Affordable energy is the backbone of sustained economic growth. One reason why Pakistan’s economy has stagnated over the last few years is the shortage of energy and its availability at a high cost.
As we all know, coal was at the back of the first industrial revolution. Later, the discovery of fossil fuel lent a new dimension to industrial growth. But the energy scenario has undergone a sea change over the last two hundred years. The world is now facing a new challenge: to cut emissions at a swift rate to ensure that net zero targets are met. Various countries are trying to attain a clean energy profile.
Developing nations confront a double dilemma. While growing their economies and developing their industries, they have to account for their dependence on fossil fuels and its effects on the planet. This is the predicament of all developing countries. Like others, Pakistan will have to develop a multi-level energy profile: It must have a generation mix that is indigenous and should also ensure low-carbon emission.
At present, Pakistan imports a third of its energy resources and ranks among the lowest (99 out of 110) in energy security, according to the World Energy Council. The recently published Indicative Generation Capacity Expansion Plan (IGCEP) 2021-2030 has outlined plans to expand hydro as well as solar and wind generation so that it accounts for 60% of Pakistan’s energy generation by 2030. The rest of the demand is expected to be fulfilled by local and imported coal and RLNG among other sources.
However, even if these targets are met, imported coal and RLNG will still account for around 24% of installed capacity in 2030. Continued dependence on imported fuels is set to remain a burden on the country’s foreign exchange reserves and expose the economy to sudden changes in fuel prices. In a world that is moving away from coal, it is also an added blot on Pakistan’s carbon footprint. Emissions intensity in the power sector currently stands at 353 g-CO2/kWh and will decrease to 200 g-CO2/kWh, according to IGCEP calculations. However, many developed countries have set a much lower threshold.
It may be noted here that Pakistan lags behind the rest of the world in electrification, particularly in the electric vehicles sector, and will eventually need to close this emissions gap if it wants to approach net zero. To this end, it will have to turn to renewable energy and gradually scale down coal-fired generation. The country requires to develop a strategy to rid itself of dependence on fossil fuels in the years after 2030 and adopt a well-grounded plan for grid stability and load management.
In the given situation, alternative solutions will have to be explored. One is the development of geothermal power: Renewable heat energy extracted from deep underneath the Earth’s surface. Geothermal plants have negligible emissions when compared to coal-fired power plants and also have longer lifespans and lower operating costs.
There are many examples to follow. One is that of Iceland, which pioneered geothermal power generation in a bid to become self-sufficient. As it turned out, the country was blessed with abundant geothermal energy reserves. Eventually, geothermal generation reached levels so high, and energy became so cheap, that the Icelandic people were able to bathe in outdoor heated swimming pools all year round, grow crops and farm fish never before seen on the island and develop thriving energy intensive industries, such as aluminium production, which now accounts for 40% of its exports. Since then, developing countries, like Indonesia, the Philippines, Turkey and Kenya, have followed Iceland’s model and built capacities between 0.9 and 2 GW.
No firm estimates are available of exactly how much geothermal power can be generated in Pakistan. The few estimates that have been floated are in the range of 10 GW or more – maximum total electricity demand in Pakistan in 2020 was 25 GW. Studies have cited particularly large reserves in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan. The use of geothermal energy for heating and cooking would also mean less pressure on the economy to rapidly electrify these sectors of consumption.
Pakistan is one of the 46 member states of the Global Geothermal Alliance. But geothermal energy does not feature in any recent policy document of the IGCEP, Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB), National Transmission & Dispatch Center (NTDC) or Ministry of Energy. Perhaps the high capital costs of setting up a geothermal power plant is seen as a deterrent. But it must be remembered that geothermal power plants are cheap to maintain and offer inexpensive electricity, as they do not require fuel and are always running.
Homegrown geothermal power has the potential to give the country a much-needed boost in fulfilling rising energy demands while limiting emissions and adhering to international commitments. Development of geothermal energy will reduce our dependence on imported fuels as well as make electricity more affordable for the people.