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Pakistan turns to solar energy as power shortfall widens

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 17 Jan 2014 07:15 GMT
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Solar energy mechanics mount a solar panel on a pole in Jati village in the coastal district of Thatta in southern Sindh province, Pakistan. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Saleem Shaikh

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After months of sleepless nights and uncomfortable days in sweltering heat, Hussain Raza has found relief.

But it’s not just the cooler winter weather that is making Raza happier. It is, somewhat ironically, the sun.

The 35-year-old banker and his family have bought a solar-powered electricity supply that kicks in during the frequent power outages that afflict even his upscale residential neighbourhood in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

A chronic shortfall in electricity in Pakistan makes life miserable for much of the country’s population and hampers industrial growth, experts say.

Until he bought his 300-watt solar energy system in October last year, Raza and his family often had no electricity to keep the lights on in the evening or run a fan during hot nights.

“How can I be at ease seeing my children go to school without homework (being done) and feeling sleepy in school due to inadequate sleep at night?” he asked. “Now I feel really relieved that I have a solar energy system that runs two fans that give us a good night’s sleep,” he said.

Mounted on the roof of his two-storey house, the solar installation stores energy in a battery that can power two fans and four 23-watt energy saver light bulbs for 10-12 hours through the night.

Apart from the comfort and convenience the system provides, Raza’s monthly electricity bills have dropped from around 4,500 Pakistani rupees (about $43) to less than 2,800 rupees ($27).

“It is worth the bill we paid for the renewable energy system,” he said. The kit cost the equivalent of $560, he said.

WORSENING OUTAGES

Power outages in Islamabad have been a problem for more than seven years, in part because of rising electricity demand due to the increasing size of the city’s population.

Pakistan’s daily power demand averages 16,000 megawatts (MW), but the country produces only around 12,000 MW. This shortfall can soar to 7,000 MW during peak summer months.

As a result, power authorities must resort to load shedding for more than 15 hours a day in the summer months, and six to eight hours daily in the winter.

The outages have also been getting longer because of a lack of investment in energy systems, particularly hydropower, which accounts for one-third of Pakistan’s total power production. The rest of the country’s energy is produced with oil and coal.

Inadequate foreign reserves prevent the government from importing oil, and the country’s ongoing budget deficit has stymied progress in the development of renewable power sources such as solar and hydro, though officials in the federal water and development ministry say that plans for tapping 100,000 MW of hydropower have been drawn up.

But despite a campaign to attract foreign money to hydropower and solar energy, investors have been slow to respond, deterred in part by Pakistan’s struggles with law and order and with terrorism.

The failure to invest in reducing Pakistan’s energy gap has had serious consequences for some families.

Shumaila Fatima, a 35-year-old who lives on the outskirts of Islamabad, has been unemployed since being fired last June from her accountancy job at a travel agency. She blames her problems on protracted power disruptions.

“How could I do my office work properly when I would feel sleepy in the office?” she said. “I never had proper sleep during scorching summer nights, which we have to pass usually without electricity.”

She now plans to use her savings and money borrowed from friends to buy a solar energy system that will power at least one light bulb and a ceiling fan so that she can do housework and sleep better at night. She is one of many taking an interest in renewable energy sources.

BUSY SOLAR SUPPLIERS

Businesses in Islamabad and adjoining Rawalpindi that sell solar panels and related equipment are now often crowed with potential buyers.

Business had been slack until a few months ago but is beginning to boom, said Alamgir Khan, an entrepreneur in Abpara market in the heart of Islamabad.

“We sell out daily some 30 300-500 watt solar energy systems,” Khan said. A year ago, he said, he sold five to eight kits a day.

 “We have now growing number of customers visiting our shop ... who ask about the solar panels’ specifications, their prices, and mostly to check if they can afford it,” Khan added.

According to him, about 40 percent of these customers go on to purchase a system. The level of interest is leading electrical shops which previously sold fossil fuel-powered generators to switch to marketing solar energy systems, he said.

“It is really heartening to see that the lack of (electric) power is driving innovation that might not otherwise have come about,” said Arif Allahudin, former head of the government-owned Alternative Energy Development Board in Islamabad.

Although the need for an alternative power sources is lower in the winter, when outages are shorter, people use the solar kits to power light bulbs so that their children can do homework and household chores can be completed.

Bilal Mustafa, owner of Hussain Electronics on Murree Road in Rawalpindi, said business has boomed markedly over last couple of years.

“One of the reasons behind the soaring demand for solar energy systems is itself the sale of the systems. People watch others using solar power and they hanker to try it out too,” Mustafa explained.

Sometimes customers share the benefits of systems they buy with neighbours, which “multiplies our sales,” he said.

The frequent and protracted power disruptions in Pakistan have slowed business and made running industries increasingly difficult, business owners said.

Aware of the seriousness of the widening energy gap, the government has begun promoting solar energy use.

“Sindh and Punjab and other provincial governments have signed MoUs (memoranda of understanding) with Chinese, Saudi, German and other European firms to exploit the abundance of sunlight for energy production and put it to gainful use,” said Khalid Islam, director-general of the state-controlled Pakistan Council of Renewable Energy Technologies in Islamabad, which promotes solar energy use in sectors including agriculture and industry.

In October, the Punjab government signed an agreement with ZTE Solar China to produce over 500 MW of solar electricity in the province.

“The firm will establish a solar power plant in the Cholistan area to produce around 300 MW of power, and its capacity will be enhanced to 500 MW later on,” said Islam.

He added that the chief ministers of Sindh and Punjab provinces are exploring the potential for national and foreign investors to set up manufacturing units in Pakistan to produce components for solar power systems including panels, charge controllers, power inverters and power meters.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development correspondents based in Islamabad.

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