How clean energy could transform Pakistan

Alternative energy and a reliable grid system could boost the country’s economy and ease energy shortages, argues Rozina Kanchwala
<p>Building better transmission lines and microgrids for local access to clean energy should now be a priority (Photo by Zofeen Ebrahim) </p>

Building better transmission lines and microgrids for local access to clean energy should now be a priority (Photo by Zofeen Ebrahim)

The energy crisis ranks high on the list of serious threats. A rapidly growing urban population and its increasing energy demands coupled with an antiquated electricity grid has led to a widening gap between demand and supply. Energy shortfalls in the past year ranged on average from 4,500-5,500 megawatts (MW). Add climate change to the mix and the situation starts looking even bleaker.

The vulnerability of Pakistan’s energy sector was revealed acutely during the heat wave of June 2015 when nearly 2,000 residents of southern Pakistan died in just one week. Karachi, Pakistan’s largest metropolitan area by population, was hit especially hard with high temperatures exacerbated by the heat island effect. This put extra pressure on the grid to meet rising electricity demands, resulting in major blackouts as demand exceeded supply. Many were forced to go without power, including the elderly and low-income populations who did not have backup diesel generators. Hospital facilities also lost power for long periods of time, leaving many to die because they were simply unable to cope without power in such extreme temperatures.

Climate change almost invariably means the country can expect hotter summers, so the crisis of June 2015 should trigger the country’s leaders to reformulate its energy policy to be cleaner, more effective, and more resilient to the impacts of climate change. But if the government needs another reason, it is that the negative impact on the already fragile economy. With scheduled and unscheduled power outages, industries and businesses are forced to shut operations, often unexpectedly, and investors are reluctant to invest in the country, pushing down GDP.

So how can Pakistan, a country of nearly 200 million, deal with its energy crisis and build resiliency?

While curbing energy demand might seem a natural place to start, the government has already tried this; neon-lit billboards were banned and marketplaces were required to close early. However, these measures were met with riots and proved unsuccessful. Perhaps the government can rethink how to encourage conservation and energy efficiency through various educational campaigns or incentives. Without this, it is a tall order to expect households and businesses to conserve energy on their own.

Clean tech potential

Fortunately, there are other ways to ameliorate the ongoing crisis. These include deploying large-scale clean energy projects, building microgrids throughout the country, and constructing off-grid resiliency shelters.

Pakistan’s wind and solar potential is massive, yet currently a negligible contributor of energy generation in the country. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that Pakistan possesses 132,000 MW of potential installed wind capacity. One study estimates that the 70-km corridor between Gharo and Keti Bandar alone could produce  40,000 – 50,000 MW of electricity.

Initiatives are slowly taking root. The most recent 50 MW wind project was launched in September 2014 in the Gharo-Keti Bandar wind corridor, which will generate 133 gigawatt hours (GWh) of emission-free electricity annually. With this new project, the total installed wind capacity in Pakistan is about 255 MW.

The solar potential of Pakistan is equally promising since much of the country has high irradiation. One study found that if a quarter of Balochistan province were covered with solar panels, enough electricity would be generated to meet all of Pakistan’s demand. Efforts are slowly underway to deploy solar as well. The first phase of a 1,000 MW solar park in Punjab province is currently under construction. The combination of solar and wind together could drastically increase energy supply for the country.

With the large-scale deployment of clean technologies, transmission and distribution infrastructure would need to be installed or upgraded to deliver energy to all areas of the country. The current grid situation begs for attention anyway, so this should be a natural move in Pakistan’s energy policy. With falling prices for renewables, investors are increasingly attracted to such projects because they are less risky than fossil fuel projects.

Letting go of coal

Vast coal reserves in Thar have been discovered, but have not yet been developed, largely because of discrepancies between the federal and provincial governments on ownership and revenues. This delay is a tremendous opportunity for clean energy investment that would keep coal in the ground, preventing adverse public health impacts and an increase in Pakistan’s greenhouse gas emissions at a time when the world is becoming increasingly climate conscious and encouraging low-carbon development. Following the landmark climate agreement in Paris, coal stocks have plunged, making the fuel source less attractive.

The deployment of large-scale clean energy projects coupled with microgrid technology could considerably  increase access to reliable power for people in rural areas who are not connected to the main power grid.  This would also ensure access to power during weather-related disasters such as the 2015 heat wave.

Microgrids generate their own electricity and are often locally-owned. They can operate independently or in conjunction with the area’s main electric grid and are being welcomed in both developed and developing countries.

Nepal’s microgrids: a model for Pakistan

There are several examples of successful microgrids in operation currently. For example, the rural district of Baglung in Nepal lacked reliable access to electricity until a microgrid was built to address energy supply shortfalls. Energy sources in the district include rooftop solar and micro-hydropower that often generated excess energy, while other areas produced insufficient energy. To balance this, seven discrete micro-hydropower plants were connected to form a 107 KW, 11 KV microgrid that now supplies energy to 1,700 households and small industries. This microgrid allows surplus generation from one plant to provide power to a neighbouring area and makes the electricity supply more reliable as well as affordable. This structure would bring countless positive benefits to those in rural Pakistan that are disconnected from the larger grid.

Additionally, urban centres could benefit greatly by converting existing spaces or buildings to serve as off-grid resiliency shelters during extreme weather events. During the 2015 heatwave, thousands of people were left without power with nowhere to go. Major cities like Karachi have plenty of venues from wedding halls to schools that could serve as places of refuge for large numbers of people and as educational centres that provide useful tips for coping with excessive heat without electricity, such as covering heads with a wet towel.

Hospitals would be ideal spaces for off-grid resiliency shelters as they require consistent power, especially during times of crises. These shelters could be powered by solar panels and have a battery backup system that would allow the space to become an “island” (essentially cutting itself off from the rest of the grid) during times of crises, when the larger grid is compromised. An example of such a shelter exists in Princeton, New Jersey, which saw the necessity in the wake of Hurricane Sandy when power was cut off for days.

While Pakistan’s geo-political challenges dominate media headlines, environmental and energy concerns are in many ways more urgent, impacting Pakistanis now and creating potentially catastrophic long-term consequences.

It is important for Pakistan’s leaders to think strategically about a long-term energy and environmental policy that leverages clean energy as a positive force for development. Green jobs, enhanced air quality, and a higher GDP are all reasons that Pakistan should embrace alternative energy sources as a way to meet development goals and ameliorate the energy crisis plaguing the country.

Rozina Kanchwala has a Bachelors Degree in International Studies and Economics from the University of Illinois, a Masters Degree in Environment and Sustainable Development from University College London, and was a Fulbright Scholar studying agrarian distress in India. She currently works at GRID Alternatives, a non-profit solar installation organization that serves underserved communities in Washington, D.C. and the mid-Atlantic region of the United States. She is also a Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI) fellow.