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Innovative power solutions

November 15, 2012

TOO much of our economic commentary has descended into a pall of the same old laments. Not enough thinking is being devoted to solutions that are outside the box.

Take the power crisis as the major example. All thinking and commentary is focused on the large issues of fuel pricing and supply, of circular debt and line losses.

These are big problems, no doubt, and their resolution is critical to finding a way out of the situation. But they are not the only way forward, and the deeply intractable and interconnected nature of the challenges they present means most reform-minded comments tend to descend into a general lament at the hopelessness of it all.

What is lost in this excessive gloom is innovative solutions, small scale, that can be replicated in large numbers. Some of the most innovative thinking in the field involves what they call the ‘point of consumption’ generation. This means exactly what it says, that you generate the electricity exactly where it is meant to be consumed.

The thinking is not different from how computing has evolved over time. The earliest computers were mainframes, large boxes with massive amounts of computing power locked up in them, connected by wires to a multiple number of terminals from where users accessed this computing power separately.

In time mainframes were replaced by desktop computers, which contained all their computing power in one unit with a terminal. And eventually of course the desktop gave way to the laptop, which has now given way to the tablet.

Something similar is happening in the power sector around the world, but a lot more slowly.

The old model, to which we are all committed, is of a single large power generation house, linked by wires to many houses where the electricity is consumed. But the new model envisions many small power-generation points, located at the points of consumption, which can use the power supply from the grid to supplement its own capacity, or feed its surplus electricity back into the grid.

In urban areas, this is hard to imagine as of now. I don’t know many people who have successfully installed solar panels at home to bring down their purchases from the grid, nor do we have ‘two-way’ meters that can channel electricity back into the grid for us.

But in remote areas, a marvellous experiment has moved beyond the drawing board into reality, and is gathering momentum. Across Gilgit-Baltistan and Swat and Dir, for instance, micro hydel projects are being adopted with remarkable speed, and with remarkable results.

Large numbers of villages, that were until recently living without any prospect of electricity because the cost of bringing the grid to them was prohibitive for our cash-starved government are now enjoying free electricity throughout the summers thanks to a small turbine, and a manually cut channel to carry water falling from mountain streams.

The technology used in these micro hydel projects is all indigenously manufactured in Besham near Swat. I hear it was brought to Pakistan as part of an aid programme run by some European agency, but I’m not sure of its origins.

What I’m sure of is the speed with which it has been adopted across the mountain communities, from Dir and Swat to Gilgit-Baltistan. I’ve seen tiny villages propped up high on rocky mountainsides lit up with light bulbs at night using this technology, which the villagers have purchased by pooling their money. And I’ve seen this across Gilgit-Baltistan.

Very similar thinking can be applied down country. In the plains of Punjab, for instance, mountain streams may not exist, but the water flows in the canals can be used to generate electricity during the summers using similar turbines, adapted for use with slow-moving, high volumes of water.

Small turbines installed in containers can be lowered into the canals during the summer time, with a single wire running to the nearest grid station, and the electricity produced can be shared by a single community.

Thousands of such small-scale projects can light up large areas of rural Punjab through the difficult summer months, perhaps enough to keep small-scale industry going and prevent livelihoods from shutting down.

This is not rocket science. It is already being done on a large and rapidly growing scale across the mountain regions of the north, and adapting the same technology for use in the plains of Punjab requires only a small push from the provincial government.

There are many ‘point of consumption’ solutions around the world which harness the local geography of the area being serviced to develop innovative power generation systems on a small scale.

Solar applications and wind applications are very expensive if we think of them in terms of the old ‘mainframe’ model of large-scale power generation houses feeding a national grid.

But if we think of them in terms of ‘point of consumption’ generation they become a lot more feasible, especially for communities that don’t need much more electricity than what it takes to run a few bulbs and a couple of fans.

None of this is to imply that work on the large-scale problems of the power sector should stop. It is simply to suggest that it would be a good idea if that work were to be supplemented by efforts to innovate and develop more ‘point of consumption’ generation ideas as well.

As these innovative solutions spread, then technology can be developed which helps share the electricity thus generated from those areas that are surplus to those that are deficit, with appropriate markets for pricing and settlements for shared electricity.

Of course, there are obstacles and challenges in implementing such thinking, but no path out of the power crisis is without obstacles and challenges. In this case, the success of the cottage industry based out of Besham is the model that needs to be studied carefully and replicated in other areas.

The writer is a Karachi-based journalist covering business and economic policy.