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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.

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