Money was not a problem. Beg, borrow or steal, no questions were asked. This was the policy that helped Pakistan achieve the nuclear threshold. Something similar is, perhaps necessary to achieve energy security.
No short-term solution to the energy shortage is in sight. Our systems are too weak to manage transmission and distribution losses. Electricity theft is an issue too politically hazardous to confront. We don’t understand electricity conservation and oil is too costly to pay for, which has left the capacity of private power plants underutilised. Long-term solutions that are already in place, or are in the works, do not inspire any confidence that they will meet the projected demand — and the latter itself a grey area. The Bhasha dam has been made possible because of a politically voiceless Gilgit-Baltistan. No other mega hydel project could have had such a smooth ride. Small dams will continue to be topics for small talk. Controversies related to coal will never end. The capacity to import gas has been eroded by the slowdown of economic growth. At any rate, dependence on imports does not ensure energy security.
Countries always take a long term view of their energy security needs. There is currently a worldwide scramble to ensure energy security. The established, as well as the emerging powers, are investing to ensure that ready supplies are available to them in the future. China and Brazil are entering the solar field in a big way. Germany, not exactly a country where there is a lot of sun, is the largest producer of solar energy. Spain is about to overtake the US in thermal solar power generation.
We, in Pakistan, do not seem to have any plan to ensure our energy security unless a collection of contentious projects is thought to be the way to go about solving our problems. What is needed is a safe, secure and continuous source of energy located within the country. The only inexhaustible source we have is the sun. No upstream or downstream issues are involved here. There is no market in Pakistan for solar solutions right now, but the opportunities will know no bounds because this has the potential to become the cheapest alternative that can solve our energy problems.
Routine directives like the one recently issued by the minister for water and power to the stillborn Alternative Energy Development Board to add a thousand megawatts of clean and cheaper electricity to the national grid within a year, will not do. Nor is the hasty announcement of a policy for investment in solar power generation with an upfront tariff, the way to go about it. Subsidy on solar powered tube wells announced at the second energy summit is again a half measure.
The economy needs a radical breakthrough to join the high-growth league of countries, which can be provided by cheap energy and a niche in the export market. Solar power can help us achieve this aim. Currently, it is a negligible contributor to the global energy supply, though its contribution is projected to rise by 20 to 40 times by 2020. Its engineering, economics and policy still need innovation, research and development and we need to employ the same zeal and consensus that was demonstrated when we were trying to achieve the nuclear threshold.
A Solar 2020 Project should be established to: 1) achieve cost-effective solutions to meet our energy demand and 2) make Pakistan world’s largest exporter of solar energy solutions and equipment. A congregation of Pakistani experts, including expatriates, should brainstorm and draw up technical details, followed by a meeting of political and other stakeholders for an agreement to keep their mismanagement on hold until 2020. Parliament should then pass a law to give effect to the agreement. The law should cover an upfront allocation of a substantial sum of money for this project, as well as providing it with complete autonomy.
Let the sun shine on the economy of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 13th, 2012.
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