FeaturedNationalVOLUME 18 ISSUE # 51

Hydropower: the only solution to Pakistan’s energy woes

Due to runaway population growth, rapid urbanization and industrial expansion, Pakistan’s energy needs are multiplying fast. In 2022, the nation’s total electricity consumption reached 138,755GWh, while the projected  consumption for 2023 is around 142,897,68GWh. During the first eight months of the current calendar year, 91,819GWh have already been consumed.

There are seasonal variations in the use of energy in Pakistan. More electricity is consumed during the hot months of June, July and August. The higher demand during these months is due to increased usage of cooling appliances, such as air conditioners. But consumption goes down during winter months. This emphasises the need for a flexible energy infrastructure to cater for seasonal variations.

Hydropower is one of the most important sources of energy. Hydel power has many advantages. For example, it requires no fuel except water. Globally, existing installed hydropower capacity is 1,360GW (17% of the total global capacity), out of which China has 391GW, Brazil 109.4GW, Canada 82.3GW and the USA 101.9GW. In recent years, various countries have added to their hydroelectric sources because it is cheap as compared to other alternatives. While China has added more than 20GW, in Norway, Brazil and Canada, hydropower accounts for 93.4%, 63.5% and 58.8% of electricity generation respectively. In Pakistan, the installed hydropower generation capacity is around 10,000 megawatts, accounting for 15% of total hydro potential of 60,000MW. In South Asia, India and Nepal depend a lot on hydel power.

In Pakistan, building of new dams has been a political issue. The Kalabagh dam has been abandoned because of opposition from KP and Sindh. The Bhasha dam has been inaugurated several times and is yet to be fully operational. Hydropower plants are capital intensive which is a discouraging factor. The current capital cost is $2.5 million per MW and the generation cost is 8-10 US cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

We must not ignore the fact that hydroelectricity plays a significant role during periods of high demand for cooling solutions. According to an estimate, during peak months, the average output of hydel power is around 4,500GWh, nearly double that of off-peak months. In 2012, hydropower accounted for 38 percent of Pakistan’s total electricity production. But by 2022, this percentage had declined to 25 percent. This is due to greater diversification of the energy mix and the growing importance of alternative power sources. Hydropower contributes most to the national grid from June to November. During this period, its contribution fluctuates between 30-40 percent. As a direct result, the proportion of other energy sources decreases from 70-80 percent to around 60 percent, reducing the need for more expensive thermal installations.

It may be noted here that in our case the contribution of non-renewable energy sources has grown from 62% in 2012 to 70% in 2022. This rise underscores the need to balance sustainable energy sources with our ever-growing power demands, especially through hydropower.

There is a lobby in Pakistan which is against hydropower, saying it is more expensive than alternative technologies. No doubt, the initial cost of hydropower projects is high, and the long-term economic advantages are enormous. Initially, tariffs are on the higher side, but in the long run, the cost goes down as low as Rs 5-7 per KWh. Even the initial year’s cost of generating electricity from hydropower is less than the cost of imported coal and RLNG project fuel.

Additionally, unlike other renewable energy sources, which are dependent on such variables as sunlight or wind patterns, hydropower provides steady and stable energy because all rivers in Pakistan maintain a regular water flow in most parts of the year, ensuring the stability of the national power grid.

It is unfortunate that successive governments in Pakistan have not given hydel power the attention it deserves. Wrong policies and bad decisions have landed our energy sector in deep trouble. While politics and inter-provincial mistrust have much to do with it, corruption and pursuit of individual and corporate interests are also to blame. There is a pro-oil lobby and also those who stand to profit by the import of LNG. That is why after the Tarbela dam, no big dams were built. The result is that per unit cost of power is one of the highest in the world.

For the average Pakistani households, electricity bills have become unaffordable. Capacity payments to Independent Power Plants have resulted not only in inflating the electricity bills, but they have also led to the accumulation of circular debt amounting to trillions of rupees. The time has come to undertake a thorough review of the energy sector, shifting the emphasis from fossil fuel dependent power plants to renewable energy alternatives. In this regard, building small dams especially in the northern areas should be accorded the highest priority.