AIR CDRE (RETD) AZFAR A KHAN
Pakistan is facing the worst ever crisis of electricity shortage these days. It’s becoming extremely difficult for a common citizen to pay off his/her monthly electricity bills. The bills keep soaring day by day and there seems to be no respite in the foreseeable future.
The electricity generated through the fossil fuel is very costly as its cost is linked to the cost of imported fuel. We are spending a hefty amount ($11 billion plus) on the import of oil annually to meet the country’s oil requirements. Hence, there’s a need to resort to other forms of generation of electricity, solar being one of them.
This article dwells on the discussion regarding production of cheap solar panels/cells in Pakistan; the problems that are holding up things, the status of our industry, why industry is not sensitised to do things, current market situation and suggestions to resolve these problems.
One thing that must be stated right at the outset is that generally it’s presumed that solar energy is an expensive form of energy which is beyond the reach of the common man and it’s rightly so. The next question that comes to one’s mind is: How to reduce this cost? In Pakistan’s environment, it’s very much possible as we have all the plus points at our disposal. The only thing is that we should be able to exploit them. The strategy is given in the succeeding paragraphs.
Let’s say that the government decides to venture in a big way in this form of energy. It wants to see solar panels mounted at the roof of each and every house of the country’s urban and rural areas. It simply means that we would be requiring solar panels not in thousands but in millions or rather in hundreds of millions! Each solar panel utilises 100-200 solar cells which are pasted on the panel that is made of glass, generally 2 ft x 5 ft in dimensions.
Presently, a solar cell costs more than Rs 1000 if imported from abroad. Just imagine how much budget we would need to go ahead with this project! Naturally, such a huge number of solar cells can’t be imported from abroad as they would be prohibitively costly.
These cells are costly because they are being manufactured by manpower that is hired by the manufacturing companies @ $45 per hour! Hence, the best option would be to manufacture solar cells in the country. But, would their manufacture really bring the cost down. The answer to this question is a big YES! See how? To manufacture solar cells in the country, we have three requirements: raw material, machinery with necessary infrastructure and trained manpower.
RAW MATERIAL As far as raw material is concerned, there are two types of raw materials used in the manufacture of solar cells, one is quartz and the other silica. Quartz is available in abundance in the northern areas of our country. People of the northern areas are raising walls of their houses utilising this raw material in place of bricks.
The other raw material silica is available in our rivers and many other places. Our bulb manufacturing companies, three of them being in the NWFP, are already using this raw material for decades. So, to venture into manufacturing of solar cells, both types of raw material is available in the country.
MACHINERY AND NECESSARY INFRASTRUCTURE But, the availability of this raw material alone would be of no consequence unless we have necessary infrastructure with arrangements for its purification, development and finally conversion to solar cells. For this purpose, we’ll have to import necessary machinery from abroad. But, it would be a one-time investment only.
TRAINED MANPOWER Regarding manpower, I have no reservations in making a statement here that we have the finest and the most hard-working, skilled manpower. From my personal experience spanning over a period of 31 years, I could say with conviction that the retired personnel of the defence services who have been working on sophisticated electronics and telecommunication equipment during their service careers (preferably in the Air Force) would be the best choice for deployment on the manufacture of solar cells.
These people are highly skilled and disciplined and get retired at an early age. Shaheen Foundation, Islamabad maintains an up-to-date computerised record of such personnel who are just a telephone call away. The expertise of these people is not less than any technician deployed in the western countries for such jobs.
The only difference is that a European worker of such calibre gets US $45 per hour whereas a Pakistani worker, if he is paid $5 per hour in his own country would be the happiest man around. While starting manufacturing of solar cells, it would be advisable if we do it in collaboration with a world-renowned company as India has done in the case of wind turbines.
It had a joint venture for the manufacture of wind turbines with a company that has 26000 wind turbines to its credit! This company has a name in wind industry and its wind turbines are being used the world over! This way, we can also join hands with a world-renowned solar systems manufacturing company. We would be able to lay our hands on the latest technology in the field of solar energy and our manpower would also be trained through short orientation courses as they already possess sound knowledge and strong technical base.
By deploying our local manpower we would already be saving $40 per person per hour which would drastically reduce the cost of manufacture of solar cells. Further reduction would be effected through raw material which’s available at a throw-away price. This way, the “prohibitively costly” solar panels employing locally produced solar cells would come within the reach of the common man. The energy crisis would thus be a history of the past.
THE PROBLEMS THAT ARE HOLDING UP THINGS In Pakistan, the main problem for solar energy not taking off is the absence of commitment from the government. Once, the government shows its commitment, things would be quite different. Next is absence of awareness among the general masses. This awareness wouldn’t come on its own. It has to be created. The country’s TV channels could divert some time for the propagation of the need for solar energy among the masses.
Similarly, the newspapers and radios can play their role in creating awareness. Another thing; if some businessman, through his innovative thinking and foresight establishes a factory to manufacture solar panels, he’s not patted at his back.
It looks as if he has committed a sin! If there’s a contract to be awarded for mounting solar panels on the rooftops of the houses of a village, then this businessman is not given preference over those who import these panels from abroad and do the job. It’s really pathetic!
THE STATUS OF THE INDUSTRY Presently, there’s one and the only one factory manufacturing solar panels in Pakistan which’s located at Hattar Industrial Area near Taxila, 1-1/2 hours drive from Islamabad. But, it’s producing solar panels only. Though, it has plans to manufacture solar cells as well, yet it’s not possible for the company at present due to the huge cost involved.
It could be done through public-private partnership. The government must help the company financially to set up the required facilities. The infrastructure is already available. It has taken us decades and we’re still engrossed in thinking mode. Let’s come out of this inertia and do something practical!
THE OFFICIAL POLICIES Is there really any official policy in this regard? I very much doubt! Why? Because, had there been any official policy, then it would have trickled down to the people and made attractive for the businessmen.
THE CURRENT MARKET Due to absence of government’s commitment, the market for this form of energy hasn’t taken off. People are also unaware of this alternate source of energy. They want to do away with their dependence on the existing source of energy ie utilising fossil fuel. If the solar cells are made cheaper, this industry is bound to take off.
THE TARIFF RATES There should be no tariff on various products of solar energy as only then the investors would come forward and invest. Rather, fabulous benefits should be given to the investors.
HOW DO WE RESOLVE PROBLEMS?
THE PROBLEM COULD BE RESOLVED IN THE FOLLOWING WAYS:-
— AEDB should be made more effective. They say: “Seeing is believing.” So, their progress must be seen and felt by everybody.
— Cheap solar cells should be manufactured in Pakistan.
— More factories should be installed for manufacturing solar panels in the country.
WHY INDUSTRY IS NOT INSENSITISED TO DO THINGS?The industry is insensitive to the production of this form of energy due to the high cost involved. But then somebody should answer my question too: If the cost is really that high, then how Nevarra is coping up with this high cost? It’s meeting 70 % of its energy needs through solar and wind energy despite the fact that it doesn’t have that much sunlight as we have!
The authorities in Nevarra must have taken some tangible measures to bring the cost down, out of which, one could be the manufacture of solar panels including solar cells in country. If the use of solar energy was that costly, then Nevarra would have abandoned this initiative long ago.
To conclude, it can be said that solar energy is one of the most viable options for Pakistan. Even countries with less sunlight are making best use of this free resource (sunlight). We, in Pakistan, aren’t short of sunlight as sun shines on the entire length and breadth of the country throughout the year. We can make use of this inexhaustible resource and contribute towards meeting the shortfall of electricity.
If we don’t do it now, then it would be just a matter of time when oil would be touching $200 a barrel and the World Bank would be pressing us hard to increase the electricity price by the same ratio. At that time, we would be left with no option but to grab every opportunity to generate electricity from any available source, what-so-ever!
We should opt for the manufacture of solar panels, including solar cells in the country, for which, we should establish not one but several factories for the same. We have unimaginable quantities of raw material at our disposal and our manpower is second to none.
With the availability of abundant raw material at throw-away price and the cheapest yet highly skilled technical manpower, the profits that would be accrued is mind boggling!, It’s said that if enough solar panels using indigenous solar cell are installed and energy efficiencies are ensured, the home owners can receive a zero power bill!
Courtesy: Business Recorder