Can Pakistan become a renewable energy giant?

by Saleem Shaikh | @saleemzeal | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 27 September 2016 09:32 GMT

In this 2008 file photo, solar panels are seen at a power plant in Amareleja, Portugal, REUTERS/Jose Manuel Ribeiro

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Amid criticism of plans for coal plants, the country is pushing back toward solar and wind

Amid severe criticism both inside Pakistan and outside it over the country’s plans to push forward with more coal-powered energy plants, Pakistan’s government is turning its attention back to the country’s massive untapped renewable energy potential, particularly solar and wind.

While the switch largely aims to help deflate criticism, it also holds promising socio-economic, environmental and health benefits.

Tapping the country’s massive renewable energy potential could help it tackle persistent energy shortages, control its carbon footprint and achieve sustainable development goals.

Over last several years, the country’s failure to produce enough energy to meet demand has held back the country’s efforts to alleviate poverty and joblessness and its aim to boost economic growth.

Around 67 percent of the country’s nearly 190 million people have access to electricity, according to the World Bank. To improve access and keep pace with economic growth rate, the country needs to invest between 3.7 percent and 5.5 percent of its GDP each year in electrical production, the bank says.

Pakistan continues in the grip of terrible energy shortages, with some parts of the country seeing power cuts of up to 20 hours a day.

SHORT-TERM VIEW?

Independent energy policy experts say Pakistan has failed to exploit its vast renewable energy potential for various reasons. One is that government policymakers view energy policy in terms of short-term political gains.

“That is why they embroil government into coal power plants, which they consider much easier to build, some times in a matter of few months, as compared to hydropower, solar and wind energy systems” which take longer, says Arshad Abbasi, an energy policy expert at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad.

But with the costs of renewable energy falling fast, Pakistan’s Planning, Development and Reforms Ministry has announced plans to spike wind power generation from less than 300 megawatts today to more than 3,500 megawatts by end of 2018.

“Being low-cost, clean and sustainable, renewable energy is very much on the government’s radar. And, with global prices of renewable energy technologies much lower compared to what were 10 years before, that’s the major cause of the present government’s interest in the clean energy sector,” Ahsan Iqbal, the federal minister for Planning, Development and Reforms, told journalists last month.

SCALING UP

Currently, work is speeding ahead on wind projects across the country, with as many as 28, with a capacity of nearly 1,400 megawatts, expected to be in operation during 2017, according to Amjad Ali Awan, chief executive of the Alternative Energy Development Board.

The aim is to boost renewable energy from 5 percent to 25 percent of the country’s energy mix by 2030, Awan says.

Other licenses for clean power projects also are being approved. In July, the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority approved four applications for wind, solar and biomass projects that would generate 133 megawatts of power in about 18 months.

Earlier this year, Pakistan signed a $30 million agreement with American government to generate 3,000 megawatts of power from renewable energy, to benefit 30 million people. Germany also has plans to help Pakistan find investors to tap its clean energy potential, and to transfer clean technology at “globally competitive rates.”

Iran’s leading energy firm also has agreed to set up a 50-megawatt wind power project in Jhimpir, in southern Pakistan.

Experts think Pakistan can generate lots of clean energy: 2.9 million megawatts from solar, 340,000 megawatts from wind and 100,000 megawatts from hydropower.

“But such a huge renewable energy potential remains untapped because of financial constraints, bureaucratic bottlenecks and lack of political will,” says Arif Alauddin, former head of the Alternative Energy Development Board.