Why Pakistan needs to consider solar energy

Published: August 9, 2014
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The writer is a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University and have been associated with power sector in Pakistan for 4 years

The writer is a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard University and have been associated with power sector in Pakistan for 4 years

Pakistan, with its vast sun-kissed lands, is an ideal market for harvesting solar energy. It enjoys some of the best sunshine in the world for 300-odd days and is energy hungry with pronounced supply shortages.

Despite the availability of this technically useful solar energy resource, Pakistan’s solar market remains relatively underdeveloped when compared to that in other countries in the region. A host of technical, economic and institutional barriers have constrained widespread deployment of solar technology in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s energy mix has come to be dominated by oil and gas as the government, thus far, has paid little attention to harnessing indigenous renewable energy resources. Apart from hydropower, which contributes just over 28 per cent to our overall energy mix, the share of other renewable sources of power has been negligible. This has imposed significant burden on our national accounts, exacerbating the economy’s structural account deficit.

Lack of local capacity has been a persistent barrier to exploiting solar energy in Pakistan. Pakistan does not have a local solar manufacturing industry, as we remain dependent on imports of critical raw materials and components from China and Europe. There are very few academic centres or innovation cells researching into materials, applications, business models or infrastructure financing.

In the last two years, a number of private companies have emerged as importers and distributors of solar equipment, catering largely to the urban market. They mostly operate on a small scale, with only few having the expertise to provide adequate maintenance services, resulting in dwindling customer confidence in the technology. This, coupled with high upfront costs and lack of availability of easy and consistent financing options, has further slowed the uptake of solar.

The present government has taken measures to increase solar diffusion in the country through commissioning of solar PV plants that will directly feed into the grid. However, these are peaking plants with large investment costs and long payback periods thereby rendering financing of such projects challenging. These conditions, along with rising power tariff and consumption needs, make off-grid solar applications in Pakistan comparatively more economically viable than large on-grid solar plants.

In Pakistan more than 50 per cent of the electricity demand comes from residential and commercial consumers. Using solar energy to power homes will abet demand reduction for grid electricity, which has been growing exponentially in the last few years. There has been a recent trend among urban residential consumers installing solar panels to augment grid electricity supply. However, this has been limited to less than two per cent of the population, partly because of the nature of investment. A solar home system compared to UPS and diesel generator is a long-term investment, deterring potential consumers. Thus, if solar were to truly take off in Pakistan, there would have to be a cultural change.

Despite the fact that the cost of solar cells has come down considerably in the last three years, the initial investment in solar technology remains relatively high for an average Pakistani consumer, necessitating business models that offer innovative financing options to lower the upfront payment.

Solar is a fast growing technology as countries, both developed and developing, are making investments to increase the share of solar in their electricity generation mix. Pakistan also has undoubtedly large potential for utilising solar energy. It is high time that the government started thinking long-term strategies to tackle the electricity crisis. This unprecedented crisis does not only require supply side options but also compels measures to address the growing demand for electricity. Off-grid applications of solar in Pakistan can certainly play a critical role in lowering electricity demand and lighting up homes in areas unconnected to the grid.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 9th, 2014.

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Reader Comments (16)

  • zaka
    Aug 9, 2014 - 2:27AM

    A below average school child article. It would have been great to read about cost related analysis, comparative figures of what Pakistan should gain from harnessing solar energy, possible ways to reduce the payoff period, possible innovative financial solutions or areas where the government should focus to enable solar utilization. The readers here know all these facts mentioned in the article. A Harvard masters should have known this and wrote something on next steps to take.

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  • Anonymous
    Aug 9, 2014 - 4:42AM

    Some good points raised here. Off grid applications would definitely lessen the pressure on our national grid. Although the costs are a huge burden and with no financing solutions in sight, this idea could take a long time to take off. I hope I am wrong.

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  • jssidhoo
    Aug 9, 2014 - 7:04AM

    Harnessing solar power is a very good idea for both India & Pakistan . Use what nature gave you 300 days of sun and stop wasting your money on imported oil . Solar plants cause ZERO pollution and use much less water as compared to coal, oil or nuclear power plants .If well looked after solar plants can last a lifetime with negligible maintenance costs. I had installed a solar water heater in my house in 1999 the company that installed it maintains it once in three yrs for which they charge Rs 1000 and that is it, in the bargain i have been getting free hot water for the last 14yrs . I know that solar systems that generate electricity are a more expensive and complicated but once installed the need very little maintenance cause no pollution and in the long run more than pay for themselves .

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  • Aug 9, 2014 - 8:21AM

    Zaka, this was part I of the article with the intent of presenting the big picture. Part 2 will have specific recommendations. As the space for printing is limited, some of the information I wrote had to be taken out before printing.

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  • Mohd. Zakariya
    Aug 9, 2014 - 9:53AM

    It is a very good article for educating the people and our politicians who are wasting their time in power politics rather than looking into national issues. I hope the author will follow up with another article which will outline steps our government should take to promote uptake of solar in Pakistan.

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  • Raj Kafir
    Aug 9, 2014 - 10:05AM

    Prime Minister of India Mr. Narendra Modi is a big fan of solar energy. In the state of Gujrat India, where he was the Chief Minister, there are solar panels installed on some rivers which prevent water evaporation and generate solar electricity. In countries like India and Pakistan, solar energy has a bright future. India is already exploiting it and Pakistan need to exploit it.

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  • Saad
    Aug 9, 2014 - 11:02AM

    @Saadia

    I do appreciate your efforts of doing good research about the systematic flow of solar panels and its feasibility in Pakistan. There was a misfortune estimation of feasibility by the scholars which was quoted by leaders while they were addressing the public during elections. Certain atmospheric complications do not allow solar panels to operate with a good capacity in most of the regions in Pakistan. This atmospheric game changer was initially neglected but was eventually faced by academic community who were actively persuading solar panel research projects in Pakistan.

    Just to give you a hint that why is hydel the only solution at the moment, just think about the government’s recent taxation on solar panels. If you will get in touch with some related researchers, they will inform you that after completion of feasibility reports, it was apparent that the government cannot sustain Solar energy as a part of bigger plan. Besides the atmospheric condition, the problem of current fluctuations won’t allow battery banks to accumulate the energy extracted from solar panels. Its is not impossible but its not feasible given the overall infrastructure of energy banks at the moment.

    The government, due to backlash, instead of quoting the real things, they increased taxation to reduce the influx of solar panels :)

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  • Saadia
    Aug 9, 2014 - 11:32AM

    @Saad: Thank you for your detailed comment. Would love to talk to you more about itRecommend

  • Saadia
    Aug 9, 2014 - 11:45AM

    @Saad: sola batteries are powered from panels rather than the grid. I am not sure how fluctuations (I am assuming by fluctuations you mean load shedding) would affect the battery banks. Solar can actually be used to power entire load with Infini invertors.
    I looked at a recent study by USAID according to which Pakistan has enough sunshine and the right atmospheric conditions for harnessing solar energy.
    If you want to continue this discussion, my twitter handle is @Saadia_Qayyum

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  • Rex Minor
    Aug 9, 2014 - 1:06PM

    The author having been associated with Energy sector in Pakistan should know that it was during the rule of the military man Parvez Musharaf that the German Government as part of the aid, supplied to Pakistan the solar powered system for a public park in its capital. The military man after a while concluded that the replacement batteries were very costly to expand the program. Your Government would prefer to have cash as a development aid rather than technical knowhow. several readers confirm this too. Reforms in Education institutions should be the priority for the people to see the light. We in Germany usualy do not need outside help for maintainance of our little solar system in our vacation houses which is even subsidised by the Government..

    Rex Minor

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  • Mohsin
    Aug 9, 2014 - 2:03PM

    I think its wonderful article.

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  • Aug 9, 2014 - 2:07PM

    Solar energy is free, but using this for electricity is expensive. It may become feasible after 2020. People get excited by word free While initial cost, cost of utilizing, battery maintenance, unavailability 24-7-365, These all factors makes solar energy expensive.

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  • Wasim Sohail
    Aug 9, 2014 - 3:22PM

    We need proper polices. Solar must be higly subsidise instead of other fules. We can copy norway energy policy in this regard.

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  • Aug 9, 2014 - 9:55PM

    @Raj Kafir: one correction please , there are solar panels on canals( and not on the rivers).
    Since installation of solar panels require a lot of space overhead space of canals solves the space problem too ( acquisition of land etc.)

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  • Raj Kafir
    Aug 10, 2014 - 7:19AM

    @p r sharma: Yes, thanks for the correction….

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  • Aug 13, 2014 - 9:37PM

    Another interesting article about solar.

    http://24solarhome.com/first-solar-to-invest-in-pakistan/

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