NationalVOLUME 17 ISSUE # 25

Why not cheaper solar energy?

In the last week of April, the electricity shortfall in the country went up to 5,500 megawatts (MW), resulting in power outages of around six hours a day in urban centres, and eight hours in rural areas. In the first week of May, the situation improved a little, with Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif claiming an end to outages, but the rural regions of the country are still facing up to six-hour loadshedding daily.

The data provided officially by the power division showed that current summertime peak demand is 25,000MW, and the shortfall mostly hovers around 5,000 to 6,500 megawatts. And this is happening in a country for the last over two decades which has the potential of producing more than 2,900 gigawatts of electricity only from solar power. Mind it, 2,900 gigawatts is equal to 2,900,000 megawatts of electricity. One can imagine how much ease could be brought to industries, businesses and domestic consumers if only one-fourth of that capacity is achieved by the country.

A research study, conducted by four Pakistani researchers – Shahzada Adnan, Azmat Hayat Khan, Sajjad Haider, and Rashed Mahmood – and published by the ‘Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy’, said that Pakistan is among countries in the world where the sun warms the surface throughout the year and, therefore, it has strong potential for solar power generation. The study was conducted to explore the areas which are most suitable for solar energy potential, using 58 meteorological stations covering the whole country. The study showed that solar energy could be generated for nine months, from February to October, in Sindh; for eight months, from March to October, in almost all regions of Balochistan; for six months, from April to September, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Northern Areas and Kashmir regions; and for eight months, from March to October, in Punjab.

However, it is a pity that despite facing severe shortage of energy, Pakistan currently produces a meagre 1.16% of its electricity through solar power, and 64% with fossil fuels. Other electricity sources include hydropower at 27% and nuclear at 5%. Renewable energy sources count for only 4% of total electricity production.

According to the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), overall generation capacity will grow from 33,000 MW in 2020 to around 168,200 MW in 2047. But coal and hydropower will still account for 36% and 42% of total capacity, at 32,948 MW and 55,836 MW, respectively.

The energy experts believe that solar and wind are the cheapest forms of new electricity generation. “We are set to replace conventional fuels to a great extent for power generation to meet the future demand growth,” admitted the NEPRA in a release.

The authority predicted that solar power plant capex, or capital expenditure (The cost of long-term improvements) in Pakistan will drop from $530/kW in 2020 to $371/kW by 2030. A global outlook report that was recently published by SolarPower Europe also predicted that Pakistan will deploy close to 5 GW of solar capacity by 2022. However, that goal could not be achieved because of a political crisis and non-implementation of long-term policies. The outgoing government of Imran Khan had promised that Pakistan would produce 60% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. It had plans to install around 24,000 megawatts of solar and wind power capacity by 2030, up from just over 1,500 megawatts in 2021. However, with a before-time regime change, the fate of the projects has also become uncertain.

Energy experts and environmentalists believe that building solar power is well within the nation’s capabilities, if there is the political will and funds allocation to support development. But influential bureaucrats, policymakers and hydropower lobbies have always hindered the development of solar energy plants for their vested interests, claim the experts.

According to a Germany-based publication ‘DW’, developing solar power would be cheaper than hydroelectric power in Pakistan, saying that a $10 billion investment in solar power could generate 50 to 60 gigawatts of capacity (50,000-60,000 megawatts). This would represent 10 times more than what is produced from the Tarbela and Mangla dams, the two large hydropower projects of the country. The report says that finding space for solar farms, procedural delays in construction approvals and unattractive tariffs for selling power to the national grid have been hindering the installation of solar power plants in the country. “Lack of the political will and reluctance of government investment dash the hopes of generating electricity through this sustainable method,” adds the report.

An economist, Shahida Wizarat, believes that high costs of initial investment is hampering the growth of solar power, even if diversifying energy sources makes economic sense in the long run. If the government plans investment in the sector, declares it a new industry, and directs government and private banks to provide loans to domestic consumers and industrialists at a minimal interest rate, the energy crisis could be resolved on a permanent basis in the country.