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  • Why Pakistan lags behind in promoting solar, wind energy projects?

The day Orange Line Metro Train thundered in Lahore on its first test run, a massive power breakdown hit large swathes of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, depriving two-thirds of the country’s population of electricity for almost 10 hours. While the country struggles to meet its energy requirements in households and industries, the metro train system, to consume approximately 74 megawatts (MW) of electricity to power the trains as well as the system’s stations, glided smoothly.

That day, some technical fault either in one of the three major dams of the country or the 500 kilovolts transmission lines triggered a domino effect and took the aging national grid down, suspending work at factories and businesses and life in households.

This is the second major breakdown of the power system in the same month. On May 1, testing of the LNG-based power plants in Punjab caused blackouts in some parts of the country.

While the country struggles to meet its energy requirements in households and industries, the metro train system, to consume approximately 74 megawatts (MW) of electricity to power the trains as well as the system’s stations, glided smoothly

So when would be the right time for the government to pursue an aggressive policy of alternative energy? I’d say right now!

Pakistan continues to face an average shortage of 4,000 megawatts in the power sector owing to a substantial disconnect between installed power capacity and actual generation.

Despite hydropower being the cheapest source of electricity for Pakistan, the high capital costs to supplement the existing hydro resources has distorted the hydro-thermal ratio in the power generation mix and resulted in a significant increase in energy cost.

And along with depleting water resources and India’s inauguration of the controversial Kishan Ganga project, the future of hydro power generation in Pakistan seems bleak. The Indian project includes a dam on Kishanganga River – a tributary of the Jhelum, known as Neelum in Pakistan. The dam will give India control over a river that flows from Pakistan into Indian-held Kashmir and then re-enters Pakistan. Pakistan has protested and will be having talks with the World Bank asking it to intervene, but that would simply add to the pile of disputes the country has been trying to sort out.

While hydro-based power projects produce around 30 percent power in the country, with thermal power generating 64 percent of power in Pakistan, new coal based power projects with a cumulative capacity of about 5,000MW, are expected to be operational during 2018 in the country. Pakistan has also been looking forward to electricity imports from central Asia. The government expects that this generation will help overcome the envisaged 8,000MW demand-supply gap.

Pakistan’s renewable energy production, on the other hand, is expected to increase to 1870 MWs by the end of current year. The government has tasked the Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB) to ensure five per cent of total national power generation capacity to be generated through renewable energy technologies by the year 2030. With the climate hot and sunny in major parts of the country, it is rather strange and disappointing to know that Pakistan still continues to rely on fossil fuel and hydro power energy, with resources for the first on the verge of depletion and the second mired with climatic changes and controversies.

Although rooftop solar panels have started to become more visible in metropolitan cities like Karachi and Lahore in households and mostly educational institutions, it yet remains to be seen as a common source for power generation.

Recently, Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar took notice of zero power generation by Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power and Bhikki power plants. Established in 2013, Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Limited (QASPL) is a public-sector for-profit company established by the Punjab government as the first-ever utility-scale solar power plant in the country, which commenced commercial operation in 2015. The government, however, has principally decided to privatise its 100 megawatt portion of the plant.

In Sindh, Jhimpir Power, a wind project by a Dubai based investment firm achieved commercial operations this month. It is a high-quality wind resource capable of generating over 50,000MW of clean and affordable electricity. The Jhimpir Wind Corridor coupled with solar power can be further developed into a resource of national importance, able to reduce the country’s reliance on expensive imported fuels and provide the people of Pakistan clean and cheap electricity.

These handful of projects, mostly in their initial and experimental stages are in contrast to the rest of the world, which is largely embracing solar power. Last year, global investments in solar power projects reached a record $160.8 billion, which was 18 per cent higher than 2016, as per data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

If Saudi Arabia begins working on the proposed 200GW solar project, it would be the largest in the world. Germany has invested $200 billion in developing various clean energy sources in the past two decades and gets almost a third of its electricity from them. China spent $86.5 billion last year on building 53GW of PV plants, Bloomberg data shows.

Meanwhile, our arch rival India is also spending heavily to increase its solar power generation capacity. The country, which already gets five percent of its electricity from solar projects, is gearing up to start the 2GW Pavagada Solar Park located in Karnataka.

And while amid controversies of damage to heritage buildings and added power expenditures Pakistan’s second largest metropolitan city prepares for the second trial run of its Orange Line Metro train, India, after experimenting with solar powered train coaches last year, now has an entire station that runs on renewable energy. A major railway thoroughfare in India’s northeastern region, the fully solar powered Guwahati Railway Station handles around 20,000 passengers every day.

If these facts and figures are enough to spin the readers’ head, they should only prepare for the killing digits Pakistan spends on the import bills of mineral fuels, nearly 24 percent of total imports.

Yet the government seems to be focused on promoting and building fossil-fuel based power plants and under-utilising its solar power potential. The investments involved in solar power projects are indeed hefty, but they need to start, first aiming at a mix of renewable and non-renewable sources of energy and possibly, towards entirely the latter. What’s missing is the drive from the state to focus on the paradigm shift.

It often happens in Pakistan that we awaken to realities too late. Promising steps taken in the right direction are fewer when compared to hurdles, usually a lack of initiative and inept policies. As is the case of renewable energy, although the state has acknowledged the potential and has been facilitating in ventures, collaborations and improvement in regulations, the pace is slow. The dependence on depleting resources further increases when the country focuses on projects consuming their precious energy. The vision needs to be clearer and the drive more energetic, for a progressive and self reliant nation to emerge.