Sun Kings: Can Solar Power Solve Pakistan’s Energy Crisis?

Pakistan Solar 2011 2
Technicians work on solar panel in power station at Hub about 25 km (15 miles) from Karachi.

Amid an ever-worsening energy shortage in Pakistan, the country’s parliament has chosen an alternative source of power: solar. A 1.8-megawatt (MW) solar power plant funded by the Chinese is being installed in Parliament House in Islamabad, which the Pakistan government hopes will save some $1 million in its annual energy utility bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. AlertNet, part of the Guardian newspaper’s Environment Network, reported that construction of the solar panels commenced in the first week of the New Year. The Chinese government is picking up the tab of the initial cost (of about $60 million) as a gesture of friendship between the two Asian giants.

“This is the first project of its kind [in a public building] in Pakistan, and late, more public buildings will be converted to solar power to overcome the energy crisis,” said Munawar Abbas Shah, a special secretary at the National Assembly (the lower house of Pakistan’s Parliament). Both the National Assembly and the Senate (upper house of parliament) meet in the building. “The consumption of electricity in the parliament even jumps over 2 MW in summers when the house is in session,” Shah added. AlertNet noted that while Pakistan does not plan a comprehensive switch to solar power, it has enlisted Chinese help to build a 10,000-acre solar park in Punjab province, which could generate 1,000 MW.

Separately, in a country where millions of people are not even connected to the national electricity grid (and even millions more who are connected suffer periodic power outages that can last for hours), solar energy may offer a form of relief. According to the World Bank report, almost half (44 percent) of all households in Pakistan are not connected to the electricity grid. About four-fifths of these families are located in rural regions, leading many of them to use kerosene as a source of light. Iftikhar Ahmad Qaisrani, founder of the Renewable Energy Society for Education, Awareness Research and Community Help, an Islamabad-based renewable energy advocate, said that Pakistan needs investments from the government and private sectors to build a solar power infrastructure, noting that the county enjoys 320 days of sunshine annually and about eight hours of sun every day.

Qaisrani also noted that Pakistan is far behind India and Bangladesh on these fronts -- these nations have already significantly engaged the use of solar power in rural and farming areas (where people also lack links to the electricity grid). But Pakistan, he added, must make it economical and practical. “Installation of solar power is a one-time expenditure, and people should be encouraged to avail [themselves of] the opportunity,” he said. “This is the right time to encourage the public and private sector to focus on solar energy and provide off-grid solutions to people living in far-flung areas of the country.”

Qaisrani estimated that it would cost between $3,500 and $4,000 to convert an individual home to solar power -- a rather large expenditure for the average Pakistani household. But he pointed out that such a system could deliver continual energy for 25 years. “Pakistan can also save millions of dollars [in] foreign reserves per [year] just by switching to solar power,” Qaisrani further noted, citing that fossil fuels still account for almost two-thirds (65 percent) of annual power generation in the country. Since half of that fuel has to be imported, Pakistan’s power supply can be quite costly.

But solar energy is not cheap either -- at least in the short term, since parts necessary for solar panels and power systems must be manufactured overseas (principally from China, Japan and Germany) and imported. These costs are exacerbated by heavy import duties slapped on solar power units. Abdul Hanan Siddhu, a solar energy consultant, urges the Islamabad government to do away with such taxes. “The government should also encourage local manufacturers to start cell manufacturing to reduce the cost,” he said. ”On top of this, government subsidies could help boost the solar off-grid lighting sector.”

In an op-ed published in the Express Tribune newspaper, Ahsan Ashraf said Pakistan should pursue solar and wind power instead of nuclear energy. “We have ample supplies for wind and solar power, which we can use to tackle our energy crisis,” Ashraf wrote. “With Pakistan’s incredible potential of untapped renewable resources, why is Pakistan trying an untested nuclear technology when the rest of the world is moving towards greener energy solutions?”

Ashraf noted that advocates of nuclear power in Pakistan over-estimate the country’s ability to meet economic targets and overcome the failures of its incompetent and corrupt government. “In order for Pakistan to meet its own nuclear development estimates, it would have to emulate and surpass the efforts of countries like the United States and France. This idea seems highly unlikely and unrealistic to me,” he declared. “Development of nuclear power requires long-lasting coordination between private and government sectors and a strong government effectiveness and control of corruption, since nuclear projects require large capital expenditures. Compared to countries like the United States, France and South Korea, that have developed nuclear power at impressive rates in the past, Pakistan cannot compare in government effectiveness and control of corruption.”

Solar and wind, in contrast, can be developed much more easily and can eventually provide safe, cheap power to a country in need of such blessings. Ashraf cited the example of a Pakistani village called Narian Khorian (near Islamabad), which has installed 100 solar panels with help from a local company. “Today, all houses in the village have sufficient energy to run an electrical fan and two light bulbs,” he said. “An average solar panel lasts almost 25 years and has no maintenance costs associated with it. There is no downtime or risk of failures that may cause large-scale evacuations or other threats to life and/or property. This is the solution that Pakistan has been looking for: A change that is driven by the people on fundamental grassroots level.”

Meanwhile, Pakistan is likely to endure worsening power surges, especially in its sweltering summers when demand surges beyond the capacity of the existing electrical grid. Power outages lasting 18 to 20 hours a day are not unusual across Pakistan -- all of which hurts an already faltering economy. The extended absence of electrical power leads to wasted food in refrigerators and families unable to cook, clean or wash, and hospital patients in grave danger, not to mention the extreme discomfort of dealing with heat and humidity.

There are many reasons why Pakistan undergoes repeated power outages, but it basically all boils down to soaring demand mixed with mismanagement and corruption among virtually all levels of government. The public’s discontent has manifested itself in frequent street protests that frequently turn violent. “Pakistan’s dilemma on the electricity front does not have to do with the capacity already installed for generation purposes, noted Farhan Bokhari, writing in the Gulf News newspaper. Instead, the shortages are driven mainly by the inability of the government to pay for electricity produced by privately owned companies, as it tries to overcome a ballooning fiscal deficit -- thanks to the visible squandering of precious budgetary resources. “Tackling such a challenge in part must also be linked to inspiring the broad mainstream public across Pakistan, Bokhari added.

On a daily basis, Pakistan’s power demand averages 16,000 MW, but the nation can produce only about 12,000 MW. In the summer months, this gap can be as high as 7,000 MW, Reuters reported. Bilal Mustafa, who sells solar energy kits to households as the owner of Hussain Electronics in Rawalpindi, said demand has jumped in the past few years. “One of the reasons behind the soaring demand for solar energy systems is itself the sale of the systems. People watch others using solar power and they hanker to try it out, too,” he said.

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