Solar’s role in plugging the Pakistan energy gap

01 Aug 2013   lucyejwoods

A land of Himalayan rivers for hydro power, un-farmable plains for wind turbines and vast stretches of sun baked desert, ripe for solar development: Pakistan is a bounty of natural energy reserves – yet the country is caught in the turmoil of an energy crisis.

But this is not new; Pakistan’s energy crisis has aged into decades. Due to incessant political upheaval and devastating natural disasters, most of Pakistan’s power comes from imported oil and gas.

In an attempt to come up with solutions to Pakistan’s energy crisis, the energy council of Pakistan’s Academy of Sciences (PAS), a non-political and non-governmental advisory council of the brightest and best scientists, last year presented the government with a report, ‘Pakistan’s energy crisis – recommended solutions’. It reveals an estimated 5-6GW shortfall in energy capacity. The shortfall is despite the country’s generation capacity of 23.412GW, and peak demand registering much less, at 14-16GW. The report demands immediate action to “exploit all renewable energy resources” citing off-grid solar in particular as a priority.

Speaking exclusively to Solar Business Focus, Professor Atta-ur-Rahman the president of PAS and former Pakistani minister for science and technology, has one word for what has gone wrong for Pakistan’s energy provision: “Corruption”.

Pakistan’s neglect of its indigenous energy resources is “a sad story” in which “bad decisions” have led to the current crisis, says Rahman. As the PAS report lays bare, the mistakes of previous governments to champion privatisation and deregulation led to Pakistan pandering to foreign investor, rather than the nation’s most basic needs. The endless shortage of energy has led to violent protests and public outcry.

One light flickers in the midst of Pakistan’s dark energy past: the use of hydro. Hydropower rose after the successful negotiation of the Indus Water Treaty brokered by the World Bank, under which India and Pakistan agreed to share water resources. In the 1960s and 70s the Warsak, Mangla and Tarbela dams were erected. By 1984, 60% of Pakistan’s energy generation was from hydropower and 40% was thermal (mostly from imported gas and oil).

The successful renewable exploitation of an indigenous natural resource for energy has been done before in Pakistan. The question now is that with plentiful levels of solar radiation (up to 6kWh per square metre per day, according to the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory) and a new pro-solar Prime Minister, could Pakistan do it again?

Pakistan was cautiously paddling towards solar in 2012, when former Prime Minister, Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani, acknowledged Pakistan’s huge potential for renewable energy, citing a theoretical (though probably wildly overoptimistic) potential for 2,900 GW of solar in the country.

In June 2012, the German PV developer, Conergy, announced plans for a 50MW solar plant. Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of the provincial government of Punjab (where 60% of Pakistan’s population reside), signed a memorandum in February this year with German solar company AEG to build 450MW of PV in the province.

Then Pakistan held elections, in which the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party’s candidate Nawaz Sharif returned from exile in Saudi Arabia and was elected prime minister of Pakistan’s first ever democratically elected transition government. In his inaugural address, Sharif promised to end the energy crisis by the conclusion of his five-year term.

Rahman says the promises of the new government and its efforts so far to heal the energy crises are “a trillion times better” than the previous government’s, under which “industry collapsed, the currency crashed [and] nothing could have been worse”.

The new government has already published a national energy strategy, detailing how it proposes to plug what it acknowledges to be a “yawning” supply gap in Pakistan. The strategy says a possible 341MW of solar could be built by 2015.

Meanwhile, in August a new energy council was formed in Punjab to drive forward new energy projects, including solar, and the body has wasted no time in getting to work. In September chief minister Sharif, also the new Prime Minister’s brother, confirmed plans to set up the state-owned Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Company – named after the founder of Pakistan. The company is to install, from its own resources, a 700MW series of solar projects to be built on 10,000 acres of desert land in Cholistan.

A preliminary 50MW is to be the first of the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power’s eight phases, and is scheduled to be generating power by the beginning of next year. Apparently Sharif even commanded construction begin immediately after signing the approval, while discussing funding options with the Bank of Punjab and the Energy Council finance committee.

Pakistan’s government has also signed MoUs for 150MW of solar and 400 smaller solar projects, with a consortium of European countries, and another with China North Industries Corporation (NORINCO).

All the evidence suggests the new government is serious in progressing the deployment of solar. However “announcements are easy” says Rahman, highlighting the primary adversary to the deployment of indigenous solar in Pakistan: “solar is too expensive”. He explains further that although most people are aware of solar in the country, people will ask the same question.

“Is it cost effective? No? Then forget it!”

Another major stepping stone in the battle for energy independence is machinery. Pakistan relies completely on foreign imports for industrial machinery. The PAS report subsequently calls for exponential growth in the development of domestic technology, such as PV manufacturing. Rahman says that with technology advancing so quickly, Pakistan needs to invest in domestic research and development of its own.

“There are lots of new types of solar cells being developed that are changing the landscape very quickly of solar technology and becoming a reality, so these are some of the things for the future that Pakistan needs to look into,” he says.

Meanwhile, also stacked against Pakistan is not only expensive fossil fuel and industrial machinery dependence but also power theft, says Rahman, explaining how a wire hook is thrown onto naked power lines, and it is connected up to homes in poorer areas where people cannot afford electricity. “Some industries do it too,” he adds. In cities and smaller towns about a third of electricity is lost from leakages and theft, Rahman estimates.

Add this to decaying infrastructure in need of hefty repairs after repeated natural disasters and a skills gap, and the cause for demand so vastly outstripping supply becomes clear. Rahman reiterates the urgency to address the energy gap saying “Pakistan cannot wait for another 20 years”.

To answer the desperate energy need, at the end of October this year, on a trip to China, Punjab minister Sharif was offered 3.2GW of imported electricity, and Chinese investors offered to build a factory for producing solar panels in Punjab. Although the generation and terms of electricity import remain undisclosed, a solar equipment factory could be the first step towards solar-led energy independence for Pakistan.

“Pakistan cannot wait for another 20 years”
Energy loans and factories might also enable Pakistan to use its Holy Grail of indigenous energy: the Thar Desert. One of the hottest placed on earth, a huge swathe of infertile land and sun located to the west of Pakistan, the Thar Desert, is a prime location for solar. It is also home to the fifth largest coal reserve in the world. There are “huge untapped resources” here says Rahman. He suggests that using the coal reserves “would be better than importing oil and gas”, but only for the short term, although the Thar coal reserves could last for centuries, but as it is high in carbon dioxide emissions, “water and coal is best for short term” he says.

Rahman believes there is space in the Thar Desert for both coal and solar to be exploited, but there are concerns that a dash for coal in Pakistan could undermine the country’s adoption of renewable energy technologies such as solar. How this plays out remains to be seen, but Rahman is still on guard for repetitions of the past.

“[The new government] must be careful of corruption, or you have to pay double or triple,” he says, suggesting an external watchdog or committee to look at fair pricing, run by the World Trade Organization or a consortium of scholars, companies and international experts or a United Nations organisation could fufill the role. “The energy council has known about the energy resources for a long time, there has been re-discussion and meetings – now we just need to do it, or we will be going in circles,” says Rahman.

When asked what will happen in the next 20 years if solar technology reaches predictions of advancement in storage and efficiency, Rahman is clear. “There will be a complete change in scenario,” he says. “We will forget about oil and coal and water!”

In two decades, Rahman predicts a combination of science and the right drive could lead to a very different energy scenario in Pakistan. He optimistically envisions a situation in which Pakistan could be a major energy supplier. When asked why solar will succeed against all the odds in Pakistan: “one thing, passion”.

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