Access to clean, reliable and modern sources of energy is critical for achieving the targeted economic growth and development in a country. Without access to modern energy, it is not possible to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, the seventeen-point global agenda adopted by the United Nations – as energy is linked to virtually all the objectives associated with sustainable development.
Vision 2025, formulated by the Ministry of Planning, Development and Reforms of Pakistan, recognized the importance of energy access; Pillar IV of Vision 2025 aims to ensure uninterrupted access to affordable and clean energy for all sections of the country’s population. However, Pakistan is yet to achieve its access goal, as the national average electrification rate is 68%. More than 80% are in rural areas, where a World Bank survey found that 30 to 45% of households use kerosene as a primary or secondary source of lighting. According to the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) State of Industry Report 2016, more than 32,000 villages in the country continue to remain without access to the electricity grid, forcing the residents to use traditional sources of energy, including firewood, kerosene and diesel, for meeting their lighting, heating and cooking needs. For most of these villages, sparsely distributed population and remote location makes expansion of the electricity grid financially unviable. Among the provinces, Sindh has the highest number (13,541) of un-electrified villages, followed by Punjab (7,432), KPK (5,927) and Balochistan (5,802). On the other hand, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan have more than 90% electrification.
Access to gas is even lower as only 20% of the households in the country have gas connections. Due to the capital cost of laying gas pipelines in the mountainous terrain, both AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan do not yet have a piped gas network and have to rely on either expensive liquid petroleum gas (LPG) cylinders (transported from down-country) or burning of firewood for fulfilling their heating and cooking requirements. This poses not only health hazards for the residents but also environmental problems in the region. The direct effect of collection of firewood and construction timber without forest management or adequate re-plantation has caused the tree cover in the mountain areas to become less dense.
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Access to Electricity and Gas Network across the Country
It is important to recognize that connection to the grid does not equate to availability of electricity. Majority of the villages, which are officially listed as electrified continue to experience 12-16 hours of blackouts, thus, being forced to spend more than half of the day without electricity. According to the survey conducted by IFC Lighting Pakistan program, 71% of the country’s population (144 million people) has either no access to electricity or experience more than 12 hours of blackouts.
Distributed Generation in Off-Grid Areas
In areas such as these, it would make economic and financial sense to set up decentralized plants near the load centers directly supplying electricity to the consumers. With the advancement in technology and reduction in per unit price of solar and wind technologies, setting up off-grid plants will cost less than what would be required to expand electricity network to remote areas.
Renewable resources that are technologically viable and have prospects to be exploited commercially in Pakistan include wind, solar, micro-hydel, biomass and biogas. Pakistan can benefit from these resources by supplementing the existing energy resources as well as using these as primary energy source when no other option is available.
Pakistan is among those countries in which the sun warms the surface throughout the year. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) mapping of Direct Solar Radiation in Pakistan shows highest values in southwest Pakistan, gradually decreasing to the north and northeast of the country with minimum in the Himalayan Mountains.
Given the excellent solar irradiance throughout Pakistan, particularly in the south where connectivity to gas and electricity network is the lowest, solarization of homes, schools, hospitals, community buildings and government offices eliminates the need to expand the grid to these areas while serving as a relatively reliable source of electricity.
On Going Off-Grid Solar Projects
I. Distribution of basic solar products to low-income households: The provincial governments are providing 200-Watt panels, to power three to four LED lights, a pedestal and a ceiling fan and a couple of mobile charging slots.
While some governments are offering these at a subsidy, others are handing them out for free, which isn’t sustainable in the long term. Some or all of the payment by the beneficiaries is necessary to mobilize additional funding for the program and to ensure that the recipients use the products cautiously.
II. Solarization of un-electrified primary schools and basic health units in rural areas: The project offers basic utility of electricity to those primary schools in rural areas which do not have access to grid electricity. The schools will have a standalone solar system with a battery backup to power six LED lights and two fans. Moreover, emergency equipment in the basic health units will be electrified through solar energy due to which electricity would be available in these health units during day and night ensuring that patients aren’t denied emergency health facilities due to lack of electricity.
III. Distribution of Solar Products by NGOs and Energy Service Companies in off-grid areas: A number of NGOs and for profit energy servicing companies are working effectively in unserved and underserved areas to install PV units. The solar charging lights and mobile chargers for households are particularly of major interest. Some of these companies have adopted pay-as-you-go schemes for dissemination of solar products among consumers providing them more flexibility with payments and use.
Pakistan has more than 60,000 MW of hydropower potential, almost all of which lies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (24,736 MW), Gilgit-Baltistan (21,725 MW), Azad Jammu & Kashmir (6,450MW) and Punjab (7,291MW). About 89% of this hydropower potential is still untapped and yet to be exploited.
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In Northern Areas, hydel power is the primary source of electricity. There are hundreds of sites in the region for development of micro-hydel stations. These stations are owned and operated by the communities they serve, with any maintenance carried out by skilled members of that community. Thus, they provide employment in themselves, as well as providing the power to re-energize entire communities.
In addition to the provincial governments setting up run-of-the-river hydel stations in their respective areas, development organizations such as the Agha Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), Haashar and Sarhad Rural Support Program (SRSP) have installed micro, mini and pico hydels in KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan, powering communities and creating employment opportunities.
Biogas is a particularly suitable fuel for rural areas that are not connected to the gas network. In these areas it provides the residents with an environmentally friendly alternative compared to LPG, coal, diesel or kerosene. In rural areas, materials that can be fed into a biogas digester are mostly readily and locally available: agricultural residues, manure, crops, etc. Furthermore, waste from landfills or sewer treatment facilities can be used as input materials.
As an agricultural based economy, biomass is readily available in most areas of Pakistan particularly rural areas – suffering most from the non-availability of energy. Pakistan has approximately 50 million animals for agricultural and livestock related activities. On average, the daily waste produced from a cow, bullock or bull is around 10kg. Even if 50% of this can be collected for fuel, it amounts to 150 million kgs translating into around 12 million cubic meters of biogas.
The National Rural Support Program (NRSP) has installed biogas plants in villages across the country allowing nearby households to use a cleaner and readily available source of energy to fulfill heating and cooking requirements.
Just as villages that never saw the expensive telephone network jumped straight to mobile phones, improving economics of decentralized generation technologies offer the chance for them to leapfrog the electric grid. Even though the amount of power made available through these off-grid systems is lower and quite basic, they allow the beneficiaries to shift from traditional to modern lighting systems. This transition can stimulate employment and development opportunities in the region as community members can benefit from the power provided to schools, hospitals, water-supply systems and communication facilities.
Saadia Qayyum is a public policy graduate from Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She has over four years of experience in the energy sector of Pakistan and is presently working on issues of energy access and energy efficiency with UNDP Pakistan. She has consulted for USAID where she advised Ministry of Water and Power, Planning Commission and National Transmission and Despatch Company on energy reforms.