar argument when he questions the term 'blackout' in the context of most people in India having barely uninterrupted energy supply. Consequently, people off the grid do not have the same entry point into discussions about social and political issues at stake leading to their likely omission in the political debate about solution strategies. The narrative of an energy crisis and interrupted electricity supply excluded those further from the debate who had never been part of it. Hence, the event of the energy crisis was inherent to the infrastructure of the grid itself so that political efforts to renew the energy sector were organized by and along the grid. Here, it is observable what Boyer (2015: 533) calls 'organization of enabling power that allows any invention of statecraft to occur in the first place'.

In the following attempts to overcome the energy crisis with regard to this enabling power of the grid infrastructure are examined by analysing its implications of a further exclusion of people living off the grid and the intensification of current inequalities.

2.4 Postcolonial Trajectories and Current Attempts for an Energy Transition

The Zambian grid can be seen as a manifestation of social relations and postcolonial developments intertwined with modernization. Priority in grid installation was given to the distance between Kariba dam and Copperbelt in the 1950s so that mainly the companies, nearby industries and their employees were connected. By installing a second power station and increasing the installed electrical capacity after 1976, also neighbouring farmers and towns were connected. But the main benefiters were the growing cities. Modernization was concentrated here whereas rural regions were largely neglected or connected much later (Tischler, 2014: 1051).

Today, the national grid comprises 2241km with most power flowing between the two southern hydropower stations and the northern Copperbelt province (Owen, 2016: 10). Thus, the grid can be understood as a manifestation of these historic developments.

Nevertheless, after events of infrastructural crisis authorities normally react by transforming or reproducing existing forms of power relations through new infrastructure. Already powerful groups are advantaged in such cases (McFarlane, 2010: 139). Stirling (2014) discusses attempts for prospective global energy transformations as opportunity to restructure current sociotechnical regimes. Because they are linked to the structure of social relations in many ways, he argues, this might shape the future society as a whole (ibid.: 83). As in the previous sections argued, Zambia is at the juncture of such a transformation in order to prevent further energy crises. Thus, analysing the Zambian government's responses to the energy crisis might be a first step to understand if the inequalities between rich and poor, and between people off and on the grid were perpetuated. There is a chance that inequalities in grid infrastructures that shaped and were shaped by the development of economy and society could be substantially decreased during this period where new solutions are required. But Stirling (2014: 84) mentions that past transformation sometimes only pretended to destruct old structures and instead reproduced them. There are some indications toward which sense the Zambian energy sector is being transformed.


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The Electricity Grid during the Energy Crisis and Energy Transitions in Zambia
University of Edinburgh  (School of Social and Political Sciences)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Energie, globaler Süden, Ungleichheit, Energietransformation
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Karlotta Schultz (Author), 2018, The Electricity Grid during the Energy Crisis and Energy Transitions in Zambia, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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