While Pakistan’s share of renewable energy stands at a mere 6 per cent of installed capacity, the government has set ambitious targets to increase the share of electricity generated by alternative and renewable sources to 20 per cent by 2025 and 30 per cent by 2030. Kashif Imran specially for the East Asia Forum.
But due to the intermittent nature of renewables and Pakistan’s not-so-‘smart’ transmission and distribution grid, the achievement of these targets depends.
Adequate investment in Pakistan’s transmission grid is essential to ensure that it can facilitate reliable power generation and withstand the sudden and large fluctuations that come with renewable energy. This can be achieved through the optimal placement of Flexible AC Transmission Systems and Phasor Measurement Units. Pakistan’s distribution grid also needs considerable upgrades to safely accommodate an increasing share of renewables. As the penetration of distributed renewable generation increases, bidirectional flows in radial distribution feeders and short circuit fault current levels also increase. If the introduction of renewable generation sources is not accompanied by adequate investment to upgrade grid infrastructure, Pakistan’s weak grid runs the risk of turning into an even weaker grid.
Competitive bidding has been introduced to select the most promising renewable energy projects. This approach is known as competition for the market, where the government guarantees a regulated profit for successful bids for the life of a project. Once a competitive wholesale market matures in Pakistan, this competition for the market approach needs to be gradually replaced with a competition in the market approach. This means investors in new renewable energy projects should become more responsible for market risks. Given the market’s large number of competing participants, governments can breathe a sigh of relief and customers may enjoy lower energy prices.
Pakistan’s renewable energy planners have recently started to consider the importance of indigenising renewable energy resources. Plans are in place to withdraw the exemption of import duties on locally manufactured components for renewable energy plants. But this will require the establishment of laboratories with testing facilities for renewable energy sources like solar panels. These labs will need to achieve testing at both national and international standards to ensure that only quality equipment is manufactured and installed.
The US–Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Energy offers a leading example of ongoing efforts to develop such sophisticated labs in Pakistan. These efforts will be complemented by renewable energy training and skill development programs for local human resources.
Green energy has great potential to help Pakistan achieve industrialisation and energy independence. Bagasse, a by-product of sugar cane production, happens to be an excellent source of green energy that is being utilised to power some sugar mills in Pakistan. Thanks to wheeling of energy facilitated by distribution companies, bagasse-powered sugar mills can transfer their surplus energy to other industries and further support Pakistan’s industrialisation.
Small hydro projects in Pakistan’s mountainous regions power microgrids that offer clean energy for flour mills and cottage industries in remote off-grid villages. Similarly, tiny towns scattered around the rugged sunny terrain of Balochistan have little isolated grids tied to diesel generators. Such secluded settlements are ideal candidates to benefit from clean solar energy, which can uplift the lives of ordinary impoverished people while preserving the environment. In urban and suburban areas, small- and medium-sized enterprises receive energy from distribution grids. So distributed generation — like battery-backed roof-top solar — offers energy independence, especially for small industries.
Pakistan’s energy policy is guided by principles of green energy, the utilisation of indigenous resources and least-cost generation. Paradoxically, extra-conventional generation capacity to be added between 2019 and 2025 is hampering the growth of green energy in Pakistan. Recent government policies aimed at encouraging the use of electric vehicles as well as commercial and industrial activities spurred by the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) are set to facilitate the addition of newer and greener sources of energy in the medium term. But the government’s commitment to coal-fired power as part of CPEC is driven by an urge to rely on indigenous fossil fuels instead of spending foreign reserves importing fuel oil. Although some coal-fired plants are using imported coal, others use indigenous coal reserves accompanied by technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of these plants.
3,500MW of mega hydroelectricity projects are an integral part of CPEC as compared to its 6,900 MW of coal power plants. Although hydroelectricity is renewable, mega hydroelectricity projects have their own social and environmental costs. But with due diligence and international best practice, it is possible to build these mega hydroelectricity projects with minimal damage. Nevertheless, CPEC umbrella also covers 1,000MW solar, and 400MW wind power projects. Irrespective of CPEC, while Pakistan retires over 11,000MW of fossil fuel-based plants till 2047, contribution of over 22,000MW from five cascaded dams on the Indus river, including Diamer-Basha and Dasu power projects, will go a long way in bolstering growth of renewable power generation in Pakistan.
Kashif Imran is Assistant Professor and Head of the Electrical Power Engineering Department at the US–Pakistan Center for Advanced Studies in Energy (USPCAS-E) at the National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST), Islamabad.