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Prospects of solar energy in Pakistan

March 03, 2003

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The need of electrification of entire Pakistan has become essential for our economic revival. Pakistan still accounts for only 0.5 per cent of the world’s total energy consumption although energy consumption in our country has nearly tripled during the last 20 years or so.

Despite this three fold increase in installed electricity generation capacity, less than half of the house-holds are electrified and per capita electricity supply is only 443 kwh per year against 12,500 kwh in the USA and 7,500 kwh in Japan.

There has been lot of talks in the press recently about power deficiency in Pakistan and on poor performance of concerned authorities. Pakistan has about 17,000 mw of installed electric capacity. Thermal plants make up about 68 per cent of capacity, with hydroelectricity making up 30 per cent and nuclear power 2 per cent only.

Despite abundance of surface water, gas and coal in our country, the potential for harnessing these sources is limited at best and we are opting for costly imported oil for power generation which costs us Rs80 billion annually.

Under the scenario, electrical power through renewable sources of energy has been fast projected as an attractive option for Pakistan. This article reviews only prospects of solar energy in Pakistan and failure or success of other sources of renewable energy are left for some other time.

In a broadest sense, solar energy supports all life on earth and is basis of almost every form of energy which we use. Amount of solar energy that falls on earth is enormous. It will be surprising to note that all energy stored in earth’s reserves of coal, oil and natural gas is just equivalent to energy from only 20 days of sunshine. Yet solar energy accounts for only 1 per cent of global energy sources.

Proponents of solar energy are now convinced that the development and adaptation of solar energy technology in Pakistan can bring a revolution in the life style and living standards of low income people living in the remote areas. While propagating this option they fail to understand that infrastructure, required know-how and limited production levels are the bottlenecks in the mass scale adaptation of solar energy. For years we have been providing incentives and funds for practical demonstration of solar energy, convincing the people for their utilities, educating the masses and developing the pilot scale activities for its promotion but could not achieve a breakthrough as yet due to these limitations.

The role of solar energy has been negligible in the total energy picture of Pakistan. Solar energy technology has so far been used in our country only for demonstration purposes. The experiments in the past in this area were not so successful due to variety of reasons including lack of understanding and handling of this technology.

The solar energy technologies have not been exploited on a large scale for a number of reasons such as, high cost, lack of motivation and inadequate demonstration of effective use of the technology. Recently there is a realization among government circles, about the necessity of using solar energy for the purpose of saving the environment and socio-economic uplift of the peoples living in the remote areas.

Traditional energy sources like firewood, animal dung, and bagasse (the woody residue left-over from crushed sugar-cane) still make up more than half of all energy consumed in the rural areas. There is no denying the fact that solar-generated electricity will improve rural life, thereby reducing the urban migration that is taxing the ability of cities to cope with their own environmental problems. Further, by harnessing solar power for energy in rural areas reliance on firewood would be reduced considerably but question arises that how to bring the know-how for operating such delicate systems in remote areas of the country?

Thar in Sindh and entire Balochistan province is considered ideal for utilization of solar energy. In Balochistan, 80 per cent of the population lives in the rural areas. The population density is very thin and villages are separated by large distances with absolutely no approach roads. About 85 per cent of the villages are yet to be electrified.

Light is the only requirement for these houses located in remote areas of the province and the electric requirement for each house is 100 watt at maximum. Extension of grid lines for such small power requirements would certainly be very uneconomical and local power generation could be the best solution. In case, diesel generators are used, transportation of fuel to such remote areas and maintenance is again costly proposition therefore solar energy seems an attractive option for these areas.

Pakistan is ideally located in the sun belt to take advantage of solar energy technologies. This energy source is widely distributed and abundantly available in the country. Balochistan province is particularly rich in solar energy. It has the highest annual mean sunshine duration in the world.

Impressed by advantages of solar power like infinite and renewable amount of energy, environment friendliness and fuel-less power generation the government of Pakistan under the umbrella of Ministry of Science and Technology some 20 years ago, accorded top priority to solar power generation and for that matter established some research and development institutes like the National Institute of Silicon Technology (NIST), the Pakistan Council of Appropriate Technology (PCAT) and the Solar Energy Research Centre (SERC) and the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR). In addition to it certain departments in various national engineering universities were involved in solar thermal technologies.

Now two decades after spending millions of rupees on the establishment, capital and operational cost on these institutes we have been only able to develop some solar thermal appliances such as solar water heaters, solar cookers, solar dryers, solar desalination plants only for demonstration purposes and these institutes could not achieve a breakthough in solar energy.

Because of the lack of technical know-how and follow-up, these systems have not given the required benefits. The most unfortunate episode of this solar power generation drive in Pakistan is that the NIST and the PCAT have been wound up and a new organization namely the Pakistan Council for Renewable Energy Technology (PCRET) has been established to further spend capital resources on failed and uncompleted projects of NIST and PACT.

Further, the directorate of renewable energy of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources has been closed after the failure of the project for solarization of some selected villages of the country. The roll of certain departments of the E&ME College of the National University of Science and Technology. Rawalpindi, the NED University, Karachi, the GIK Institute of Science and Technology, Topi, the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, and the Mehran University of Engineering and Technology, Jamshoro, remained limited to academic nature for completing the thesis requirement of engineering graduates.

Now the reason behind this institutional failure of harnessing solar power in Pakistan is due to the fact that more than optimist proponents of the solar energy did not take into account the technological barrier of a developing country like ours and disadvantages of solar energy, which certainly outnumber its advantages. In order to keep a balanced perspective of solar power utilization it is pertinent that disadvantages of solar energy must also be mentioned for evaluating the prospects of solar energy use in Pakistan.

Apart from general hurdles of cost effectiveness, collection, conversion and storage of solar energy the other potential bottle neck in promotion of solar power is lack of trained technicians to design, install and maintain solar electric system particularly in country-wide remote areas. Proponents of solar electricity systems for off-grid small villages fail to understand the key fact of illiteracy in our villages. The vital point to consider is that when technically qualified staff of concerned authorities has failed to demonstrate and make pilot scale solar generated system run efficiently, how can we expect that a non-qualified illiterate dwellers of our remote areas will supervise and operate a solar system?

Further low efficiency of solar cells, non-availability of household appliances that run on low voltages, requirement and maintenance of backup energy sources like batteries for having electricity in night are other potential reasons for which dream of solar electrification in remote areas of our country could not turn into a reality.

To top it all another significant barrier in promotion of solar power in Pakistan which has never been considered by the proponents of solar energy is our dusty atmosphere. Whether it is a photovoltaic type or thermal collector type solar electricity generation unit, the performance of the system directly depends upon obstacle-free contact of sunlight to the system.

Any blockage of the sunlight to the system would certainly decrease the efficiency of the system. In all of our potential areas of Thar and Balochistan where solar power is being considered dust storms are a noteworthy atmospheric characteristic. Therefore a thin layer of dust particles will certainly deposit on photovoltaic device or thermal collector glass thus reducing the sunlight intensity on the system just like clouds and fog which ultimately decreases the performance of the solar system.

Keeping in view these limitations of solar energy, evaluating the past poor performance of concerned institutes and considering lack of qualified manpower to design, install, supervise and operate the solar system it seems that solar power electricity generation in Pakistan even on small household scale level in remote areas is not a good proposition.

We need to adopt a power generating technology that is economically feasible and environmentally sound. We are not at the leading edge of technological research. This situation gives us an opportunity to learn from other people’s experiences and mistakes instead of putting our meagre resources in experiments and trials.