Looking for light, heat and power —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

Surely India-Pakistan relations are now stable enough to pool their R&D assets to make solar energy more affordable in the minimum possible time

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has spoken of India committing substantial funds and research and development resources to solar energy to reduce its present dependence on fossil fuels. He did not seem to be merely blunting the carping criticism in the West that India and China are distorting the market with their huge demand for oil; he was clearly thinking of a sustainable portfolio of strategies for meeting the energy crunch.

South Asian states have not as yet fully focused on solar and wind energy. Capital costs are high and technologies for optimising the use of these inexhaustible sources have not as yet taken roots in the region.

There is as strong a case for a dramatic increase in regional cooperation in overcoming problems of research and investment in this new field as in considering multiple country grids of Hydel power and natural gas imported from outside the sub-continent.

Surely India-Pakistan relations are now stable enough to pool their R&D assets to make solar energy more affordable in the minimum possible time. Economies of scale would warrant continuing cooperation in raising capital from within the region and from potential international partners for the next technological stage. At the very minimum it would avoid duplication of developmental costs.

The case for cooperation is compelling and should not suffer because of unresolved issues. Asia is undergoing an epoch making transformation and already represents an important locus of the global economy.

India leads economic growth in South Asia by a notable margin but it is by no means immune to the uncertainty lurking in several regional factors. For one thing there is the constraint represented by a very low intra-regional trade that accounts for a mere 5 percent for SAARC compared to 23 percent for ASEAN and 61 percent for the European Union. More ominously, India too faces the menace of a growing energy deficit that would make it difficult to sustain high growth rates.

Pakistan’s GDP growth rate has already slipped from 7.5 percent to less than 6 percent. India is still a fast growing economy. But in both cases the gap between energy supply and demand is widening rapidly. The demand for commercial fuels like coal, petroleum, natural gas and electricity is going up as their societies turn away from traditional sources such as fuel wood and biomass.

The International Energy Agency forecasts rapid rise in the consumption of energy in the next few years. Even without the recent phenomenal leap in oil prices, South Asia was showing considerable strain; the recent price hikes in Pakistan and Bangladesh pose dangers of social unrest as energy-driven inflation affects millions.

South Asia’s 1.5 billion people have a combined GDP that is not even 3 percent of the world’s GDP; their share of global trade is 1.2 percent. In South Asia, the installed power generation capacity (0.1 KW/capita) is six times less than the world average and thus constitutes a major constraint on development plans.

South Asia’s potential for the required increase in power generation depends on major investment and application of latest technologies in several sectors. The Hydro potential by itself is most impressive. It is 150,000 megawatts for India. For Pakistan the figure is well above 30,000, for Nepal 42,000 and for Afghanistan 23,000 MW. The sector has constraints of capital and national politics.

Coal is available in abundance. The Indian reserves are of the order of 102 billion tons while the figure for Pakistan is 1929 million short tons. India produces substantial power from coal while exploitation of Pakistani coal concentrated in the Tharparkar desert of Sindh has been delayed by controversial factors, notwithstanding the considerable Chinese investment in the pioneering work on it. The difficulties arose at the peak of the Musharraf era despite strong support for the coal option by experts like Usman Aminuddin.

The current dependence on imported oil has become costlier than ever before. Pakistan meets a mere 18 percent of its needs from domestic production. It is once again looking for the cushion of concessional imports from the Middle East. Natural gas accounts for 50 percent of Pakistan’s energy consumption. It has been particularly keen to become the corridor for gas imports from Iran, Qatar and Central Asia.

The proposed Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipe line, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan pipeline and Qatar-Pakistan link — pipeline or LNG — are the major projects that keep surfacing from time to time. India hopes to get Myanmar gas through Bangladesh.

While continuing to oppose projects involving Iran, the United States supports Hydel power supply to the sub-continent from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. India has made sizeable investment in Hydel projects in Bhutan and may do so increasingly in Nepal.

High ranking energy experts and officials from the SAARC countries and Japan recently met in a symposium on energy security under the auspices of the Institute of Strategic Studies, Islamabad. Far-reaching recommendations made by them highlighted the need for enhanced connectivity and cooperation. Delegates from the smaller states stressed the need for a South Asian energy ring.

The Islamabad symposium also underlined the need to ensure availability of energy to all the regions and social classes; future access to energy should alleviate poverty not aggravate existing disparities. The Japanese experts identified conservation as a priority area where Japan could provide substantial assistance.

When it came to nuclear power, it was generally felt that India could add substantial quantities to the national energy pool particularly if its proposed agreement for cooperation with the United States goes through while the share of nuclear power generation in other South Asian countries would remain low for a long time.

Pakistan at the moment has only 2.3 percent of its needs met by nuclear sources. One point on which experts seem to readily agree was the obligation of South Asian states to address the energy issues on a collaborative basis without any further loss of time. The buzz word at this exciting seminar was connectivity.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Source: The Daily Times, 4/7/2008

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