The solar energy may be the only cost-effective, environment-friendly, pollution- and maintenance-free choice

By Syed M. Aslam
Mar 27 - Apr 02, 2000

Despite drawing the due attention which it deserves as an alternative energy source, solar energy primarily remains a topic of academic discussion in Pakistan.

Reeling from an ever widening gap between demand and generation of power and frequent load-sheddings resulting in reduced industrial production and falling GDP, the importance of solar energy as an inexhaustable, pollution-free and cheap source of energy despite the high installation cost particularly for a developing economy like Pakistan could hardly be overstated.

The shortage of energy is becoming more pronounced with the increasing population and its resultant increase for power requirements which is reportedly touching 20,000 mega watt to widen the supply and demand gap by a sizeable 5,000 mw presently.

Resorting to conventional energy sources like hydel and thermal — the two primary energy generation methods used in Pakistan — is not only costing as it drains the economy of precious foreign exchange on oil imports but also requires huge investment for new projects. In addition, the high cost of electrification makes it financially unbearble to provide electrification to rural areas where 67.5 per cent of the Pakistani population still resides.

Energy self-sufficiency is a must for the industrial development of any nation today. Pakistan is no exception. The per capita energy utilisation is one of the primary indicator of the development and standard of living of any people.

The primary energy consumption in Pakistan is estimated at 40 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) of which one-fourth is from such non-commercial sources as firewood, charcoal, residues of agricultural crops and cow dung. The low primary consumption roughly translates into a low per capita energy utilisation of 0.25 TOE which is not only negligible than that of the industrialised world but is also just one-fifteenth of even the Asian average.

The importance of developing solar energy as an alternative energy source for sun-friendly country like Pakistan where sunshines for over 300 days a year and solar energy falling on just 25 per cent of the Balochistan province could meet the energy needs of the whole country could hardly be over-emphasised. Pakistan has an ideal climate to generate solar enegy, besides abundance of sunny days the intensity of solar radiation is also much high — roughly 500 watts per square meter at the ground level. This huge solar energy potential is waiting to be exploited through proper R&D.

Despite making some progress like the installation of solar-powered telephone boxes of the Lahore-Islamabad Motorway, cathodic protection for gas pipelines, drying of vegetables, and solar home system to fridge, fans, bulbs and water heaters no meaningful progress has been made to develop solar energy an alternative source of energy.

So what stops Pakistan to harness the solar energy to provide a cost efficient rural electrification to the majority of population which inhabits these areas, save huge investment on developing costly traditional energy generation projects, both hydel or thermal, and to save billions in foreign exchange to import furnace oil?

Primarily it could be attributed to high initial cost particularly for a low where per capita income country like Pakistan. Secondly, the lack of government funding to finance the relevant R&D works has also been one of the reasons.

Japanese solar energy expert Dr Tetsuo Noguchi who delivered a lecture at a seminar organised by the Karachi Office of Japan External Trade Organization (Jetro) at the IBA Auditorium said that government incentives could encourage the use of photovoltaic technology, a costly system to install despite being convenient to install where conventional power grids and energy infrastructure is not available, in Pakistan. The other distinct advantages of PV technology is that its maintenance require minimal expenditure once installed.

Incentives such as credits for consumers and industrial sectors and low interest bank loans for construction and installation of Photovoltaic systems and solar heating and cooling could help increased used of solar energy techonology in Pakistan. Similarly subsidies to solar installations of government buildings, schools and hospitals would also help, he added.

Besides converting solar energy into electricity through PV technology it could also be used directly as thermal energy for heat collection, solar dryers for agriculture produce and water drilling for the benefit of poor population in the rural areas who otherwise is deprived of the convenience of electricity due to lack of huge investment that electricity grids and infrastructure require.

Tapping the solar energy may be the only cost-effective, environment-friendly, pollution- and maintenance-free choice as the only alternative energy source for Pakistan which enjoys both the good quantity and quality of sunshine.