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Wasting our energy

January 22, 2013

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While there are many murky conspiracy theories floating around to explain Tahirul Qadri’s long march, one thing that came across loud and clear was the voice of the ordinary people on the streets of Islamabad, demanding an end to the load-shedding of electricity and gas. Perhaps it will be a wake up call for the government – if people do not get basics like energy to light their homes and run their stoves, they will come out on the streets. In fact, with increasing global oil prices, the buzz all over the world now is about “energy security”. Other countries in the region are all scrambling ahead to become self sufficient in meeting their own energy needs.

Can technology fix Pakistan’s energy problems? I recently met an energy expert who visited Pakistan this week, Carl Pope (former executive director of the Sierra Club, an American environmental organisation), who feels that yes, technology can be our salvation. “Pakistan has two very serious energy problems; energy reliability and energy access”, he explained. “For half of Pakistan’s population, renewable energy is the only power they are ever going to get and for the rest renewables can replace the shortfall”.

In his view, the solution to our energy woes is renewable energy wherever possible in the form of small hydro projects, solar water pumps and water geysers to ease the load of electricity and gas, rooftop solar units for homes (which could also replace diesel generators and UPS) and large wind farms on Pakistan’s extensive coastal wind corridor. In addition, there can be smaller initiatives like the sugar mills producing electricity from biomass to feed the grid, garbage companies converting sorted trash into energy and smaller biogas units across farms in rural areas where dung is readily available. Other possible solutions can be run of the river (or canals) turbines to produce electricity locally and extracting methane from our vast low-grade coal supplies in the Thar Desert (an old technology used in the US).

Solar panel powers energy for a mosque in Sindh. -Photo by author
Solar panel powers energy for a mosque in Sindh. -Photo by author

“Every little bit is going to help... The technology for doing all this is readily available”, he points out. All the Government of Pakistan has to do is set the policy right, which in his view, is the fairly easy part. The rest will be done by business. “You don’t have to start from scratch, you can learn from other developing countries like South Africa, Kenya and to some extent India”. If we set out on this path, he says, the “current energy shortage can improve dramatically”. Several companies in Lahore and Karachi are already offering solar technology. What are urgently needed, however, are trusted brand names that can distribute solar products like solar panels, solar geysers, solar pumps, solar streetlights etc. Along with the right distributors, we also need banks to provide the finance to scale all this up.

Community installed wind turbine in Keti Bunder. -Photo by author
Community installed wind turbine in Keti Bunder. -Photo by author

We definitely have huge potential for wind, which after hydro is the second cheapest form of energy – particularly on the Makran Coast. Unfortunately, aside from a few small pilot projects set up by different NGOs on the coast, we only have one big 50 MW wind energy project that was recently set up by the Fauji Fertiliser Company. The government does claim, however, that the next year will see at least 10 more wind projects which will be the beginning of exploiting the wind potential of the Gharo-Keti Bandar Wind Corridor – an area that alone has 50,000 MW power generation potential. With the city of Karachi located nearby, distribution costs will not be high.

Given all our rivers and extensive canal systems, we also have great potential for small-scale hydro projects, including run of the river hydro systems. There are also lots of appropriate sites for medium sized dams in the country. These can be developed fast, don’t displace people and don’t tie up our money. So perhaps, it is time to finally bury the controversial Kalabagh Dam project and explore smaller, hydropower projects.

Biogas plants are also a good option in the rural areas of Pakistan, their only problem, according to Carl Pope, is that “they fall apart when you make them too big”. Many NGOs across the country have introduced small biogas units in their project areas and they are working efficiently and effectively. They seem to work best when you only have a few households sharing the load and feedstock.

stove lit up by bio-gas in Murree. -Photo by author.
Stove lit up by bio-gas in Murree. -Photo by author.

Producing biogas out of crushed sugarcane is also a good option for Pakistan given the number of sugar mills in the country. So far, only around seven sugar mills are doing so and selling their surplus power to the national grid. There is however, the potential of producing 2000 MW through the 82 sugar mills in the country.

There are so many feasible and affordable options for Pakistan, if only we started thinking that small is beautiful and not go for potential expensive scams like “Rental Power Projects”. If we go for the renewable options, experts say we could solve our energy problems within five years. If we stick to “business as usual” the problem will only become worse and we can expect to see an increasing number of people coming out onto the streets in protest.

 


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The writer is an award-winning environmental journalist based in Islamabad, who also covers climate change and health issues. She can be reached at rinasaeed@gmail.com

 


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.