The Dutch Reformed Church missionaries, who set up first at Mvera then Kongwe, Nkhoma, Mlanda, Malingunde, Chinthembwe and other places in the Central Region embarked on a number of projects in this country. Some of such projects were educational institutions. Robert Blake Secondary School at Kongwe in Dowa was among the missionaries’ prestigious projects.
At Kongwe they constructed a dam on the Lingadzi River, which served as source of water and power to the school and to the mission, thanks to a mini hydro-plant that was installed there. The ravages of nature, obviously abated by anthropogenic activities, rendered the hydro-plant unfeasible after many years of faithful service. It has now been abandoned.
Hydro-power plants are great but are severely prone to deteriorating weather conditions. Over the past year or so, the water levels in both Lake Malawi and Shire River have gone so low that generation of power has been severely affected. If a similar year follows the current one, only God knows how this country will get enough water for its power generation.
But humans should know what alternative power generation methodologies would be feasible. Several methods have been suggested already. It has been suggested, for example, that we could increase the generation capacity by adding diesel generators. This, in my view, is only a stop-gap measure, which cannot be relied upon on a long-term basis.
We must remember where we are coming from. Before we had hydro power stations in this country, we used to get our power from diesel generators. At that time petroleum prices were low worldwide but the prices have, since the oil crisis of 1973, skyrocketed. There have been several oil crises between 1973 and now. In 1960 the average petroleum price was $1.63 per barrel; it now stands at $39.33 per barrel. Malawian consumers cannot afford the price of electricity generated from diesel on a long-term basis.
Another alternative that has been touted is coal. Agreed, coal has great calorific value and would generate a lot of power relatively cheaply. But environmentally speaking, coal is a nuisance because it generates carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and mercury when it is burnt. All of these are hazardous to the environment and to humans.
Some controls are possible and absolutely necessary to minimise the production of some of these harmful by-products. Flue gas desulphurisation, for example, is a process that can be incorporated in a coal plant to reduce the emission of sulphur dioxide. A typical uncontrolled coal plant will produce about 14 000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per year. One fitted with flue gas desulphurisation will typically produce 7 000 tonnes per year. These controls, it must be pointed out, are very expensive and would significantly add to the cost of the power.
This columnist believes that solar and wind alternatives are among the most viable power generation methods in Malawi. The challenge with solar is that it requires extensive areas where the panels can sit. With Malawi’s towering population density, this is indeed a challenge. But searching diligently within the unpopulated regions, such as marginal lands, significant tracts of land can be found for this purpose. On a positive note, the prices of solar panels are on a downward trend, which is what is expected when supply outstrips demand.
Wind is a resource that now needs to be put to use. It has always been feared that we may not have areas in Malawi where wind currents are strong enough to move wind turbines for purposes of generating power. I choose to differ.
Those that are frequent visitors to the lake will have noticed that during the night the lake splashes a lot as the waves vehemently beat against the shore. Those waves are driven by winds. Since I was a boy, I have been hearing about the dreaded mwera winds, which have been known to wreak havoc on our lake. I would like to submit in this article that mwera can be harnessed to provide power to the Malawi nation. Winds blowing across a lake surface have few obstructions and are therefore capable of developing great power.
Searching within Africa, one notices that Kenya is already in the process of producing 310 MW via 365 wind turbines installed or to be installed on the shores of Lake Turkana. We can do likewise on our lakeshore and generate a significant amount of power for domestic and industrial use. n