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Moving beyond rhetoric

By Adeel Ghayur 

The energy crisis is one of the biggest threats to the economic and political stability of the country. It needs to be tackled on a priority basis. What could be done to tackle it in the short and medium term horizons? What indigenous resources could be utilised to achieve energy self-sufficiency? The answer lies in the capitalisation of commercially viable resources.

Fortunately, Pakistan has enormous indigenous resources for energy production. The need, however, is to develop an integrated approach with a synergetic outcome to obtain maximal benefits that each resource has to offer. Both mega and small power projects, in view of hydro, solar, biofuels, coal and wind offer an energy mix that holds the best potential for power generation and should be carefully tapped.

We receive one of the world’s highest solar irradiation per square metre, which is ideal for solar thermal power plants. Solar thermal technologies use the sun’s heat energy to produce steam for turbines’ electricity generation. Though, usually photovoltaic solar cells come to mind when solar energy is discussed, it is the solar thermal technologies that hold a greater potential for Pakistan. They are less expensive than solar cells and many parts of the plants could be manufactured locally, thus providing additional economic benefits. Over the years, numerous solar thermal technologies have reached their commercial maturity. However, parabolic troughs and dishes are tested technologies that are suitable for immediate implementation.

Another energy resource with an immense potential is biofuels. Being an agrarian economy, Pakistan has hundreds of millions of tons of annual harvest. The agricultural produce also generates wastes – much of this is wasted, burnt, left in the fields or used as mere fodder. The need is to optimise its value and turn the waste into a resource by conversion into biofuels. In essence, all biomass including wastes can be converted into biofuels. Pakistan already possesses extensive experience with small biogas plants. However, this experience could be capitalised upon to construct large biogas plants.

The country can easily generate enough biogas to overcome the electricity shortfall. Furthermore, the gas produced can also be supplied to fertiliser plants to ensure their continuous operations. With nearly 3.5 million cars running on gas, the biogas generated could also be used to keep these cars on roads, without affecting the natural gas supplies. Ethanol can also be produced from biomass but biogas is a better option because Pakistan’s climate is ideal for biogas generation and for the same amount of biomass, more biogas can be generated than ethanol.

We have vast lands that are unsuitable for agriculture because of numerous reasons, such as salinity, water scarcity, soil infertility, etc. These types of soils are ideally suited for the cultivation of biodiesel crops. Biodiesel could either be used directly in biodiesel generators for electricity production or could be treated for use in normal generators and cars.

A significant part of Pakistan’s energy mix needs to be based upon the Thar coal reserves – one of the world’s biggest coal reserves. Being low in quality, the two best options for its utilisation are gasification and fuel cells. Two routes are available for gasification: underground coal gasification and coal mining followed by normal gasification. While underground coal gasification is less expensive, it requires extensive analysis and measurements to ensure there are no adverse environmental effects. Additionally, most of the global experience with this concept is on a small scale. On the other hand, coal mining and normal gasification is a tried and tested method, which is being utilised at a large scale around the world.

Fuel cells are known as the future of the energy-based world. The time is ripe for us to introduce this technology into our national energy mix. The world is focusing on hydrogen- based fuel cells. However, due to the extensive infrastructure of natural gas and availability of abundant coal reserves at Thar, direct methane and carbon fuel cells would be more favourable technologies for us. The availability of CNG stations throughout the country also means that direct methane fuel-cell powered cars are more than feasible. Nevertheless, to truly benefit from this technology, it is important that an indigenous industry that manufactures fuel cells locally is established. With biodiesel, biogas and coal gasification, it is feasible to convert all the IPPs to biodiesel and biogas/coal gas, which would also help in minimising the circular debt issue.

Just like solar energy and biofuels, Pakistan has an enormous potential for wind energy. However, purchasing wind turbines from foreign manufacturers is costly. In addition, there is a long delay in the delivery of wind mills because of excessive demand throughout the globe. The best solution for both the issues is the development of an industrial complex in Pakistan, which is able to manufacture wind mills. This would not only reduce the capital investment required for wind power plants, but also speed up the process.

In conclusion, in our quest for an optimal energy mix we should not overlook the importance of multi-purpose mega hydropower dams. They are needed not only to overcome the energy crisis, but also to address the critical issue of water scarcity. Pakistan’s agrarian economy faces a drastic reduction in the total storage capacity of big reservoirs that coincides with the increasing population and erratic monsoon behaviour owing to climate change. Hence, we can ill-afford to ignore big reservoirs in meeting our current and future water requirements. With many mega dams requiring up to a decade for construction, the work should be started sooner than later.

It is vital that our policymakers ponder seriously about resolving the energy crisis. Of course, there is no single magic bullet. We have to come out of our mindset of seeking quick fixes and that too with eyes on windfalls and rhetoric. Due diligence and concerted efforts by all the stakeholders, focusing on an energy mix that optimally utilises the available resources, is the only way out of the current quagmire. It is doable; let us do it.

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