IN the backdrop of the relentless energy crisis in Pakistan, desperate solutions are being sought to add to the country`s power-generation capacity. In doing so, it is critical to make the right choice in terms of adopted technologies.

With regard to the fuel used, several options are available including oil, gas, coal, hydropower, nuclear power and renewable energy. It is important to go for those options that ensure the most cost-effective and value-engineered solution in the long run.

In all power plants that are based on renewable energy, running costs make up the bulk of the total expenditure. A breakdown of the operation costs of a typical thermal power plant suggests that the price of fuel consumed to generate electricity makes for most of its running outlay. In some cases, the price of fuel alone is 90 per cent of the total life-cycle cost of thermal power plants.

The last few months have shown that one of the complexities of the prevalent energy crisis is the high running cost associated with existing thermal power plants. Despite the fact that there is a severe shortfall of electricity — with the gap between demand and supply occasionally rising to as much as 40 per cent — quite a few thermal power plants are underperforming. The reason for such a tragic state of affairs is their inability to cope with the running cost — the lack of liquidity has undermined their capacity to purchase adequate amounts of oil required to run on full throttle.

Recently, the KESC has not been utilising its fully installed capacity. Interestingly, as per media reports, its officials have accepted the underperformance of their power plants as a deliberate tactic to save money on oil purchase.

Although to a great extent it is the vicious interdepartmental debt circle that has pushed these power plants towards financial disaster, the fundamental weakness that oil and gas-based thermal plants bring to the energy scenario of Pakistan cannot be denied. With over 90 per cent of the oil needed for electricity production being imported, sooner or later oil-based power plants were bound to be hit by the fluctuation in oil prices in the international markets.

Similarly, the extensive use of natural gas for power generation, as has been the case over the last decade and a half, is not a pragmatic strategy in any respect. The available gas reserves were indeed too limited to support the practice on a long-term basis. The repercussions are already there as natural gas has also become a scarce commodity. While households in some areas are struggling for sufficient gas to meet fundamental needs, the progress of the industrial sector has been badly dented by serious disruptions in the supply of the commodity.

Going for another lot of oil and gas-based power plants, such as the IPPs saga in the 1990s, may provide a quick-fix solution by bridging the gap between demand and supply. However, on the medium- to long-term basis, it would inevitably have serious financial and energy security implications. Oil-based power plants would remain hostage to fluctuation in oil prices besides increasing the country`s dependence on energy imports. Indigenously available gas reserves are stretched to the limit and setting up new gas-based power plants will exacerbate the already complicated situation unless new reserves are discovered.

Given the unhealthy situation of our local reserves and a lack of any meaningful development on gas-import projects, these power plants will be unable to ensure an uninterrupted supply on a long-term basis. Furthermore, electricity from oil and gas-based power plants will be quite expensive.

The sustainable solution for Pakistan, both from the energy security and energy affordability perspectives, lies in the exploitation of indigenous resources that offer long-term potential. These include coal, hydropower and other renewable energy; coal and hydropower can provide rapid, secure and cost-effective solutions to the country`s current energy crisis. Pakistan could have avoided most of these energy problems had it picked these two resources rather than oil and gas in its hot pursuit for power-generation facilities in the 1990s.

It is time to make up for past mistakes of having ignored coal time and again. Given the present challenges and opportunities, the country must tap into the immense potential of local coal for power generation. As long as resources permit, hydropower generation should also be actively pursued. The total hydropower potential of the country is reported to be up to 46GW, of which only 15 per cent has been exploited so far.

Hydropower is by far the most economical source of electricity in Pakistan. As 2008-09 figures show, hydropower produced electricity cost less than 10 per cent than that produced from thermal power. Renewable energy is also rapidly coming of age. Wind power and several types of solar and biomass energy technologies have already become technically as well as commercially viable in many parts of the world.

Pakistan also needs to harness its renewable resources that can be valuable additions to its conventional energy base. The Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB) has been citing quite a reasonable wind power potential in the coastal areas of Pakistan.

The AEDB should now deliver the long-planned wind power projects without further delay and they must be economically feasible. Solar, thermal and photovoltaic technologies in some cases have also become viable and should be given due consideration. Several forms of biomass technologies are indigenously available and can offer effective small- to medium-scale solutions.

Thus, in order to truly address energy challenges facing the country, it is crucial not to repeat past mistakes. There should be a holistic approach towards finding solutions that offer life-cycle cost effectiveness.

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, UK.
dr.m.asif@gmail.com

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