March Issue 2014

By | Business | Technology | Published 10 years ago

In a YouTube video of a presentation about the solar system by famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Tyson pauses at a single striking graphic of a tiny earth juxtaposed with the massive scale of the sun. The sun, Tyson notes, is more than 330,000 times the mass of the earth.

“When you see that, you wonder why we can’t get all our energy from that!” he exclaims, as he points at the sun.

According to Tyson, the pre-eminent source of all energy on the planet and in our solar system is ultimately the sun.

“It’s the primary source of energy for anything we would ever do,” he says. “The sun was the source of the energy for the coal and the oil that we are pulling out of the ground. It’s just mismatched in time.”

As he explains, all that it is, is solar energy captured in matter that got laid down millions of years ago. And it was stuck there until humans discovered that it was a remarkable source of energy that was just waiting for us to yank it out of the ground.

In Pakistan where, according to a World Bank report in 2013, 44 percent of all households are not even connected to the electricity grid and millions of people who are connected, suffer power outages that can last up to 18 hours a day, as in some parts of Punjab in 2013, Pakistan has reached a tipping point in terms of its energy needs.

Electricity theft coupled with mismanagement and corruption among virtually all levels of government has multiplied Pakistan’s energy woes.

On a daily basis, Pakistan’s power demand averages 16,000 megawatts (MW), but the total power output is only about 12,000 MW. In the summer months, this gap can be as high as 7,000 MW.

Given that Pakistan receives almost 320 days of sunshine, for an average of eight hours a day in most parts of the country, some experts believe there is a potential of producing between 1 and 2.9 million MW of electricity through solar power alone.

So what’s the delay?

“It’s not that simple,” answers Usman Iqbal, director of a solar power company called International Greenergy. “It’s all about costs.”

In Pakistan, he says, the conditions for solar energy are “excellent,” but the cost of solar panels, has led to solar energy not being viewed as a viable alternative.

000_Hkg7038779The tide, though, is turning, says Iqbal.

He mentions that the demand for solar energy installations has increased significantly, especially in the last couple of years.

While costs have come down just enough for many people, particularly in the private sector, commercial electricity rates continue to be much higher, consequently more organisations are looking to cut their energy costs.

“Because of the energy shortfall in recent years, there are many solar power companies jumping in to cover that big gap,” says Iqbal.

International Greenergy, which went into operation last August, employs about 45 people and has already completed some major projects.

“Our most successful project was the Habib Bank branch on Shaheed-e-Millat,” Iqbal says. “Apart from their air conditioning, that branch is run completely on solar energy.”

But Habib Bank isn’t the only bank to take the solar route.

In June 2013, Allied Bank announced its first completely solar-powered branch in Faisalabad. That same month, JS Bank announced that all its computers, servers, ATMs and teller stations were powered by solar energy.

Iqbal believes that the private sector has to take the lead in solar or renewable energy, before the government, which continues to look to nuclear power to fulfil Pakistan’s energy needs.

Incidentally, the federal government is having a 1.8 MW solar power unit installed in the Parliament House Building in Islamabad, which is estimated to save nearly Rs 105m in annual energy expenses and, at the same time, reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The initial cost of the installation, believed to be about Rs 6.3b, will be funded by the Chinese as a goodwill gesture between the two regional allies.

“This is the first [public] project of its kind in Pakistan and, later, more public buildings will be converted to solar power to overcome the energy crisis,” says Munawar Abbas Shah, a special secretary at the National Assembly.

Iftikhar Ahmad Qaisrani, founder of the Renewable Energy Society for Education, Awareness Research and Community Help, says Pakistan must make solar power economical and practical.

He says that while previous governments have failed to take a serious look at alternative energy solutions, the steps taken by the current PML-N led government are promising, but not enough.

Government institutions such as the Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB), which was created in 2003 with the objective to replace 10 percent of the total energy output with renewable energy by 2050, have yet to make any significant contributions.

In January, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif announced that his government was setting up the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park in the province. Projected to cost Rs 17b, the installation is expected to produce 100 MW of electricity, and perhaps serve as a role model for more projects in the future.

“Installation of solar power is a one-time expenditure, and people should be encouraged to avail the opportunity,” Qaisrani says. “This is the right time to encourage the public and private sector to focus on solar energy and provide off-grid solutions to people living in far-flung areas of the country.”

Qaisrani added that, currently, solar panels cost about Rs 110 per watt of electricity produced. Hence, the cost to convert an average individual home to solar power is between Rs 1.5 to 2 lakhs for hybrid solutions, and Rs 3.5 to 4 lakhs for completely off-grid solutions, much higher than what average Pakistani households can afford.

Hybrid solutions, he explains, are those where the household is connected to the grid, but relies on solar power as backup during power outages. On the other hand, an off-grid solution is one in which part of the house, usually lights, fans and other kitchen appliances, are run completely on solar power, and thus not connected to the national grid.

The advantage is that once installed, it can provide continuous energy for up to 25 years, with maintenance costs being almost a negligible fraction of the initial investment.

000_Hkg7038776Moreover, residential installations can recoup the cost of the initial investment within seven to eight years, whereas commercial installations recoup their investment within four to five years, because of the difference in commercial and residential electricity rates.

But Qaisrani believes that solar power can be most beneficial for those remote areas that are not connected to the national electricity grid at all. “In Punjab, farms are mainly irrigated using tube wells,” he says. “When those tube wells cannot run because of hours of power shortages, the farmers suffer and because Pakistan is an agricultural economy, the country suffers as a whole.”

Qaisrani warns that Pakistan is lagging behind India and Bangladesh, which have already significantly engaged the use of solar power in rural and farming areas.

The principal reason that solar power has been expensive in Pakistan is because all the panels are largely imported, through countries such as Germany, the United States and China.

But Ahsan Ashraf, a PhD candidate in Physics specialising in photovoltaic and sustainable energy at the Brookhaven National Lab in New York, believes that it’s possible to make solar panels at home.

Ashraf says that if Pakistan were to begin fabricating solar panels at home, costs would go down significantly. He says that the possibility isn’t a stretch because quartz, the basic raw material for solar cells, can be found in abundance in the northern regions of Pakistan. The other main ingredient, silica, he says, can also be found in River Sindh, in abundant quantities.

“I do believe that its possible for Pakistan to fabricate solar panels at home,” he says. “However, the initial investment to start such a project will be very significant. The only way that it will become feasible is if there are government tariffs above the retail rate of electricity for investment in renewable technologies. This will bring in local businesses and make solar cell companies more profitable.”

While the theoretical potential of such an endeavor may seem feasible, the practical application of such a project in Pakistan is another story.

In 2005, the then prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, inaugurated the Hundred Solar Homes Programme in Narian Khorian, a small village about 40 kilometres from Islamabad.

The programme installed 100 solar panels with the help of a local company, along with providing four LED lights, a 12-Volt DC fan, and a TV socket. But because of the lack of proper maintenance, the panels deteriorated over time and Narian Khorain is once again without power.

There also downsides to the technology itself as solar energy is only available during the day, at the same time the efficiency of solar panels is fairly low.

“Solar energy can obviously only be harvested from the sun during the day,” Ashraf says. “Therefore solar energy at the moment will need a complementary source of energy that can provide power around the clock. This problem can be solved in the future either by using better battery technologies or other novel techniques such as molten salt technology, or focusing of sunlight to heat water and generate steam-powered electricity to name a few.”

As far as efficiency is concerned Ashraf admits that while there has been incremental improvement in solar panel efficiency, it’s been quite flat for the past five or 10 years.

“The record efficiency for silicon solar cells is about 20 to 23 percent, however, in large scale modules this efficiency is closer to 15 percent,” he explains. “There is, however, a plethora of other solar cell technologies which are growing in efficiency at rapid rates. Certain multi-junction solar cells are even reaching record efficiencies of 40 to 43 percent, which is close to the Shockley-Queisser limit (a theoretical limit to the efficiency of a solar cell).”

However, solar energy’s many detractors cite a host of problems which includes the costs, as well as space requirements, the inefficiency of solar panels and the negligible use of solar energy in countries such as the Unites States or France, as an argument for its nonfeasibility.

In the US, solar power only accounts for one-half of one percent of its total energy output. But while the US is hindered by its size, as well as a strong energy lobby with plenty of political clout, Germany on the other hand has become the standard-bearer for solar power.

After witnessing the dramatic fallout of the disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, the German government decided to turn its back on nuclear energy in 2011.

As a result, in 2012 Germany’s solar power plants produced a record 22,000 MW of energy, equivalent to the output of 20 nuclear plants, and more energy than any other country has ever produced from solar power.

The director of the Institute of the Renewable Energy Industry (IWR) in Muenster, says Germany now meets 50 percent of its energy needs from solar power and hopes to be free of nuclear energy by 2022.

Admittedly, Pakistan doesn’t have the economic resources, the infrastructure, or the political will to follow Germany’s example. In addition, Pakistan is plagued with a host of fundamental problems that includes militancy, illiteracy, poverty and corruption, all of which are so inextricably linked with each other, that the government is caught in a virtual straitjacket about where to start.

That aside, there is no question that solar power has reached a point where it is becoming more viable as an energy alternative, even if only to supplement convectional sources of power. The convergence of declining costs and sky-rocketing demand for power, makes the future of solar energy in Pakistan a sunnier proposition than ever before.

This article was published in Newsline’s March 2014 issue

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.