Resources & Climate

Pakistan’s Energy Crisis: Beyond Hydroelectricity

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This spring, public demonstrations occurred daily across Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, as power cuts, rising temperatures, and water shortages combined to frustrate residents. Citizens have focused their anger on the Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC), which provides electricity for domestic consumers and supplies power to the Karachi Water and Sewage Board. Consequently, power shortages have also exacerbated the city’s water crisis.

Domestic instability is not isolated to Karachi. Protestors in Rawalpindi have forced markets to close and threatened to storm the Parliament House in Islamabad. Widening energy shortages have sparked similar unrest in cities like Lahore, Peshawar, and Jhang. While media attention has focused primarily on urban upheaval, the greatest sacrifices are imposed upon rural populations, where villages experience daily power cuts averaging 10 to 12 hours, compared to six to eight hours in cities.

Continued energy shortages risk further destabilizing the country’s fragile political landscape. Opposition parties have already seized upon the government’s inability to meet energy demand. In June, former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani labeled the energy crisis the nation’s top priority. Echoing the message of anti-government rallies nationwide, President Asif Ali Zardari recognized political reality in an address to members of the Pakistan People’s Party, acknowledging that, “No matter what successes we may achieve in the political field…the people will judge us by the measure of success in overcoming the power shortage and the government is fully conscious of it.” Signifying the depth of the nation’s energy predicament, the agency responsible for the nation’s power supply, the Ministry of Power and Water, reports that this spring, Pakistan was unable to meet 30 percent of domestic power demand, on average.

The power crisis is hobbling Pakistan’s economy, draining over $4 billion from the national economy every year. Over the past five years, GDP growth has averaged three percent, compared to an average five percent growth rate over the past 65 years. The Asian World Bank concluded that GDP growth was suppressed by three to four percent over the last two years due to Pakistan’s energy shortages.

To find the most sustainable energy solution, the government first must identify the cause of the current shortage. The government attributes the reduction in electricity generation to depleted water inflow volumes at the Mangla and Tarbela dams, located on the Jhelum and Indus rivers, respectively. One irrigation consultant in Punjab has described water inflows in the Indus and Jhelum as being the lowest in a decade. Hydroelectricity is currently Pakistan’s second largest energy source, yet low water levels in the rivers of the Indus basin are rendering Pakistan’s existing national energy policy inadequate. In the short term, government officials are relying on monsoonal rains to increase inflow volumes and ease power shortages. However, competing demands for scarce water resources complicate the solution. A water shortage in the Punjab and Sindh provinces is necessitating the release of any stored water for crop irrigation. Meanwhile, rising summer temperatures increase evaporation rates, and drive up electricity demand, further stressing the power grid.

The proposed long-term plan to resolve Pakistan’s energy crisis deepens reliance on hydroelectricity. The federal government recently completed an expansion of the storage and power-generating capacity of the Mangla Dam (at a cost of $1 billion). Multiple, interdependent factors will determine future river flow volumes, complicating assessments of the long-term viability of hydroelectricity within the country. Climate change models predict higher temperatures across Pakistan, which may further contribute to glacial melting, a significant source of water inflow in the Indus basin. Meanwhile, total annual rainfall will likely decrease, but greater precipitation variability is expected from year to year. The net effect of these factors is difficult to discern, as illustrated by conflicting predictions within the scientific community.

Pakistan needs to diversify its energy portfolio by increasing capacity of renewable energy sources. Investments in solar and wind energy hold great potential to bolster Pakistan’s future energy supply. The success of India’s Gujarat Solar Park, located 30 kilometers from the Pakistani border, demonstrates the potential of solar energy in South Asia. As the world’s largest solar park, the 600-MW Gujarat facility cost $600 million to construct. Within Pakistan, the province of Baluchistan is the most promising location for solar energy generation. Baluchistan has a low population density (21 persons per square kilometer), and receives an annual average solar radiation similar to Arizona. Presently, only 10 percent of villages in Baluchistan receive electricity; if solar panels with a 20 percent efficiency rating were to cover 0.25 percent of the province, enough power would be generated to supply not only Baluchistan, but the entire country, according to Pakistan’s Council of Renewable Energy Technologies.

Investors are beginning to exploit Pakistan’s abundant wind energy potential. The Jhimpir Wind Power Project, located near Karachi, is the country’s first, and will provide 50 MW of electricity at a cost of $136 million. Turbines constructed in the Ghoro-Keti Bandar corridor, a 10,200-square-kilometer tract of land along the Arabian Sea, have the potential to provide an additional 60,000 MW, an amount three times greater than the current energy demand. Companies from China, Turkey, Norway, and South Korea have already invested in wind power projects within the region. In the coming years, if Pakistan redirects investment away from new hydroelectric infrastructure, and pursues rapid, accountable growth in the renewable energy sector, the country can make significant strides in developing a sustainable and economically sound energy portfolio.

Photo Credit: Groundreporter via Flickr,[email protected]/7309322200/

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