Time to get serious about alternative energy —Syed Mohammad Ali

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For Pakistan, the benefits of alternative energy would be twofold: it would not only help solve our chronic power crisis but also help reduce the alarming levels of pollution found within the country

The high import bills paid for depleting fossil fuels around the world, as well as the pollution being caused by their use, has compelled acknowledgement of the need to adopt renewable energy resources.

Developing countries like our own are simultaneously experiencing a severe energy crunch as well as deteriorating environmental conditions, being exacerbated by polluting human production processes. Moreover, experts are pointing out how deteriorating environmental conditions have begun to affect the capacity to utilise other conventional energy sources like hydropower. For example, global warming is feared to be melting the Himalayan glaciers, which will place increasing stress on water resources for Pakistan as well as its neighbouring countries. This means that Pakistan’s chances to produce more hydropower may diminish significantly in the near future.

Conversely, Pakistan’s demand for electricity has become increasingly greater than the available supply. The socio-economic impact of hours of load shedding is being visibly felt around the nation. For Pakistan, the benefits of alternative energy would be twofold: it would not only help solve our chronic power crisis but also help reduce the alarming levels of pollution found within the country. The levels of air pollution in Islamabad and the provincial capitals, for instance, are now up to eight times higher than the prescribed limit according to data compiled by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The need for exploring alternative and renewable energy resources has therefore become vital for us. Doing so however will require putting in place not only constructive policies for the adoption of renewable and environmentally clean energy resources, but also implementing them effectively. Despite the fact that an Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB) does now exist in the country, it has not been able to produce visible results in terms of utilising renewable sources of energy for boosting power production.

There is significant potential for alternative energy production across our country according to existing research studies. Wind power is one source of alternative energy that is feasible for Pakistan. The Pakistan Meteorological Department has identified several areas in Sindh and Balochistan and even in the NWFP that have huge potential. Pakistan’s wind power potential is estimated at 20,000 megawatts, yet no major breakthrough has yet been made. In India and China, wind power projects have already begun to be used for generating electricity on a small scale so that they can be expanded subsequently.

Then there is the possibility to use solar energy, which requires expensive technology to harness but does not require much continued investment and is also very user- and environment-friendly. In India, government institutions have begun providing solar products on lease, so that people can afford them. It is not uncommon to see use of solar panels to heat water even in the remote mountainous regions of Nepal. Pakistan needs to similarly consider incentivising the use of solar energy.

Tidal energy, which provides a form of hydropower generated through the movement of tidal currents of the sea is being harnessed in several countries around the world, and it can be more profitable than wind energy and solar power. In Pakistan, which has over 700 kilometres of coastline, the prospect of using tidal power has yet to be realised.

Biofuels and biomass can become sources of alternative energy to provide electricity to far-flung and remote areas of the country, as well as to meet the growing demand of electricity for industrialisation and agriculture. While some small incidents of utilising these sources exist, they need to be scaled up to make a discernible difference.

On the other hand, Pakistan needs to rethink its policies towards conventional sources of energy, especially coal. Coal is found in all the four provinces of Pakistan. Thar has one of the biggest coal deposits in the world. Despite this fact, coal is not a significant source of energy for the country. The government aims to achieve a share of about 20 percent in the energy-mix by 2030. Currently, the share of coal in the overall energy-mix is less than 10 percent while it is much higher in neighbouring India. But more extensive use of coal is surely going to imply increased risk of environmental degradation. Any future use of coal, therefore, must simultaneously be accompanied by schemes for removing pollutants, particularly sulphur, and for reducing ash content. While there is evidence of efforts to bring in investment to exploit the Thar coal reserves, pollutant-removing projects need to be given just as much emphasis.

Pakistan can learn from the example of China and India, which are making comprehensive plans to improve energy availability using environmentally friendly means. China aims to increase the share of alternative energy to 15 percent. India is planning to establish numerous coal-powered power stations with zero emissions, in addition to putting up a million solar installations across its rural areas.

A well-defined strategic vision would help reduce Pakistan’s energy environmental and economic problems while at the same time improving socio-economic conditions for the entire population. Our existing energy policies must be used to encourage stretching the useful life of local resources through conservation and improve energy sector performance by curbing line losses, and to manage energy demand.

Besides optional utilisation of indigenous energy resources, such as utilisation of clean coal energy, we must begin implementing renewable energy projects more widely. In this regard, it will be necessary to first demonstrate the effectiveness of renewable technologies. This is not very easy given that renewable energy systems are expensive in terms of installation costs, and that the power produced through them is available intermittently (for instance, wind or solar energy is only generated when these renewable recourses are available), which implies further costs for energy storage. But then there are the advantages, which besides environmental benefits include the fact that these resources are free and do not need any input fuel to produce energy. Many of the renewable energy projects also incur much less operational and maintenance costs and have a longer shelf life.

At the end of the day, conducting more research and implementing varied projects is imperative, but not much will happen if the required political will does not exist to establish renewable energy and sustainable energy initiatives as a viable alternative within Pakistan’s utility sector.

The writer is a researcher. He can be contacted at ali@policy.hu

Article reproduced by permission of DT.

http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2010\02\09\story_9-2-2010_pg3_3

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