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The wasted solar solution

THE MOST embittering aspect of the mass misery over electricity is that the crippling shortages never had to happen.Pakistan could have adopted solar energy years ago if government priorities had focused less on protectionist privatisation and more on people. The number of solar-electrified homes inBangladesh recently numbered a million. This year, half a million more solar systems will be installed. The cost inBangladesh for a small home to run four energy-saver lights, a TV and a fan is $300 (Rs26,700), repayable in installments. Solar power systems have been installed inBangladesh’s prime minister’s office and even its central bank. Why can’tPakistan take similar steps? Pakistan’s per capita energy consumption is below half the average for developing countries, 1/8 of the world average, 1/25 of developed nations and 1/60 of the average American. InKarachialone, during the month of June this year, there is a shortfall of 600 megawatts against a demand of 1,787 megawatts. Japan, the world’s third largest economy, generates 30 per cent of its power from nuclear plants. But after an earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukishima nuclear plant, they have scrapped future nuclear reactors to plan for 10 million solar-powered homes instead. While militarily beating a bloody path to the fossil fuel fields of the world, theUSis nevertheless planning a giant solar plant in theArizonadesert to serve the country. It recently awarded two billion dollars to two solar companies.Saudi Arabiais going further, recognising that even its vast oil reserves are finite, and gearing to produce and export a full quarter of the world’s solar electricity needs. Solar system companies entered our markets a decade ago, yet progress remains sluggish. The earth receives more free energy from the sun in one hour than what the whole world uses in a year. So it’s clearly absurd to throw money after finite fossil fuels. KESC produces 55 per cent ofKarachi’s electricity and its market is spread over 6,000 square kilometres. Not only are the distribution lines old and falling apart, it is unable to meet demand or contend with theft of 40 per cent of the electricity by the kunda mafia. A basic uninterruptible power supply (UPS) unit averages Rs20,000 and a small generator costs Rs37,500, with monthly running costs of Rs1,000 and Rs6,000 respectively. A solar fan and two energy-saver lights supported by a solar panel cost Rs26,000 — the minimum need for a shop operating on direct current. Nothing could be cheaper or cleaner. Unfortunately, most people cannot afford the start-up costs. Narrowly viewing solar panels as a revenue source, the government overtaxes them at 30 per cent, thereby foolishly stifling commerce which could ultimately fetch far more revenue. A survey showed that, encouragingly, 90 per cent of shopkeepers favoured solar power. What stalled them were fears of KESC retaliating for ‘taking away its market’ (even though it simply cannot serve all of it) and disconnecting them from the grid. To derive maximum energy, solar panel brackets need be connected to tracking devices to move with the angle of the sun. This requires more space, and of course, cost. But then, it yields 40 per cent more energy. For the moment, solar systems could supplement KESC supply until independent stand-alone systems, which could avoid conflict with KESC, are affordable. But the state could catalyse the process by introducing solar power into its offices and for street lights. Those who lose the most from lack of electricity are the masses — workers dependent on running factories and offices, home-based, piece-wage women workers and other poor people who constitute the overwhelming majority. Their minimum need is a solar lamp with a panel, which costs Rs5,000. Industries, companies and contractors could assist their workers with acquiring these. If long-term loans can be extended for houses and cars, why can’t they also be extended for much smaller loans for solar systems? The government considers solar power prohibitively expensive, yet thinks nothing of pursuing multi-billion dollar dams and other white elephants.

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