The impending energy crisis

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By Raashid Wali Janjua

Without electricity the air would rot — Ralph Waldo Emerson

The above quote embodies a raw truth that drives economies and societies in this post-industrial era. An era where nothing functions without electricity. Fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas plus renewables like solar, wind, biogases, and hydel energy form part of our national energy mix that fuels our power generation. Along with nuclear power plants, the above feature as the main power generating sources for the country. Cheap electric power is the veritable engine of economic growth of any country, and it is dependent on the right mix of power generation sources with primary reliance on indigenous resources. Expensive electricity jacks up the input costs of most of our industrial products, rendering our exports uncompetitive in the international market; a fact poignantly obvious by our plummeting exports and dwindling industrial imprint.

Countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka have overtaken us in export volume and industrial productivity. The above has been made possible due to bad planning, a cloyingly high tax regime, and lack of exploitation of indigenous resources for power generation.

The lemming like suicidal tendency of an overpopulated and water scarce country in the throes of economic insolvency is inscrutable indeed, when one views the ever increasing poverty and declining human development indicators. A water abundant country at independence having over 5000 cubic meters per capita of water is now a water stressed country with less than 1000 cubic meters per capita. Pakistan, which depends on gas for 50 percent of its power generation has not been able to significantly add to its depleting natural gas resources; whose current reserve replacement ratio is less than 26 percent. The country’s gas supply-demand has reached two billion cubic feet per day, with no significant additions to the national natural gas infrastructure despite the issuance of 96 gas exploration licenses and 90 finds over the last three years. The reduction in the gas volumes by five percent per annum shall reduce our gas availability to three billion cubic feet per day by the year 2022. Unfortunately this gas is being filled by costly imported LNG, which as a consequence of rising oil prices, is going to prove exorbitantly costly in the future. To bridge the power gap, the only sensible initiative by the present government, in addition to hydel dams in collaboration with the Chinese companies, has been the initiation of coal fired power projects based on indigenous Thar coal.

The country’s gas supply-demand has reached 2 billion cubic feet per day, with no significant additions to the national natural gas infrastructure despite the issuance of 96 gas exploration licenses and 90 finds over the last three years

An indication of costly power generation is given by a study conducted by the American Council for the Renewable Energy (ACORE) according to which the costs of LNG, coal, nuclear, wind, natural gas, and hydropower are 12-14, 5-6, 9.5, 6, 6, and 2 cents per KwH respectively. Despite being blessed with a proven hydel potential of 41,722 megawatts, Pakistan has exploited only 6,595 megawatts so far. In case of wind power, Pakistan has been blessed with a wind corridor with a 50,000 megawatt potential, out of which less than 2.5percent has been exploited so far. As per the latest reports, the percentage share of the thermal power generation has gone up to 67 percent in the national energy mix. The RLNG lobby obviously managed to convince the policy makers to elbow out solar and wind energy to the margins, albeit temporarily as the country cannot go against the international energy trends where solar, wind, and hydropower are gaining ground due to environmental and economic reasons. Our anachronistic policy making, which still encourages costly LNG power generation in addition to keeping alive unproductive and costly public sector ‘Generation Companies’, (GENCOs) makes no sense.

The real reason we are not building big dams and promoting wind and solar energy do not reside in the realm of economic logic but political expediencies. It is time we overcame political bulwarks in the way of large hydel projects like Kalabagh Dam. Such pointless games are imperilling our food and energy security. The country will definitely face a water and energy shortage in the future unless we build both small and big dams for irrigation as well as power generation. It is time those who understood hydrology, economy, and environment took the lead role in policy formulation to mitigate the risk of the impending water and energy crisis. A fallacy that has been peddled by vested interests also needs to be exposed. This fallacy pertains to the need and relevance of big dams. Visionless particularists with narrow political interests and limited technical knowledge speak day in and day out about the irrelevance of big dams due to large potential for small dams all over the country. Little do these visionless bigots understand that small dams could never replace big dams, whose power generation and irrigation potential could never be rivalled by any number of small dams.

The country badly needs dams and an efficient irrigation infrastructure capable of limiting seepage losses, in view of impending water shortages in the near future. If India can make 43000 dams, in this very neighbourhood, what stops us from emulating them? Unfortunately it seems we only want to match our Eastern neighbour when it comes to missiles and other weapons. Pakistan needs to initiate the required planning measures urgently. There is an emergent need to define a national energy vision for the next 5 to ten years. A ‘National Energy Mix’ needs to be planned in the light of economic and environmental imperatives relying on cleaner, cheaper and indigenously available resources. The share of costly thermal power should be minimized in the new national energy mix, with a lion’s share going to hydropower, solar, wind, and indigenous coal based power sources. A national power resources and infrastructure development authority should be created, recentralising WAPDA’s powers, unhindered by pressure from the World Bank and IMF.

The reconstituted WAPDA invested with the powers to develop electricity evacuation grid and big dams should take the lead role in this national endeavour. WAPDA’s project development and electricity grid development capability as the lead role player should act as a strategic enabler for the public-private partnerships in the power sector, in addition to purely private investments. The privatisation of DISCOs should be put on hold for the next ten years and WAPDA empowered again to oversee their operation.

The strategic and operational synergies thus created between all elements of the national power matrix i.e. power generation, evacuation, distribution, and maintenance should enable execution of new and existing projects with celerity. It is time we reconstituted our national energy mix, developed new projects relying on renewables, provided favourable conditions to private investors, and minimized the imprint of costly imported fuels as energy sources.

Pakistan’s energy woes cannot be resolved through half-hearted and piecemeal solutions pandering to the wishes of lobbies with axes to grind and nests to feather. Our energy woes can only be addressed through a holistic policy architecture under a fully empowered authority capable of implementing policy vision in near and distant time horizons. The elusive political consensus on the big dams would need to be achieved, regardless of the political noise it generates. Some things cannot wait to be happened; our energy jinx would have to be broken even at the cost of national consensus in the interest of national survival.

The writer is a PhD scholar at NUST;