EXPERT OPINIONED, country’s progress in exploring solar potential for electricity generation was depressingly slow despite having perfect conditions for the same. Pakistan should learn from countries such as Bangladesh, which witnessed the fastest expansion of solar use in the world that, according to a World Bank report, changed the face of its remote, rural areas, the experts added.
They were of the opinion that the government should legislate to make compulsory the use of solar energy for electricity generation in development projects and specific residential use to meet energy shortages. It should also stop further extension in the transmission lines and put the entire funds meant for village electrification to solar use.
“If the government does so, I can bring a solar energy revolution in Pakistan,” said Dr Nasim A. Khan, the Vice Chancellor of Hamdard University, a PhD in solar energy and author of last year’s book on ‘Energy sources and their utilisation in Pakistan’.
“The government has to make an initial investment in order to create a market. Once a market is in place, the rest of the job would be taken over by the private sector as it happened in case of Bangladesh where the private sector is now actively engaged in the solar market and 10,000 solar systems are being installed every month in a village,” he said.
Dr Khan, who served the army for over 30 years, was awarded a PhD scholarship on ‘Solar energy guide and data book’ that he wrote in 1986. At the Colorado State University where he went for his doctorate, Dr Khan designed the world’s cheapest solar cell with the help of cadmium telluride. In Pakistan, he worked extensively on solar installations that included 3,000 homes in the interior of Sindh and over 3,000 army posts for lightening purposes.
“The system is still working at places where people have maintained batteries. We had also established an experimental research solar lab at over 18,000 feet above the sea level, near the K-2 base camp, in the late 1990s,” he said.
Dr Khan designed a number of renewable energy products largely from indigenous material that included cookers, water heating and lightening systems, desalination plant, water pump, all running on solar energy, solar/thermal steam turbine and processes for extracting bio-diesel from Jatropha (a plant that can grow in marginal lands) and castor oil. All products are on display at the Hamdard University where he introduced energy engineering and management programmes a few years ago.
He was of the opinion that Pakistan’s energy crisis would deepen. He said: “We have limited gas reserves while oil is getting costlier day by day. No big project in hydro or coal power can complete in less than 10 years. Hence, we are left with only two options: wind and solar energy,” he said, adding that the quantum of solar energy reaching Pakistan had 33,000 million times more potential than its hydropower potential.
Asked if he had ever tried to convince the government on solar use, Dr Khan said that his meetings with top officials and industrialists had so far remained futile.
“The problem lies with our defeated mentality that is unable to grasp the idea that we, too, can create. I can make a solar water heater for Rs200 for villagers. It might not be that reliable as we have in the urban areas, but surely it would suit the needs of rural life. But, first, the government needs to make a commitment and deliver,” he said.
Right now, there are very few outlets in the country selling solar systems and gadgets. Products on the sale include solar-powered fans (at an approximate cost of Rs8,000), mobile charger (Rs1,000), geysers (between Rs20,000 and Rs75,000), laptop charger (between Rs6,000 and Rs16,000), uninterrupted power supply system (minimum price Rs95,000), generator running on both diesel and solar energy (minimum price Rs350,000 per KV with battery), different types of lights (Rs600 to Rs10,000) and solar systems for residential use (cost depends upon the capacity for electricity generation and requirement).
The entrepreneurs, media spoke to, seemed disappointed by poor public response and lack of government support.
“Troubled by electricity crisis, a number of people turn up daily. But, few actually return to buy anything,” said Afsar Ali, running a shop exclusively for alternative energy systems.
The actual buyers, he said, came from the interior areas of Sindh and Balochistan either facing severe electricity shortages or not linked to the national grid. “We design solar system packages according to their requirement and affordability. However, people in the urban areas usually find the initial investment for solar use higher and lose interest,” he said, adding that little realisation existed about the fact that pay-back time for the solar cost was only three years.
Regarding the impact of significant global reduction in the prices of solar panels, Khursheed Iqbal, Ali’s brother who has been in the solar business for over 10 years, said that it was insignificant because of the continued devaluation of rupee.
He was of the opinion that 200 megawatts could be saved in Karachi only if the government converted streetlights onto solar energy.
Counting the benefits of solar energy use, Jamil A. Malik, running his business in renewable energy sources, said that it was pollution free and required little or no maintenance. With no operational cost, solar energy was very economical for remote areas, he added.
“Village life comes to a standstill in the evening. Solar energy use will help improve the quality of life, reduce deforestation, alleviate poverty and prevent mass migration to urban areas,” he said.
He said the present situation was grim and the government was yet to make any progress on the decision it had made a few years back that 10 per cent of the country’s energy needs would be met through the use of solar energy.
Citing international studies, Naseer Ahmed, heading the Renewable and Alternative Energy Association of Pakistan (REAP), said that solar energy would be the cheapest form of energy by 2030.
“We believe that solar use is bound to spread in a natural way even if the government doesn’t support because other sources of energy are getting costlier and unavailable. Having said that, government support is crucial so that all energy needs are timely met and all sections of society benefit,” he said while highlighting the need for a market to start solar cells manufacturing in the country.