Pakistan looking into the sun

The country is estimated to have a solar energy potential of as much as 2.9 million MW

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Pakistan entered the realms of solar power generation as late as in the year 2012, a very delayed development for a country in which cities lying on planes, such as Lahore, experience an average of approximately 3,000 hours of sunshine annually, which by no means is its highest. Certain areas in the country – especially the arid province of Balochistan – receive more than 2,200 kWh/m2 of Global Horizontal Irradiance (GHI), the total shortwave radiation received by a piece of horizontal surface of the earth through which the capacity of a region to produce energy by solar means is determined.

It is no wonder, then, that Pakistan is estimated, by some, to have a solar energy potential of as much as 2.9 million MW, which can be produced at the cost of Rs6-8 per unit, compared to the Rs18 per unit expended on each unit of electricity produced through crude oil.

However, despite, the obvious potential, decision-makers in the country continue to rely heavily on non-renewable resources to produce electricity. As of 2012, the country’s Ministry of Finance reported to produce 29% of its electricity using natural gas, 35% using oil, 0.1% using coal, and 35.7% using hydel, nuclear, or other means, in which hydel power is likely to have the lion’s share. Power generation through solar means has, unfortunately, taken a back seat for the longest time in the country.

The first project of solar energy production on the state level in the country was set up in 2012, and was called “Introduction of Clean Energy by Solar Electricity Generation System”, developed in collaboration with Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). The project installed two photovoltaic (PV) systems – one each on the buildings of Planning Commission and Pakistan Engineering Council in the federal capital, Islamabad – with a capacity of 178.08 KW, each. The project, although a minor one keeping in view its production capacity, has its importance given that it put solar power generation on the electricity production map of Pakistan. It was, perhaps, the stepping stone on the basis of which later projects – although unrelated – were initiated.

The second, and to date most important, solar power generation project initiated in the country on the state level is the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park. The Solar Power Park is a photovoltaic power station whose construction began in the year 2014 in the desert city of Bahawalpur. The Park, estimated to have a capacity of 1,000 MW upon completion, and established in collaboration with Chinese companies Zonergy and Tebian Electric Apparatus, is considered to be a part of the megaproject, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Pakistani half of the project is held up by Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power (Pvt.) Limited, which claims to be “a public-sector, for-profit company established by the Government of the Punjab […] for the setting up of renewable energy projects in general and Solar Energy Projects in particular.” The company responsible for the project was initially run by the government, but was later officially privatized by the decision of the Chief Minister of Punjab in June, 2017.

Upon its commission in 2014, Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park was hailed by the mainstream media as the largest solar park in the world, and a beacon of light for the country. It’s completion date was set initially, at the latest, by 2016, which was later moved to 2017. However, with three-quarters of 2017 gone, the park still stands at 100 MW capacity, with no further development in sight. It has also been speculated that the Solar Power Park is producing only 18 MW of electricity at the moment – much less than its capacity – due to the unsuitability of Bahawalpur’s conditions, where temperatures regularly rise about 45 degrees Celsius in the summer, something that hinders optimal power generation. This is believed to be one of the reasons behind its sale and privatization as well as the delays in its development.

It is worth mentioning that, even in the event of the Solar Power Park’s failure, Pakistan’s capacity for solar power generation cannot be discounted. The blame for the prospective failure of the Solar Power Park should be laid on the shoulders of either the incompatibility of the technical experts involved in planning for and setting up the park – who chose the wrong location for the project, or set up faulty hardware – or on the incompatibility of the government of Pakistan, which, despite the availability of resources, could not execute a plan of efficient energy production.

It is because of its solar potential that solar firms across the globe have recently been reported to have increased their interest in investing in the solar energy sector in Pakistan. Such firms seem to understand that Pakistan is an increasingly significant economy given its rather uncontrollable rise in population, and that this booming population would inevitably record increases in electricity demand with every passing year.

With Pakistan’s population expected to hit 274 million by the year 2030, the country’s decision-makers would sooner or later come to realize that meeting the electricity demands of the country through non-renewable resources is not only more expensive, it is also damaging to the environment and ultimately impractical. Therefore, sooner or later, the country would have to turn to renewable resources, of which solar energy seems to be a very likely choice – something that companies like SkyElectric look to capitalize on.