Pakistan’s energy deficit has swollen to become one of the largest and most pressing issues for its people. Shortages in the supply of electricity have not only stunted industrial growth, incurring millions of rupees worth of losses, it has also made daily activities a challenging task. Just over a month ago, Pakistan plunged into darkness when it failed to meet the energy demands of the nation. With summers fast approaching, people are once again wondering how they would manage to survive the hot summer months.
At the moment, Pakistan relies on thermal and hydro power as its main sources of electricity. However, political impediments, red tape and limited finances have created hurdles in the development of these projects. New findings have revealed that these 2 forms of electricity generation can result in environmental damage; combustion of high carbon fuels produces harmful gases while construction of dams, which often requires deforestation, lead to soil erosion.
This is why Pakistan must try to expand its energy mix to include other sources of energy particularly cheaper and cleaner sources of energy. Pakistan is fortunate to be endowed with many natural resources suitable for energy production.
Pakistan’s sunny climate persists for most of the year making solar radiation a good source of energy. In fact, scientists estimate Pakistan has the potential of generating 29000 MW of electricity from solar energy. Another estimate even claims that if a quarter of Baluchistan’s territory was covered with panels, the electricity generated from these panels would be sufficient to cover the entire country’s demand for electricity.
Majority of Pakistan’s population resides in the rural areas, often far away from the national grid. Providing electricity to these areas through cables is expensive. Instead, solar panels can easily be set up giving villagers complete independence in powering their houses and farms. Solar energy is also eco-friendly since its use does not emit any harmful gases. Respiratory and skin problems which result from emission of toxic gases can be minimized through the use of solar panels. Besides using solar energy to generate electricity, solar panels can also be used for cooking and heating water, as is being practiced in Germany and Nepal.
The expensive equipment of solar panels has however discouraged people from investing in this technology. Electricity generated from these panels is estimated to cost Rs 14.40 per kWh. Another drawback is the dependency on sunlight. For night time or non-sunny days, heavy duty batteries are needed to store electricity. In such cases, thermal and hydroelectric power can be used to supplement solar energy to provide an uninterrupted supply of electricity.
Pakistan also has a great potential for using wind power for electricity generation. High speeds prevail in central Pakistan as well as in the coastal areas. The Gharo-Keti Bandar corridor has the capacity to produce up to 40000-50000 MW of electricity. Wind turbines can also be installed near water bodies like rivers and lakes which tend to have an uninterrupted flow of wind. Wind turbines are already being employed to power hundreds of houses in Mirpur Sakro and Kund Malir.
Pakistani engineers are more than capable of creating wind turbines using technical facilities already available in its industries. Until then it can use turbines being manufactured in India to reduce transportation costs on importing turbines. Wind turbines tend to have a long life as long as its rotating parts receive their due maintenance. Since the turbines do not run on fuel, cheap electricity can be produced.
As a country with multiple rivers, lakes and glaciers, Pakistan has opted for hydroelectricity since the very beginning. Its total hydro potential is about 46000 MW.
Hydroelectric power plants entail heavy installation investment, which in Pakistan’s case, means raising capital through foreign donations. This has in the past complicated projects due to political disagreements. Without a proper national electricity distribution plan, provincial quarrels are also common. The government’s choice of subsidizing electricity process has also affected the financial viability of this project. Dams and hydroelectricity power generators are known to cause mass deforestation which can lead to soil erosion. Over time, dams can suffer from siltation which reduces the capacity and hence electricity output. Furthermore, the government has to make suitable residential arrangement for the displaced people. Hydroelectric power plants also have the disadvantage of being unreliable since they are dependent on the seasonal flow of water.
Despite these disadvantages, hydropower is a cheap way to generate electricity. Recently, the idea of investing in small and medium sized dams has been encouraged to bypass the financial burden and population displacement issues.
Another renewable energy source which is abundant in Pakistan is biogas. It is produced by the combustion of organic matter such as animal waste. This option is especially convenient for farmers who raise cattle and livestock. Biogas units have been set up in Northern Punjab and Sindh. Villagers have appreciated biogas’s replacement of wood for fuel. This project has also been successful in attracting international support like that of the UNDP –Japan funded units installed in Thatta.
Biogas can also be used as a fuel for industrial purposes. For example, sugar mills can use produce electricity from crushed sugarcane. Although only 7 sugar mills have adopted this method, there is a possibility of producing 2000MW of energy from the 82 sugar mills present in Pakistan.
Pakistan makes use of nuclear energy for electricity generation at 2 plants at Chashma and 1 in Karachi. Altogether this constitutes a total of around 2% to the total energy mix. An additional two reactors at Chashma are expected to become operational by 2016-17.
Nuclear energy has not flourished much in Pakistan due to political pressures and security threats. As a non-NPT state, Pakistan is prohibited from carrying out nuclear trade with members of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Nevertheless, Pakistan continues to push world powers to grant it the same exception India was given for the civil use of nuclear energy in 2008. Besides this hurdle, infrastructure, finances and disposal of radioactive waste remain a concern in promoting the use of nuclear energy.
While renewables are very beneficial for a long term investment, little progress has been seen in this field. High installation costs will continue to remain a greatest impediment for the public. To counter this, many countries worldwide have started to provide subsidies to users of renewable energy sources. Germany, Spain and even India are promoting use of wind turbines and solar panels by giving monetary incentives. As a result, wind power costs 2-2.5 cents per kWh in India while in Pakistan it costs 7 cents per kWh. The exemption of customs duty or sales tax on equipment is not enough to develop the renewable energy sector. It might help if banks begin to provide schemes to finance these projects.
Pakistan has largely adopted what Carl Pope, former Executive Director of the Sierra Club, calls a “centralized model” to meet the nation’s energy needs; it distributes electricity over large distances through huge dams, coal projects, nuclear power plants and the controversial IP gas pipeline. Nations are however, coming back to the community centric approach, present in the 17th, 18th and some parts of 19th century, in which each community exploits its own resources to meet its needs. It’s time for Pakistan to encourage this approach within its people through small scale solar, water and wind projects. Not only will this reduce distribution costs it would also make the community self-sufficient. Only a combined effort by the public, private sector and the government can make renewable energy a reality for Pakistan.
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