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Energy mix: Despite multiple options, Pakistan should not give up on hydel

Energy from coal

Thar coal, where Pakistan has the 7th largest deposits of lignite coal in the world, is by most accounts the short- or medium-term solution to Pakistan’s energy problems. It may not be the best quality coal, but if treated before use, can prove to be a sustained and long-term source of electricity generation for decades, maybe more.

However, while in our current crisis situation, akin to a drowning man clutching at straws, coal-based power generation does seem to be a very attractive and economically viable option, it does come with its own baggage and set of problems that will have to be dealt with.

The most obvious factor is pollution and the effect this will have on the environment. One of the primary issues with the kind of coal that Pakistan has in Thar is its high sulphur content. So the ideal solution would be to import coal, mix it with local coal to find an environmentally less damaging blend and then use that. We have to understand that we will not be able to consider coal-based generation completely home-grown power.

The other issue with coal is the geographical footprint. It is generally the argument that most people and environmental activists make with footprint of large dams for generating hydropower which is usually followed by relocation of entire communities.

The issue with Thar coal is in some ways similar. For example, about 20,000 acres of land will be utilised for the first phase of open-pit mining. And subsequent tranches of land of similar size will need to be acquired as the project grows. While the area that eventually runs out of coal will be once again utilised for population, this will need good management to ensure minimal issues for the local communities.

Hydel energy

This is Pakistan’s holy grail. This is without a doubt the single most important natural resource that we have and we would be very unwise, no, we would be stupid to ignore it.

The benefits of tapping hydro are manifold. We get hydropower, which is still the cheapest form of electricity, once the initial cost has been recovered. We get water storage for irrigation and drinking. We get flood control. Now, it is not possible for a single dam to perform all three functions simultaneously, but the potential is obvious.

If you think that the 50,000MW potential of wind energy is huge, you need to know that the potential from hydro is at least 60,000MW, (according to the Private Power and Infrastructure Board) most of this from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan.

But this is where the picture stops looking bright and becomes depressing. The total installed capacity of hydropower in Pakistan is just 6,800MW. And no new mega hydropower projects have been commissioned since the Ghazi Barotha project in 1985.

According to the report by Engro Corporation, most of the projects said to be in progress exist on paper only. According to Wapda and the PPIB, projects with a total generation capacity of over 50,000MW are ‘in progress’. Private sector analysts say that many of these will never see even their ground-breaking.

The biggest hurdle is lack of political will and consensus. The second hurdle is finances, considering Pakistan’s dwindling ability to attract foreign investors because of the security situation. The third hurdle is the water dispute with India which constantly crops up. This is why out of a total of 142 projects in K-P only 19 are in operation and only 27 under implementation. In Punjab, out of 296 projects only 8 are in operation and 38 under implementation, according to data compiled in Engro’s report on energy.

I cannot term this as anything less than criminal for a country with an energy crisis like Pakistan is going through.

Nuclear energy

It’s clean, it has a small geographical footprint, and it is one of the most popular sources of power generation in the world. But it is also very scary and has attached horror stories ranging from Chernobyl to Fukushima which make most people cringe when they think of nuclear power.

But there are few other options which bring about the kind of long-term energy supply security like nuclear. And what makes it even more attractive is the fact that it competes with electricity generated with gas-based power plants.

Nuclear power remains the preferred choice of power generation in many of the countries in the world including Japan (18% of total power generation), France (74%), Belgium (51%), and the US (19%).

Apart from the already mentioned risk of a catastrophe in case of an accident, the other deterrents to nuclear power are the very high initial cost, the very long gestation period and most of all, the foreign pressure that the country will have to bear if it tries to go nuclear.

While it may be impractical, or diplomatically and financially impossible for Pakistan to generate a significant chunk of its electricity using nuclear, the current scenario where with a total installed capacity of 755MW, nuclear power contributes a dismal 1% to the total energy supply of Pakistan, which is also unacceptable. But it is certainly an area that Pakistan should pay attention to, especially in areas of Punjab which are not on a fault line.

Wind energy

The country is also blessed with a large wind corridor. According to wind data collected by the Pakistan Met Department, the Gharo-Keti Bandar wind corridor is 60 kilometres wide and about 180 kilometres long. This corridor has the potential to generate 50,000 megawatts of electricity.

The obvious advantage of wind energy is that it can be utilised to electrify remote villages and communities which are currently off the national grid. This can save on the cost of laying high tension wires and transmitting electricity over long distances. This is especially useful in Sindh and Balochistan and considering the current limitations in the interconnection capacity of the existing HESCO and NTDC network.

A recent report on the country’s energy situation by Engro Corporation finds that the current system (for supply to HESCO) is adequate to cater for the initial 600 megawatts of wind power generation in Jhimpir and an upgradation to a 22 KVA network will be required to absorb further generation

But the upfront wind power tariff also continues to be a bit of a deterrent. The tariff which has been approved is 13 cents per kilowatt hour. While this is already more expensive than gas or coal-based power generation, the report by Engro Corporation suggests that this may not be enough to encourage investment and should be raised to 16 cents.

So it is clear that wind power, while clean, and green, will be expensive and will ideally cost about 16 cents per kilowatt hour. And it too has a huge geographical footprint. Hundreds of thousands of acres of land will be required to achieve the full potential of this energy resource.

The idea of putting up wind mills in the sea, is of course an option, but that won’t be cheap either.

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