Wednesday, July 10, 2013

OP-ED: Solar Club - The Last Resort


Published in Economic Affairs (Pakistan) / July 2013

Thanks to Danish Shakil for sharing his expertise & FB / twitter walas for their help

Unkind sms’s were openly traded on the anniversary of ‘the bomb’ about how a nuclear power was unable to launch its precious arsenal because a vital component went missing for 12-20 hours. Clever memes that owe their origin to the spectacular failure of our resident electricity providers now appear on the social media with depressing regularity. The hum of generators provides a jarring soundtrack to a dull background of protesting masses out on the streets and smarmy politicians out on the trail.

After investing in UPS’s (that cannot get charged) and generators (that eat up precious fuel), homeowner’s are eyeing the solar market as a last resort. Faint glimmers from some old solar powered lights brighten up the garden. Our solar adventure ends there. As the newly sworn in government wrangles with ‘circular debts’ and drops big words like Renewable Energy, a few businesses have already made the switch to green energy. Their journey has just begun.

Going Green, for the first world is a way to cut back on those carbon footprints. For an average Pakistani, it offers, among other things, a chance to rediscover the joys of uninterrupted power supply. Modest attempts have been made to bring rural communities under the solar umbrella. The industrial sector is slowly breaking away from that unreliable old grid by exploring alternate energy sources. A bank in Faisalabad has already gone solar. Other banks have converted their ATM’s and claim that such simple steps are capable of generating 25300 MWh of energy. And a restaurant in Karachi now offers solar on the menu – its kitchen runs on green energy.

For homeowners however solar energy is not at the top of the agenda because of high cost, high risk and low expectations. Finding the perfect match can be tricky. Googling ‘solar panels Pakistan’ brings up an array of dubious looking results; the ‘too good to be true’ and legit all mixed together. There is not enough awareness at the moment to convince consumers to go all in. A few have gingerly entered the arena with a 3*4 panel installation reportedly costing Rs. 10 K used for powering ‘a computer, lights and fans’.

There is some good news on the horizon; Senior Economist MENAP, Sayem Ali in a recent appearance on Business Plus, indicated that financing solar homes could be on the cards one day; there may be an upfront cost but the negligible running expense makes for a sound investment. Solar energy, described as ‘super clean and super expensive’ is environmentally, (if not budget) friendly and promises great savings. The current energy shortfall needs to be countered on war footing and waiving import duty on solar panels is a promising start. The slew of foreign investors eager to explore the renewable energy (RE) sector along with the plummeting cost of solar panels on the global front is an encouraging sign. And the deployment of a smart grid in the Capital is an exciting opportunity.

Islamabad’s first solar on-grid power station with the capability of producing 178.9 KW has allegedly gone live in 2012. Ideally it would allow people to generate power for their own use and give back the surplus to the main grid; like they do in the civilized world. That futuristic sounding scenario still appears to be a long way off. Danish Shakil, who has expertise in this arena claims that though the solar panels from China, Germany and Taiwan come in affordable packages, vested interest groups with their cold, profit based approach ensure that these do not translate into low price tags. He believes that the Alternative Energy Development Board - AEDB should fix the price/watt like they do in other countries. He went on to declare that local scientists working on developing solar cells interested in cutting costs by as much as 75% face hurdles by aforementioned vested interests.

This attitude deters local investors from pursuing their solar dream in earnest. These comments correspond with some observations that appeared in an article in ‘The Friday Times’ about a German delegation eager to invest in solar energy infrastructure that was spurned by Pakistan and eventually ended up sealing the deal with India instead. (Balance of Power – June 14, 2013)

The solar club is expanding every day. UAE unrolls the worlds’ largest concentrated solar power station – SHAMS 1. Germany, its dark winters’ notwithstanding, is a world leader in solar power; in 2012 it reportedly produced 22 GW energy – ‘the equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants’. And Lancaster, California has added a new law to its building codes whereby solar enabled homes will be mandatory by 2014. For them Renewable Energy (RE) is clearly the future.

Crippling power cuts have become the new normal for Pakistan. Annihilating the load shedding monster makes for an effective campaign slogan; extending the solar lifeline to a floundering economy is one way to make a dignified exit from the realm of cautionary tales.

Photo Credits:

Image 1: http://brilliantpakistan.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Pakistan-Germany-agreed-on-Solar-Energy-Projects-in-Pakistan1.jpg
Image2: http://www.thenational.ae/deployedfiles/Assets/Richmedia/Image/SaxoPress/AD20130317986676-1-W_The_Shams_1_s_340x227.jpg


Sunday, July 7, 2013

SERIES REVIEW: THE KANE CHRONICLES


First Published in Daily Times (Pakistan) / 07 July 2013 under the title 'Walk Like an Egyptian...god'
Author: Rick Riordan
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

When ancients get their marching orders, it comes with an unexpected makeover. When Rick Riordan dabbles in mythology, it comes with some expected upgrades. The Heroes of Olympus, spin off to Percy Jackson and the Olympians series awakened both Roman and Greek gods for a few rounds of ‘mortal’ combat. Things happened. During the brief intermission, he rolled out a fresh set of gods, tracked down more heroes and stumbled upon a shiny new quest. The Kane Chronicles is bound for the land of Pharaohs with a brother, sister duo in tow who are descendent from an ancient line and have an Egyptologist for a father. One “lives out of a suitcase” and the other is “British.” And then they discover their true lineage and hearing voices in their collective heads becomes part of the Kane package.

Eastern mythology crackles with the same feverish energy witnessed earlier in the Greek/Roman universe that lies not too far from Brooklyn House, safe haven for this particular merry band of misfits. Never seen before deities leap out of the shadows, celebrated gods reclaim the limelight and because this is Egypt, magicians emerge from the woodworks.

Sadie and Carter Kane always seem to be on some deadline, like their counterparts in Manhattan, and must work on an ultra-steep learning curve. Egypt, best known for its preserved kings and perhaps some ‘Cold Bepsi’, naturally figures in these escapades but since the siblings have been raised apart (on differing continents), both the UK and the US can be their home away from home.

A Riordan adventure is typically sponsored by the usual brand of courage, sacrifice, honour and loyalty, and unleashing elaborate sequences of death and destruction and freelancing baddies to keep our heroes on their toes is the norm. Its modern settings notwithstanding, magic becomes the centerpiece, leaving magicians’ time to argue over the implications, political or otherwise, of hosting flighty gods. A dash of absurdity livens up the skyline. With Armageddon knocking at the gates, onlookers can always do with some levity.

Despite the similar sounding outlines, high velocity arcs and ridiculously high stakes, the multi-ethnic contours of this world add some texture to the narrative and allow thinly veiled ghosts of racial discrimination to rise to the fore. The series is supposedly a collection of recordings thoughtfully transcribed by the author and both Sadie and Carter’s perspectives come in play. Also, deities sporting a ‘Made in Egypt’ label come in stronger flavors and richer contrasts. Where Greek and Roman gods have alternating aspects, Isis and Horus can truly add “it is very, very complicated” to their status. They can be siblings, off-springs or a couple depending upon the time of the day; the convoluted family tree is carefully sorted out in The Red Pyramid before readers proceed any further. An expedition to their old stomping grounds renews old cycles, building new citadels upon a foundation of forgotten legends and ancient battles reignite the simmering tensions between Kanes and their nemesis. Their charming little realm refines reality, the ability to see both aspects of a person, here and in the Duat (Underworld, Egyptian style), for instance, which has been brilliantly rendered in striking detail.

The chronicles are furnished by same casual irreverence that marked previous mythologies giving Kane-ville an interesting edge with its compelling storytelling and historic dimensions. Each book wraps up the loose ends within the allotted time frame putting off the ‘evil vanquishing part’ for the grand finale. In Book III, Riordan cleverly ties in the Arab Spring with his mythical vision subtly binding both worlds in matching shades of chaos. A legion of endearing characters does join the crusade in Book II, a few get sidelined, however, and feel like window dressing to the quest. The Kanes happily bicker in the voice-over but this constant switching between viewpoints of a 12 and 14-year-old can be tad disorienting. It takes a while to get acclimatised to the Kane universe, their magical heritage, professed destiny and whirlwind itinerary. They get their divine powers from bloodlines and possession and not, as is the case with Olympus, godly parentage, which tends to leave strange side-effects.

Demigod followers might experience a slight drag in Book I; tedium threatens to set in during some chase sequences but the cunningly laid out trail of breadcrumbs linking The Throne of Fire together with The Serpent’s Shadow is too enticing to ignore. Riordan, who retains his number one The New York Times bestselling author crown may not be done with the new recruits. The trilogy spells an end for their quest and though the ominous words on the first page marks it as the last recording, readers could be in for another round of mayhem. Egypt’s path will not cross with Greek/Roman Empire yet, though there are tantalising glimpses of Percy’s world visible in the background. They may be fleeting but these ‘missed connections’ could potentially lead to something bigger. Should that ever happen, having a multi-cultural anti- rogue demon/monster/god fighting force in the arsenal could ‘up the ante’. In May 2013, the much anticipated Carter/Percy crossover finally took place in The Son of Sobek, a short story added to the final book as a bonus feature. Those who have mastered all three mythologies can now ruminate on the possibilities of an alliance between east and the west. Stranger things have happened. The Kane Chronicles brews up an old fashioned blend of exotic sights and amusing scenery and invites the mortal world over for a long overdue reunion. As Sadie might say, “What can possibly go wrong?

Genre: Fantasy novel

Publisher: Disney Hyperion and Puffin Books: 2010-2012

Image from Rick Riordan's Press kit (website)