The world is doubling down on 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.

A staggering 98 gigawatts (GW) of solar power projects were commissioned in 2017 across the globe. This year could turn out to be another strong one, particularly if Saudi Arabia begins working on the proposed 200GW solar project — the largest in the world.

Pakistan is also working on a number of solar power projects but its progress has been slow.

While the government seems to be focused on promoting and building fossil-fuel based power plants, the country is underutilising its solar power potential

Solar power currently plays a negligible role in Pakistan’s power generation mix. The country gets 64pc of its energy from thermal power projects which generate electricity by burning fuels — such as furnace oil — that are damaging for the environment.

Hydropower projects account for 30pc of the country’s electricity generation, as per the most recent economic survey, while around six per cent mainly comes from nuclear power plants.

The share of solar power was so small in the previous fiscal year that it wasn’t highlighted in the Finance Ministry’s report. The Central Power Purchasing Agency’s annual report shows that solar power accounted for less than one per cent of Pakistan’s energy mix.

The rest of the world, on the other hand, has embraced solar power. Germany has invested $200bn in developing various clean energy sources in the past two decades and gets almost a third of its electricity from them.

As per the International Energy Agency’s figures, in 2016 Germany got six per cent of its electricity from photovoltaic (PV) cells which convert sunlight into electricity.

Meanwhile, Spain, Italy, and Japan got 3pc, 8pc, and 4pc of their energy from PV cells, respectively, in the same period. The US got 1.3pc of its electricity from solar power projects in 2017, as per the US Energy Information Administration.

But so far, no other country has spent more in a year to ramp up its solar power capacity than China as the the country spent $86.5bn in 2017 on building 53GW of PV plants, Bloomberg data shows.

Meanwhile, India is also spending heavily to increase its solar power generation capacity. The country, which got 5pc of its electricity from solar projects, as per government’s figures, and is gearing up to start the 2GW Pavagada Solar Park located in Karnataka which could become the largest operating solar power station in the world.

Pakistan has also considerably grown its solar power generation in the last couple of years. As per the Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB), which operates under the Ministry of Energy and is the sole authority in Pakistan responsible for leading the development of the country’s renewable energy sector, there are more than two dozen solar projects that are under various stages of development.

As these plants come online, the agency believes that the country’s annual cumulative solar power capacity will grow from 400MW in 2016 to 1,556MW in 2018.

On paper, it seems that the country is heading in the right direction. But it is unclear when some of its projects that are slated to start in the short term will actually begin commercial operations.

For instance, the three projects located in Nooriabad, Sindh, representing a combined capacity of 150MW received a Letter of Intent (LOI) from AEDB in 2013 and are forecasted to begin operations in June 2018. But AEDB’s website shows that so far, these projects have been neither awarded a tariff nor a generation license

In addition to this, development work on the massive 1,000MW Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park (QASP) in the Cholistan Desert, Punjab — which was Pakistan’s flagship solar power project and the only such development under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) — has experienced significant delays.

The project was initially expected to be completed in 2017 but so far, only the first phase of the development representing 300MW has been completed.

Interestingly, it is widely known that Pakistan is a perfect candidate for solar power generation, given the country regularly received high levels of solar irradiation. This was further confirmed last year when AEDB, by partnering with the World Bank, developed the country’s solar energy maps.

These high-quality maps, which were made using the latest resource modelling techniques that were underpinned by 18 years of satellite and global atmospheric data, can not only be used for project planning purposes but also to lure investors. And the world has already taken notice.

Pakistan now regularly features in the Ernest & Young’s Renewable Energy Country Attractiveness Index which ranks 40 countries that are most attractive for renewable energy investment and deployment opportunities. In its latest ranking, Pakistan was given 26th position, ahead of countries like Spain, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The country is underutilising its solar power potential. The government seems to be focused on promoting and building fossil-fuel based power plants.

Although there is no denying the fact that gas, furnace oil, and coal-fired plants are crucial for fulfilling Pakistan’s energy needs, the solar sector certainly deserves more attention. There is no reason why the country shouldn’t be generating considerably more than around one per cent of its electricity from solar power projects, just like the above-mentioned countries.

sarfarazis@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, April 9th, 2018