Zimbabwe: Ethanol Key to Energy Independence

Published on 5th November 2010

In order to achieve energy independence, Zimbabwe must resort to ethanol use. Ethanol is a clean-burning motor fuel that is produced from renewable sources such as sugar cane. Ethanol can be blended with petrol or diesel, effectively allowing Zimbabwe to ''grow" some of its own fuel.

Currently Zimbabwe does not blend ethanol in its fuel nor does the nation have legislation that regulates and promotes the investment, production, marketing, and use of ethanol. However, such legislation would unlock several enormous benefits of ethanol use for the nation, namely: energy independence, rural development and job creation and finally combating climate change.

The importance of Zimbabwe weaning itself off dependence on foreign oil is highlighted by, firstly, the fact that Zimbabwe is a non-oil producing country with comparatively high costs of importing oil due to its land-locked nature.

Secondly, the foreseeable persistent increase in prevailing international oil prices means that the nation will have to spend more of its scarce foreign exchange resources to obtain the same amount of fuel, putting pressure on the country’s balance of payments position.

By ensuring that ethanol constitutes up to 25 percent of transport fuel, Zimbabwe can reduce its dependence on foreign oil and lower exposure to the price volatility of the international oil market.

The production and use of ethanol would benefit the economy on all levels - local, provincial, and national. From the metropolitan areas where drivers would fill up with a domestically produced fuel, to the local communities where the crops are grown and processed, Zimbabwean-made ethanol shall help propel the economy.

A prime example of how ethanol production can benefit local communities, by promoting rural development and creating employment, is the ongoing construction of the biggest ethanol plant in Africa in Chipinge. By March 2011, the billion dollar ethanol project will produce 100 million litres of ethanol per annum, which is about  20 percent of the country’s total fuel requirements.

Ethanol holds the promise of contributing to rural development by creating jobs in feedstock production, biofuel manufacture, and the transport and distribution of feedstock and products. In fact, the Ethanol plant in Chipinge will employ over 7,000 people. Ten thousand  hectares has also been set aside for local farmers to be contracted to grow sugar-cane.

Quite aside from ethanol's contribution to energy independence and rural development, Government should put its weight behind ethanol as a means of combating climate change.

By signing the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement connected to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, Zimbabwe has committed to reduce fossil fuel use, thereby reducing carbon emissions and helping to curb climate change and global warming.

In this respect, biofuels like ethanol have one enormous, overwhelming plus-point, which is that they are carbon-neutral. When  fossil fuels, oil, gas or coal are burned in cars or power stations, they add to the net amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas, which is the main cause of global warming. The carbon they release is new to the atmosphere, because it has been buried deep within the earth for millions of years.

On the other hand, when biofuels like ethanol are burned, they are only releasing the carbon dioxide which was absorbed from the atmosphere by the crops used to produce them as they grew.  Biofuels are therefore classed as a renewable energy source.

Despite the fact that ethanol  is home-grown, clean and renewable, Government only approved a draft energy policy for the first time in 2008 since achieving independence in 1980. However, Government is still yet to formulate a comprehensive policy on ethanol.

Government must draft comprehensive legislation that regulates and promotes the investment, production, marketing, and use of ethanol. The absence of firm mandates or incentives has slowed any meaningful development of the biofuels sector. The legislation must create incentives around two main areas: the use of ethanol and its production.

Regarding ethanol use, the legislation should provide various levels of exemption from motor fuel excise taxes for blenders and a mandatory fuel blend of say 25 percent ethanol and 75 percent gasoline for gas stations.

Concerning ethanol production, the legislation should create incentives designed to encourage development of production facilities including: income tax credits for small ethanol producers, direct financing or guaranteed loans for capital construction, and direct subsidies for production.

Government should have no difficulty creating such generous incentives for the ethanol industry because ethanol is just about the only renewable-energy initiative that will have broad political support.

Nationalists would love it because it offers the possibility that Zimbabwe may wean itself off dependence on foreign oil. Farmers would love it because it would provide a new source of subsidy.

The automotive industry would love it, because it reckons that switching to a green fuel will take the global-warming heat off cars. The national oil industry would love it because the use of ethanol as a fuel additive means it is business as usual, at least for the time being. Politicians will certainly love it because by subsidising ethanol they can please all those constituencies.

Besides, in all likelihood taxpayers won't seem to notice that they are footing the bill.  But what they will notice is a cheaper, clean-burning, renewable energy source that will see us switch from dwindling foreign oil wells to boundless fields of crops to satisfy our energy needs.

By Garikai Chengu

The author is Researcher at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He can be contacted at chengu@fas.harvard.edu. The views expressed herein are solely those of Garikai Chengu.

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