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Solving our energy crisis with renewables

May 28, 2013

enter image description hereOn Friday the temperature touched 47 degrees Celsius in Lahore, coming close to breaking the all time record for the month of May – and on that day there was massive load shedding in the city, making life miserable for Lahore’s inhabitants. Friday was also when the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang ended his visit to Pakistan after giving the green signal to Nawaz Sharif that his country would cooperate in sharing civil nuclear technology to overcome the energy crisis in Pakistan. Just exactly how is expensive nuclear energy going to solve our energy woes (currently nuclear energy contributes just three per cent to our energy mix)? In fact, most energy experts don’t see a role for nuclear energy on a massive scale in the near future, especially given what happened in Fukushima in Japan recently. Pakistan is facing a massive energy emergency and we still cannot think outside the box.

Nuclear energy is expensive, messy and dangerous. As for our massive coal reserves in Thar, we just don’t have the state of the art technology required to convert the lignite coal (lowest ranked coal) found in Thar into gas. The kind of coal that Thar has is of little use besides conversion to electricity onsite. Open pit mining of the coal would require massive amounts of water, which is already scarce in the Thar Desert. Apparently there is not one single scientific study on record that claims that Thar coal is both technologically and economically viable. Why waste so much money investing in dirty coal when we are blessed with so many other clean and renewable resources like solar, wind and hydro?

Even if our current circular debt is somehow paid off by the next government and everyone starts paying their electricity bills and stops stealing from the grid, we will still have energy shortages in Pakistan given our growing population. Currently, the total power generation capacity in Pakistan is 23,500 megawatts; energy consumption has grown by almost 80 per cent in the last 15 years. The Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) forecasts the country's electricity demand will increase to around 40,000 megawatts by 2020.

We are also currently relying on expensive imported furnace oil to run our power plants (oil amounts to 32 per cent of the energy mix). What we need is to turn to alternative energy sources like solar, wind, hydro and biomass instead of relying on fossil fuels. Currently all developing countries are facing energy issues in the face of global oil problems and price fluctuations. Dr Tariq Banuri, who founded the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad before working at the UN headquarters in New York, has been emphasising the need for an “energy revolution for economic development” in Pakistan for years now. He has been warning the government on his regular trips back to the country that: “in future, non-renewable energy will become costly and unpredictable. Even current energy costs are too high for poor people in Pakistan”.

On one of his trips back, he had stated that “Pakistan needs affordable – Target $1 per Watt – and predictable energy. Current options are limited and expensive”. He called upon Pakistan to identify and develop affordable and predictable options, like renewable energy from solar, wind, and biomass. This was a couple of years ago and today, the solar panel cost in the country that was once 5 dollars a watt has come down to less than 1 dollar a watt. Internationally, prices for solar panels have come crashing down according to Arif Alauddin, who was until recently the head of the government’s Alternative Energy Development Board in Pakistan. He says that since Pakistan falls under the Sun Belt, there is a vast potential for solar energy in Pakistan.

“The cost of solar panels has dropped 80 per cent in the last five years. The government has also removed all import duties on solar panels. I think there is a perception in Pakistan that we are not doing much in solar energy but we actually are. In 2008 we were importing less than a quarter of a megawatt in solar energy and this year’s imports are close to 20 megawatts. This has been achieved without any government subsidy or direct assistance or support,” explains Alauddin. All over the country, the UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) systems are failing due to the massive load shedding which will not allow the batteries to recharge from the grid (the batteries need at least three to four hours of electricity to fully charge). Hence people are installing solar panels in their homes to light up their rooms and run their fans (these solar panels also run with batteries but you just need to add a converter). Sales this year are three times as much as last year and there are as many as 146 vendors in the country. Alauddin says, “We endorsed certified panels (certified by Germany) which are close to one dollar per watt as opposed to those half the price.”

According to him, with Chinese help, 1000 megawatts of solar energy will soon be added to the national grid. This will come mostly from the Cholistan Desert, where solar powered IPP’s are ready to sell power if they get the right rate from NEPRA (National Electric Power Regulatory Authority). “The solar on-grid megawatts projects are lined up and waiting for NEPRA to give a tariff. They need to know at what price to sell electricity to the Government of Pakistan.”

NEPRA was supposed to give the rate in February this year, but they have delayed the decision – perhaps they are waiting for the new government to form and a new chairman to be appointed.

There is also vast potential for wind power in Pakistan – experts say that in the Balochistan and Sindh provinces, sufficient wind exists to power every off grid coastal village in the country. Unlike in neighboring countries, the national grid is quite extensive in Pakistan, except for vast stretches of Balochistan. There also exists a wind corridor between Gharo and Keti Bunder that alone could produce between 40,000 and 50,000 megawatts of electricity. Work has already started on wind farms in this corridor and according to Alauddin, two plants have already been installed, producing 106 megawatts (one is 50 megawatts while the other is 56 megawatts). “Three more that are 50 megawatts each are under construction, and 11 more are in the pipeline.”

In terms of hydropower potential, there is no doubt that Pakistan has ample possibilities, especially in the North. Pakistan’s total hydropower resources have been estimated at 59,796 megawatts, out of which 41,045 megawatts are so far considered exploitable potential. However, the utilisation of hydropower potential is far from being realised (just 29 per cent of the current energy mix). In fact, a policy framework and package of incentives for private sector hydropower generation projects that was introduced back in 1995 has failed spectacularly. Experts like Arshad Abbasi, who works at SDPI, blame WAPDA, pointing out that: “the World Bank rightly proposed institutional reforms in WAPDA for decentralisation in order to increase efficiency in management.”

While developing our hydropower and wind potential is something we can work towards in the future, what we can do immediately, according to Carl Pope, a well known American environmental expert, who visited Pakistan in January this year, is: 1) Stop wasting natural gas heating water; free it up for industry. Countries like Nepal with far less sunshine than Pakistan meet their domestic and commercial hot water needs with low-tech, low-cost, quick to deploy roof-top solar. 2) Use solar pump/drip irrigation technologies to replace low head grid and diesel powered tube wells, and to bring new riparian areas under irrigation. This will free up electricity for industrial use from agriculture and avoid wasted water. 3) Deploy urban roof-top solar generation wherever there is currently diesel back-up. Note that roof-top solar electricity is already cheaper than diesel and oil originated power.

According to Pope, these strategies focusing on renewable energy “require no outside funding; only modest government policy and infrastructure support.”In his view, “small projects can help in the short term – but they must be done in rapidly growing, scaling numbers… Everyone can be part of the solution.”

Tariq Banuri felt that international support could be mobilised to develop a long-term renewable energy expertise in Pakistan and pointed out that: “China is closing old coal plants and investing in renewable energy. They could partner with low cost labour in Pakistan in these areas. Chinese costs are already lower than elsewhere.” Why couldn’t we have asked the Chinese prime minister to help us with investments in renewable energy?