China funding $60 million solar project for Pakistan parliament

With the friendly aid of the Chinese government, Pakistan’s parliament has turned to solar power to help ease an emergent energy crisis in the country, reports the Guardian.

The Parliament Building in the country’s capital, Islamabad, will soon be home to a 1.8 MW, $60 million solar installation, for which China will foot the entire bill. Work has already begun on the project, with early calculations suggesting that the installation will save the Pakistani government at least $1 million per year in utility bills.

"This is the first project of its kind in a public building in Pakistan, and later more public buildings will be converted to solar power to overcome the energy crisis," said special secretary to Pakistan’s National Assembly Munawar Abbas Shah, confirming that "Pakistan is not going to spend a even a single penny" on the installation.

China’s benevolent involvement follows an early collaboration between the two nations that saw the Pakistani province of Punjab receive Chinese help in the setting up of a 10,000 acre solar park that, once fully operational, could generate up to 1,000 MW of solar energy.

Despite the lack of a coherent, nationalized solar initiative in Pakistan, authorities in the country, as well as some solar experts, hope that the parliament’s high-profile example could encourage a domestic uptake in rooftop solar installations. Many parts of Pakistan are bedeviled by poor power coverage and intermittent blackouts, with vast swathes of the country unconnected to the grid altogether (the World Bank estimate that 44% of Pakistani households remain off-grid).

Pakistan produces just 12,000 MW of energy a day, but average daily demand is 16,000 MW, leaving a power shortfall of 4,000 MW. During the long, balmy summer season, Pakistan’s electricity shortfall rises to 7,000 MW, meaning millions must go without power for extended periods every day. During these outages, an estimated 30-45% of homes resort to kerosene – a flammable, dirty and dangerous fuel – as a secondary or sometimes primary source of power.

Solar as savior?

To solve these issues, say local experts, the government must work closely with the private sector to incentivize development and to help encourage the population to see the benefits of solar. Iftikhar Ahmad Qaisrani, founder of the Islamabad-based organization Renewable Energy Society for Education, Awareness Research and Community Help (RESEARCH), believes residential solar systems are key to tackling Pakistan’s energy crisis, provided they are made affordable to the vast majority of the population – many of whom are desperately poor.

"Installation of solar power is a one-time expenditure and people should be encouraged to avail themselves of the opportunity," said Qaisrani. "This is the right time to encourage the public and private sector to focus on solar energy and provide off-grid solutions to people living in far-flung areas of the country."

With both India and Bangladesh already well advanced with their own solar power systems, Qaisrani has urged Pakistan’s decision-makers to look to their immediate neighbors for inspiration. “Pakistan can save millions of dollars in foreign reserves per annum just by switching to solar power,” adding that Pakistan’s reliance on fossil fuel (which powers 65% of the country and of which more than half is imported) will only become more expensive and at the mercy of global price turbulence.

With most parts of Pakistan enjoying 320 sunny days a year, the natural resource is already in place. What is lacking is the infrastructure. So far, solar’s tiny baby steps in the country have been reliant on imports due to a complete lack of domestic solar component manufacturers. The country imports solar panels from Germany, China and Japan, and only occasionally using locally manufactured batteries.

With an import duty of 32% levied on PV cells, a duty of 15% on ready-made solar lanterns and a 10% duty on batteries, Pakistanis are paying over the odds for solar home systems. According to Pakistani solar energy consultant Abdul Hanan Siddhu, costs for solar home systems could be reduced by as much as 20% if import duties were abolished and the government made solar components exempt from the standard sales tax of 17%.

"The government should also encourage local manufacturers to start cell manufacturing to reduce the cost," said Siddhu. Government subsidies would also be a great help, he adds, but until that time parliament’s adoption of solar is seen as an encouraging step in the right direction.