By Air Commodore (R) Khalid Iqbal

Power blackout in PakistanLast week a chaotic situation was created when almost entire country plunged into darkness due to sudden breakdown in power supply that took more than 36 hours to restore fully, with some cities without power for more than 14 hours.  It is alarming that despite the fall-back systems and procedures, domino effect could not be arrested and it took inordinate time to fix the fault. Other countries, too, have had similar problems but they were able to restore normalcy within a couple of hours.

Pakistan’s energy generation capacity is over 23000 MW which far exceeds the peak summer demand of electricity. It is interesting to note that Pakistan is a power surplus country and not a power deficit country! What Pakistan needs is not just more electricity, but essentially cheap electricity. Electricity shortage crisis is thrown up by a lopsided energy mix, tilted towards thermal generation and, there too, usage of expensive fuel—furnace oil. Factors further accentuating the problem are: inefficient machines— especially boilers in the thermal sector; governance issues, exorbitant line losses and theft etc. Lack of public awareness for resource conservation further worsens the situation.

At macro level there is absence of a single focal personal— the national energy manager. At least seven entities have something to go with electricity generation; of these some work at cross-purposes by default and some by design. Neither we are short on resources, nor is the generation capacity below par. The underlying issue is that the government cannot generate electricity due to non-availability of funds. Funds can only be generated by controlling line losses/ theft of electricity and by activating effective revenue collection mechanism.

Governance related issues result in non-recovery of bills of the tune of Rs 120 billion per year. So far none of the power distribution companies have invoked the Electricity Act 1910, to recover the outstanding dues from the defaulters. Moreover, a major portion of theft (about 50%) is being covered under the garb of line losses.

Line losses are scaling unacceptable heights. Overall line losses during 2010-11 were 20.6 per cent, resulting in wastage of around 16 billion units as compared to 15.5 billion units a year earlier. Estimated quantum of line losses is around Rs 160 billion per annum. In Sukkur, Larkana and Peshawar regions, the line losses are around 38 per cent, highest in the world.  KESC posts 36-38 per cent and Hyderabad about 22 per cent. As regards theft, in the jurisdiction of Peshawar Electric Supply Company, theft ratio stands at 30 percent, in Hyderabad Electric Supply Company it is 19 percent, Sukkur Electric Power Company posts 25 percent, Quetta Electric Power Company reports 22 percent, whereas in the whole of Punjab average electricity theft is between two to three percent.

Though the problem is manifold, more significant factor is the shift in the energy mix. In the 1980s, country’s electricity generation relied on a fuel mix of approximately 60:40 in favour of hydropower versus thermal. This changed over the following decades; by 2010, the fuel mix was 30 per cent hydropower and almost 70 per cent thermal. According to a recent World Bank report, oil now accounts for nearly 40 per cent of electricity generation with gas and hydropower at 29 per cent each: remaining 2 percent is generated by nuclear power plants.

Pakistan needs to reverse the trend in the energy mix back in favour of either hydropower, or the next cheaper alternative fuels, which are nuclear, gas and coal. Pakistan has huge coal reserves; indeed the fourth largest in the world. However, in our energy mix, share of coal power is only 7% as compared to world average of 40%. Coal is one of the major sources for producing cheaper electricity; per unit cost is around Rs 4 per Kwh.  Government has now decided to enhance the share of coal in the overall energy mix up to 18% by 2030. A beginning has been made by taking a policy decision to convert 4200 MW output from existing thermal power plants to coal under a medium term program. But it’s too little, too late. Government incentives for evolving an overall optimal energy mix are crucial.

Core issue confronting the alternative energy solution providers is to find cheaper add-ons to reconfigure the energy mix for managing power generation at affordable price; a task easier said than done. Paradoxically, most of the vendors presenting such solutions end-up focusing on production side rather than the cost. All endeavours at finding alternative means of power generations must therefore be examined in the context of economy of scales, efficiency of machines & materials, environmental impact and implementation of best managerial practices to slash per Kwh cost for the end user. An alternative energy should be continuously available as well as cost effective. Contemporary alternative energy research trends to focus on: solar, wind, Ethanol Bio fuels, other Bio-fuels, geothermal energy, Hydrogen and Algae fuels, Biomass briquettes, Biogas digestion, Biological Hydrogen production, floating wind farms etc.

Hydro-generated electricity is the cheapest, it does not consume water.  Some of the projects are under development; some cannot be taken up due to lack of national consensus. One of the most un-tapped water resources is flood water. During super floods of 2010, an equivalent of five times the envisioned reservoir of Kalabagh dam was wasted down into Arabian sea due to  lack of adequate storage arrangements.

Next economical way of power generation is nuclear; per unit cost becomes quite cheap if the power plant capacity is 1000 MW or more.  Here, the issue is of getting around the restrictions in the context of Pakistan’s access to civilian nuclear technology and to have assured supply of reactor grade fuel. Pakistan has requisite knowhow and expertise of managing nuclear fuel cycle. Pakistan needs to consider the option of fabricating its own nuclear power plants. Over 40 years experience of safely operating the nuclear power plants makes another good argument for this approach.

Studies reveal that Pakistan has a huge potential for renewable energy as well. In selected wind corridors, 40,000-50,000 MW electricity can be generated. Pakistan’s current installed capacity is 50 MW.  Pakistan is an extremely sunny country and the solar energy can be utilized for the fulfilment of energy requirements of the country. For example, if 0.25% of Balochistan is covered with solar panels with an efficiency of 20%, enough electricity would be generated to cater for the entire demand of the country. The use of solar energy is environment friendly and helps reduce deforestation. However, solar means of power production are infrastructure heavy and the production cost is on the higher side, around Rs 14.40 per Kwh.

Alongside wind, solar power generation suffers from inherent weakness: both are not continuous, and  require heavy duty batteries for storing the electricity for lean or no power periods.  Pace of R&D in these domains indicate that technical solution would be available in 3-5 years time frame to address the continuity problem; and mass production would result in lower production costs.

In the overall context, there is a need to formulate a long term national strategy to achieve an optimum energy mix that could assure continuous availability of sufficient electricity at an affordable price. Long term solution lies in hydro, coal and nuclear power as major sources.

Writer is Consultant, Policy & Strategic Response, IPRI.