Tapping the Solar Energy potential

Solar solution
Instead of investing heavily in the oil-run power plants, the government should explore the abundant solar energy potential for power generation
By Tahir Ali

Though Pakistan is beset with an acute energy crunch, it has failed to exploit the huge hydel power resources as well as the abundant solar energy potential for the power generation purposes for years.

The resourceful but unfortunate country receives high levels of solar radiation — approximately 1000 watts per square meter for most parts of the year. Global solar energy potential is estimated at 800 million megawatt while Pakistan has, according to an estimate, about 100,000MW solar energy potential, as it is the 6th luckiest country in the world where sunrays are available extending up to 16 hours in summer.

But Arif Allauddin, the chief executive officer of the Alternately Energy Development Board (AEDB), recently said that 2.9 million MW of electricity could be produced by utilising solar energy alone in the country.

The AEDB has signed several solar energy MoUs or contracts with different agencies for widespread use of off-grid solar technologies in Pakistan through public and private sector and for dissemination of solar energy and setting up local solar manufacturing facilities. But, the country is still far from exploiting the sun power for producing electricity that could run its factories and create millions of jobs in the country.

Instead of exploring the solar potential, the country has opted to invest heavily in the oil-run power plants, which has burdened the national exchequer with a huge oil import bill, exposed the people to exorbitant power tariff increases and still left the power producers with a circular debt of hundreds of billions of rupees during the last few years.

A project launched by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2003 in the Indian state of Karnataka, facilitated over 18,000 applications for loans for solar panels over three years. UNEP recruited two popular banks to take part in the project as part of their ‘priority sector lending’ obligation and it subsidised the loans to help decrease the interest rate. The project has been extended to other Indian states of Gujarat, Kerala and Maharashtra, and the UNEP plans to initiate similar projects in Algeria, China, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco and Tunisia, but Pakistan is not included in the list.

While the World Bank and Asian Development Bank are allocating funds for solar technologies, the local banks do not come forward to support the sector. Non-seriousness of authorities can be judged from the fact that AEDB has yet to issue the new updated alternate energy policy. The present policy was drafted in December 2006. The draft of the new energy policy, which has been sent to the Council of Common Interest for approval, intends to help boost the growth of the domestic renewable industry by 2014. It, among other things, aims to facilitate establishment of a domestic alternate renewable energy manufacturing base in the country and promote research on the technology in the country.

Solar energy, one of the best alternate energy sources, lessens pollution, reduces global warming and does not harm the ecosystem. Besides, it is abundant in supply and it has no maintenance and operation expenses as solar cells and panels don’t require fuel (gas and oil etc) which are getting costlier by the day. It is also convenient in places not covered by traditional grids and village electrification through solar energy has already been on the agenda of the AEDB, but there are several problems.

Solar energy generation technology is deemed costly and unaffordable for one person, but is considered within the reach when combined investment is made by a few families or the process is supported by the government and international bodies. High cost of solar system, public unawareness and banks’ reluctance to lend to investors is further hurting potential projects and keeping the technologies from dissemination.

Failure to establish local solar energy manufacturing units in the country has also made it comparatively costlier. And several government companies — AEDB, Pakistan Council for Renewable Technologies, the AEC, etc — dealing with the sector and the lengthy process of approval of solar energy projects also inhibit investors.

The fact that solar energy system can be installed with one time investment and then there is no maintenance or operating expenses, those who can afford it are coming towards the technology in great numbers.

According to a report, the country’s first on-grid solar electricity system, 180 KW each, is being built at Pakistan Engineering Council and the Planning Commission with financial help from Japan. It will not only fulfil their requirements but the surplus electricity will be sold to the Islamabad Electric Supply Company.

President Asif Ali Zardari had recently asked the concerned bodies to shift Presidency to solar power on the pattern of Planning Commission and Pakistan Engineering Council. He had also ordered that one town be converted to solar energy each year, all new development schemes should have solar streetlights and solar cookers, heat pumps, water heaters and water pumps be encouraged.

According to a report in the Guardian recently, Greece plans to sell its sun to Germany which plans to develop about 20,000 hectares of solar power parks there for exporting renewable energy to Germany. And Greece, facing a default after it secured £97 billion in rescue funds, hopes solar energy can help it out of its debt crisis.

Germany is the global leader in solar energy, but it has a lot less sun than Greece. After Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster, the German government has decided to close its nuclear reactors by 2022.

Hit worst by the ever increasing loadshedding and power tariff, many people in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa are turning towards solar energy and the sales of solar panels are going up enormously in the province, and particularly in the federally and provincially administered tribal areas, where there is less pollution and high intensity sunrays that can produce more energy.

“People are turning to solar technology as loadshedding, costliness of power and the rising maintenance and operation expenditures of generators have left them with no other option,” says Wakeel Ahmad, a Peshawar-based dealer of solar technology. “Solar lamps have been installed near Peshawar bus stand and these are likely to be installed on streets and roads in the city very soon.”

“Solar technology is sold in watts at Rs250 per watt with 20 years warranty. A normal household with daily consumption of 1000watt would thus have to spend Rs250,000. The family could also buy a solar panel only at Rs40,000 to charge its electricity based un-interrupted power supply systems to use the power later in their homes,” Ahmad adds.

Nazir Ahmad, a Swabi-based dealer, says hundreds of solar energy systems are sold in the area. A Wapda official in Dir, wishing not to be named, says people in difficult terrain of the district have installed even imported solar systems which has brought revolution in their lives and agriculture.

Over a million tube-wells in Pakistan are eating up billions in power subsidy and consuming an estimated 1000-1500MW of power, straining the weak national grid.

According to Nazir Ahmad, a solar tube-well with 20 years guarantee can be bought for Rs0.9 million which pumps water non-stop from sunrise to sunset for irrigation. Solar pumps could fulfil the daily water requirements of small to medium size fish farms and communities as well.

“The government must provide incentives such as tax holidays, grants to the selected villages, some resource risk coverage, competitive tariff for solar energy and guaranteed purchase agreements from producers,” says the dealer. .

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