Powering up: Pakistan’s push for renewable energy

A community solar power project near Abbottabad in Pakistan Copyright: AEDB

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Despite Pakistan’s stance that mainstreaming renewable energy should be a priority, much remains to be done, reports Syed Fareed Hussain.

Pakistan has recently indicated its commitment to renewable energy sources, but realising these in practice could still be a long way off.

Strong support for renewables came on 13 March this year. At a scientific conference in Lahore the president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, announced that the government would use all alternative energy sources — particularly solar and wind energy — to increase electricity generation by 10–12 per cent annually to meet growing energy demands. He was also in favour of the peaceful use of nuclear power for producing more electricity to help fill the gap.

At the meeting, Musharraf said that the gap between the country’s power supply and demand was an obstacle to economic and social growth. With a population of over 150 million and a rapidly growing economy, Pakistan’s energy requirements are huge and its energy needs are becoming acute.

Tapping into the goldmine

Pakistan is blessed with an abundance of renewable energy potential, but so far this remains unharnessed except for a few large hydroelectric projects.

The country, historically an energy importer, is facing serious energy shortages while global fossil fuel prices continue their upward spiral. The effects on the economy are marked: interruptions in energy supply to industry, for instance, have hit the country’s exports hard.

Many now believe that Pakistan needs to initiate a transition towards greater use of renewable energy as an indigenous, clean and abundant resource.

Pakistan’s prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, says energy is now a key policy issue for Pakistan.

Prime minister, Shaukat Aziz,
inaugurates an energy project
in Punjab

Aziz told SciDev.Net, "The government’s focus is on diversifying energy resources, which include hydropower, natural gas, coal and nuclear energy, besides the alternatives such as solar, wind and biomass energy."

Last year, the Pakistani government published an energy report, ‘Policy for the Development of Renewable Energy for Power Generation – 2006’. The report proposes mainstreaming renewable energy in Pakistan by incorporating small hydropower, wind and solar technologies into development plans.


The policy report outlines three phases in implementing Pakistan’s renewables strategy — short term, medium term and long term. The long-term goal is for renewables to contribute ten percent of Pakistan’s energy by 2015. The short term covers more specific action for the period up to June 2008, during which the private sector will be invited to invest in various power projects.

Small renewable energy projects will be able to decide how much to charge consumers for the electricity, without deferring to Pakistan’s national energy authority. Wind and solar projects, irrespective of size of the plant will be dealt with by the Alternate Energy Development Board — created by the government in 2003 to facilitate and promote development of renewable energy in Pakistan.

According to an official statement by the Ministry of Science and Technology these policies, proposed in 2006, are in line with the government’s open-door policy for inviting private investment into the country.

Alternative energy departments are now being set up as state-owned entities to facilitate electricity generation, transmission and distribution in Pakistan.

Difference of opinion

But the government drive for renewables has its critics.

Mirza Arshad Ali Beg, former head of the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and now president of the Pakistan Environmental Assessment Association, says the policy does not have the capacity to address all energy problems.

The problem, says Beg, is that the alternative energy initiatives have been offered at a stage when the damage has already been done to the economy.

"The gap between demand and supply of power has been allowed to grow by not addressing the interrupted supply to the domestic and agriculture sector as much as the industrial sector," he said. As a result, the cost of energy and energy production has already made Pakistan’s products uncompetitive compared with those of India.

Beg suggests that all the country’s power plants should be coal-fired, and all industries that need fuel for heating purposes, such as cement factories, should use coal, a suggestion he justifies on the basis of the huge reserves of coal in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. "Some [of these] have already been explored by the Chinese organisations working there," says Beg. "The quality is good and this coal can be a better substitute than high-priced oil imported from the Middle East."

A mini solar power plant near
Lahore in Pakistan

The government’s policy, he says, will not encourage Pakistan to become self-reliant. "For solar power we will depend on imported photovoltaic cells, for windmills we shall have to depend on an investor to bring in the necessary technology, equipment and parts, and we will see similar scenarios with biogas or energy from solid waste, or even nuclear energy."

Ali Zulqarnain, an engineering professor and alternative energy researcher at NED University of Engineering & Technology in Karachi, says the government’s policy has some deficiencies.

"One centres on who will guarantee the continuity of this policy, considering the existing political circumstances," says Zulgarnain. "The other is the policy’s need to be balanced by including the voices of Pakistan’s eminent science activists."

But Zulqarnain does think renewables are the way forward. He has identified key areas where efforts can be made to further refine Pakistan’s policy on alternative energy resources. For instance, Zulqarnain says there are areas in and around Karachi suitable for installing both solar and wind energy plants to produce cheap electricity. Many science activists also advocate the use of hydropower, since Pakistan is a water-abundant country.

Water pressure

But some say Pakistan is wasting its potential.

Shaista Tabassum, who teaches South Asian water resources and politics at the University of Karachi, says that despite having the world’s best water resources, the production of hydropower has been sidelined by the government.

He says that if the government had properly exploited hydropower, the country could now be enjoying a 5,000 megawatt power supply from the Kunhar-Neelum-Jhelum river system in Azad, Kashmir, adding that more hydropower projects would also reduce the cost of electricity.

In 2001, the Water and Power Development Authority of Pakistan identified 22 sites for launching hydropower projects to meet the ever-increasing demand for cheap power. It indicated that about 15,074 megawatts could be generated on the completion of these projects, which would also meet the water irrigation requirements for the growing agriculture sector.

"It is high time for us to make a move in that direction," says Tabassum.

Policy perspectives

The objectives for renewables in Pakistan, as outlined in the government report, are wide-ranging.

Among the economic benefits, the policy promotes renewables as a cheap form of energy, and therefore economically competitive with conventional supplies. This holds particularly true for remote, underdeveloped areas, where renewable energy can also have the greatest impact because the cost of conventional energy supplies is significant.

Renewable energy could therefore supplement the pool of national energy supply options in Pakistan, accelerating economic progress, improving productivity and enhancing income-generating opportunities, especially for people who are marginalised at present.

A growing renewable energy industry would offer new prospects for employment and business opportunities among local manufacturers and service providers.

In terms of social equity, renewable energy could also raise Pakistan’s present low per-capita consumption of energy and improve access to modern energy supplies, helping to alleviate poverty and reduce the burden on rural women, who collect biomass for fuel.

In the future, Pakistan may adopt other technologies for generating power from renewable energy sources, such as municipal waste and landfill methane geothermal recovery, anaerobic biomass gasification, biological fuels, fuel cells and ocean waves.

The opportunity is there to make use of renewables, and Pakistan has made its first moves toward grasping it.