THE year 2010 has begun on depressing note as Pakistan continues to suffer from the worst energy crisis in its history. The crisis that was triggered in 2006 has affected all sectors — industry, household, agriculture, transport and trade and commerce.

More worryingly, no one seems to know when the crisis will be over. Even the predictions of the federal minister for water and power that loadshedding would be contained by December 2009 were not proved correct. In fact, the hapless population has to contend with several hours of loadshedding — in some places for as long as 18 hours, even in big cities.

For some time now, media reports have suggested solar energy initiatives for the agricultural sector. These reports have said several times that solar tube wells were being considered by the federal and some provincial governments as a solution to meet the water needs of farmers. Reports suggest that initially a few systems would be installed and after a (successful) trial period the number of installed systems would be extended to 800,000. Obviously, such initiatives are commendable as long as the pros and cons are carefully weighed.

With the advent of 2010 as Pakistan struggles to make inroads in the area of renewable energy countries across the world have made remarkable progress. It's not just developed countries that have managed to streamline renewable energy as an important part of their energy base. There have been significant achievements on the part of a large number of developing countries as well. There are some very successful renewable energy programmes in place in underdeveloped countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Not far from Pakistan, a number of South Asian countries are also benefiting from various types of renewable technologies.

In Pakistan, renewable energy is one of those areas that have faced repeated setbacks at the hands of the concerned departments and authorities. The initiatives being proposed are not new. A number of programmes have been planned and attempts have been made to execute these over the last three decades to promote renewable energy.

Several departments have also been set up for this purpose. These include the Appropriate Technology Development Corporation (ATDC), the National Institute of Silicon Technology (NIST), the Pakistan Council for Appropriate Technologies (PCAT) and the Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy Technologies (PCRET).

None could ever deliver, because of the absence of an appropriate strategy and the lack of resolve. Of these departments the PCRET still exists although one can question what it has accomplished.

As a recent initiative to promote renewable energy, the Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB) was established in 2002 with great aspirations. The AEDB emerged on the scene with a great deal of hype. A number of ambitious targets were set out, the most notable of which was the development of a solid wind power base in the country within a few years. Assurances were also made to advance solar and biomass technologies. Promises were made to develop 100 MW and 700 MW of wind power by 2005 and 2007 respectively.

It was hoped that the department would have learned lessons from the disappointing performance of its predecessors. However, that has not been the case. Against the target of 700 MW by the end of 2007, not a single watt was delivered to the national grid. The AEDB's achievements have been negligible.

The launch of renewable projects in Pakistan dates back to the 1970s. During the 1970s and 1980s several projects were begun to promote technologies like biogas systems, solar village electrification and small-scale wind turbines in various parts of the country. None of these could be sustained beyond the pilot stage. Even the pilot projects were in bad shape within a matter of months.

The remains of a large number of such systems including precious solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, wind turbines and biogas units can still be seen lying around in many parts of the country including in remote areas of all the provinces. Until a few years ago, a passerby could see the remains of a large number of solar PV panels in the junkyard of a university in Rawalpindi.

With such an unsuccessful track record, one can't help but wonder if lessons have been learnt from past mistakes. Each solar water pump costs hundreds of thousand of rupees. Talking about even a few thousands of such systems would mean an investment of many millions.

Policymakers must study the issue at hand before embarking on new projects and ask themselves some tough questions. First, have they looked into the reasons behind the failure of past attempts? Second, have they undertaken a cost and value study of the solar water pumps to be installed? Third, given the insecure environments of villages where tribal and other disputes rage, have they worked out a security plan for the pumps? Fourth — and this perhaps is of utmost concern — have they worked out a maintenance programme for the pumps? Last, have they worked out a customer education programme?

It is hoped that the concerned authorities have taken care of these issues in a robust and meaningful fashion. If not, they should do so immediately, otherwise they will face another disaster as public money would be wasted, the energy crisis would deepen, and last but not least the confidence of the people in renewable technologies would receive a severe jolt.

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at Glasgow Caledonian University, UK.

dr.m.asif@gmail.com

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