Germany is the world leader in terms of the total megawatts of electricity produced by using solar technology. A couple of years ago the German government provided an incentive to the citizens to produce electricity from renewable sources in their homes and sell excess units to it or get them adjusted against the bills they received for using conventional electricity.
Called "feed-in tariff", this concept was introduced to promote the use of cleaner technologies to meet energy needs of the country and also cut on the cost of production and maintenance in the long run. Within two years, 14,000 megawatts of electricity was added to the system. People would switch on the solar systems they had installed before leaving for work or going to schools or colleges. By the time they returned sufficient energy would had been produced and diverted to the grid.
It is interesting to note that this capacity added over a brief period of two years is almost equal to the total energy demand of Pakistan. This leads to the question as to why a country like Pakistan which is facing a severe energy crisis cannot try a similar option and come out of the dilemma it faces. Are the policymakers sitting on top not wise enough to gauge the potential or is it the powerful lobbies and mafias used to receiving kick-backs who become a hurdle in the launch of such initiatives in Pakistan?
The fact that supply of electricity produced through solar technology is regular, does not depend on costly transmission networks and above all that is free of cost makes it a preferred choice for many. However, the only impediment is the initial cost of setting up a solar energy system both at the domestic and project level which is a bit high.
Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental law practitioner and strong advocate of use of renewable energy, tells TNS that cost of initial installation may be a bit high but the cost benefits are too many. Secondly, he says, Pakistan can do well in this field keeping in view the fact that exposure to sunlight here is far more than what Germany enjoys and the days are much longer here on the average.
Pakistan receives about 1,500 to 3,000 sunshine hours a year which makes solar energy an excellent solution to the country’s energy crisis. In this context, the government of Punjab plans to address the problem partially by distributing 90,000 solar panels in rural areas. The same government distributed solar lanterns to students so that they can study even when there is no electricity and it’s dark around them.
Similarly, the Sindh government has worked out that it receives sunshine duration of 8 to 8.5 hours a day which can provide it enough energy to electrify 40,000 villages. It also has plans to use solar-powered tube-wells and pumping machines to extract underground water and reclaim land in water-logged and salinity-hit areas.
The government of Pakistan has taken a landmark initiative with the launch of solar technology park which will initially produce 100 MW electricity but have the potential to produce 1000 MW in future. The electricity produced here will be added to the system.
So, it is established that solar energy is the future. In this context, one has to see whether the country has an enabling environment where this technology can flourish. For example, are there enough technician and engineers who can cater to the ever-increasing demand for solar energy solutions and provide technical assistance where needed.
A look at the existing pool of solar energy solution providers shows that many of them are self-taught professionals. However, a positive development is that the governments are launching vocational courses in this trade. The example of Punjab Vocational Training Council (PVTC) is quite relevant here. The council, which works under the Punjab government, has the support of German government through its agency GIZ in imparting solar technology skills to the youth of the province.
"We are fortunate to have the support of Germany which leads the world in terms of solar power production," says PVTC chairman Faisal Ijaz Khan while talking to TNS. He says initially the GIZ had awarded them a project on training people on solar cell manufacturing but it could not be launched due to the fast changing dynamics of the trade. Today, he said, manual manufacturing of solar cells is no more feasible and there is no scope in the job market for those who have this skill.
On the other hand, he says, PVTC did not abandon the project and asked the donors to redesign it. Under the redesigned project, he says 58 Vocational Training Institutes (VTIs) of PVTC will be turned green and converted to solar energy. Later on around 4,000 students would be trained in the field of solar technology. He says the quality of training would definitely be high as the curriculum would be designed with the assistance of GIZ.
Muhammad Ramzan, proprietor of Prime Corporation, a solar power service provider, foresees phenomenal growth in the use of solar energy in the country. He says it is the most suitable solution in villages which are not on the national grid. His point is that installation of solar plants is much cheaper than laying conventional transmission lines at these places and then maintaining them.
Global donors have also prioritised solar power projects in their plans of action and funded electrification of off-grid villages. For example, there is a village near Kot Addu, Muzaffarabad, which was badly affected by floods in 2010. In a bid to rebuild their lives, Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF) electrified the village which uses solar energy as primary source of electricity.
Ramzan says people are fast turning to solar tube-wells, solar geysers, solar lights, solar fans and even solar air-conditioners. Besides, there are gadgets like solar mobile phone and laptop chargers, solar lanterns, mobile magic boxes which provide power to people. These gadgets have revolutionised people’s lifestyles, and those reluctant to switch to solar energy are hesitating due to lack of awareness.
Last but not least, the question about the cost of switching over to solar power has to be answered. The cost depends on the quality of the stuff used. If panels, batteries, inverters etc come from China the cost is less and in case they are brought from Germany the costs are on the higher side.
Generally, it costs around Rs 225 to Rs 250 per watt to install a reliable solar system comprising solar panels and other paraphernalia, says Naeem Anwar Mughal, a representative of Shamskaar Solar Technology Solutions. This means a 1,000 watt system would cost between Rs225,000 to Rs250,000. This is a one-time cost and there would be no electricity bills despite consumers using the electricity thus produced throughout the day. Solar panels have life of 20 to 25 years and the maintenance costs are very reasonable, Naeem concludes.