Fed up of your high electricity bills and constant load-shedding? Go solar!

Published: July 10, 2019
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A man wipes the dust off solar panels he recently installed on the roof of his home in Larkana, in Pakistan’s Sindh province, June 28, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

Last week in Lahore, when temperatures were touching 45 degrees Celsius, everywhere I went the conversation revolved around not load-shedding but high electricity bills – rich and poor were reeling from their June electricity bills. The recent agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has resulted in subsidies being removed from electricity and gas, and citizens are now left to cope with huge bills.

“The only option is to go solar – we have our elderly mother in the house who needs her air conditioner (AC) running 24/7 all summer long, plus our room and my brother’s room and guestroom. We just cannot afford to pay electricity bills of Rs250,000 in one month,” my cousin told me as workers drilled holes into his flat rooftop.

He was having a rooftop solar system installed which could run at least four ACs in one night including lights, fans, fridges, etc. The entire cost: Rs1.8 million.

“It’s expensive but it’s still cheaper than having to pay these high electricity bills throughout the summer months in the blistering heat of Lahore. And I’ve heard that electricity is only going to get more expensive,” he told me.

He hopes that eventually he will be able to sell the excess electricity from his rooftop solar system back to the grid as net metering is now available in all the big cities of Pakistan. Net metering is an initiative that allows the ordinary consumer to sell the excess power generated through rooftop solar or wind power back to the concerned distribution company.

“The application for net metering takes a bit of time – almost two or three months, but it is possible to get it done now,” explained Zeeshan Ashfaq, a renewable energy expert based in Islamabad who agreed that rooftop solar system is picking up all over Pakistan as many suppliers have set up their businesses.

“The regulation for net metering was passed back in 2015 by the National Electric Power Regulation Authority (NEPRA ) but it was slow to take off. Now the momentum is picking up.”

In his view, more commercial banks should step in to make financing of renewable energy more feasible with 6% or less interest rates.

“Right now the State Bank of Pakistan offers loans but that entails putting up your home as collateral in order to install a rooftop system and people are reluctant to do that. I think banks are now coming forward with other financing options.”

The government of Pakistan in the mean time has come up with a new alternative and renewable energy policy 2019, which has been shared with different provinces and will be unveiled soon. According to Ashfaq, it envisions 30% share of renewable energy by 2030 from off grid/rooftop/captive power plants in our electricity mix which amounts to 18,000 megawatt (MW) of renewable energy.

“To be honest, the last government’s focus was on investing in fossil fuel power plants (coal and gas). This new government is much more open to renewable energy and wants to promote it.”

Big companies are already turning to Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) with solar suppliers to set up captive solar power projects alongside their manufacturing plants to supply cheap and uninterrupted electricity at a fixed cost for 15 years or so. Fauji Cement Company has recently set up a 12.5MW solar power project in Punjab and others are following.

Solar powered mosque in chotiari reserve.

In his view, the proliferation of rooftop solar and PPAs in Pakistan will “finish off independent power plants run on fossil fuels in the long run”. He says this is good for “energy democracy” with people generating their own electricity locally. Just like mobile phone companies have killed off landlines, similarly, rooftop and PPA solar energy will end the monopoly of fossil fuel companies and power distribution companies in Pakistan.

Other renewable experts I have spoken to in the past also agree with Ashfaq.

“Solar is already taking off in Pakistan – it’s going to challenge grid-connected power,” Fariel Salahuddin, an energy specialist based in Karachi told me two years ago.

“Rooftop solar panels are growing organically, and as for the grid-connected solar projects, lots of pieces are coming together like regulation, tariffs, investments and grid capacity,” she said.

This incumbent government is now working on simplifying connection rules and procedures for small-scale solar power to be more widely adopted. Experts say the government should help solar panel manufacturers by providing a more conducive investment climate and help consumers as well with green tax rebates and bonuses with net metering. The government should also focus on solar micro grids in rural areas that would eventually connect to the main national energy grid and act as contributors of electricity.

In rural areas where there is no grid infrastructure, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have already introduced small solar interventions like solar lanterns and cheap solar panels that can run fans, lights and charge mobile phones. In Keti Bunder, Indus Delta, where many of the fishermen villages have no access to electricity, life has been transformed by solar energy.

Charging the solar lanterns in villages in Sindh.

Solar panels installed in mud flats of the Indus Delta.

Other than these small interventions, Pakistan has one major solar park – the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park in Bahawalpur, built with Chinese investment by the former government. It produces 400MW with plans to rise to 1,000MW of solar production, but it has become controversial recently as inquiries are made into the project’s financial affairs by the new government.

Quaid-e-Azam solar park in Bahawalpur.

According to a recent United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report on ‘Decarbonising South and South East Asia,’ Pakistan has relatively good solar potential. The report, brought out by climate analytics this past month, says,

“Investing in renewable energy capacities can contribute to strengthening energy independence, leading to lower expenditures on fossil fuel imports… The decentralised nature of many renewable energy technologies can moreover foster progress with regard to reliable energy access, addressing load-shedding problems and eradication of energy poverty.”

The report further states that scenarios for Pakistan and the region show that a pathway towards 100% renewable energy is achievable, including a decarbonised energy system through electrification of end use sectors, direct use of renewable energy for heat, and linking the power sector with desalination and industrial gas production.

This would align Pakistan’s energy future with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and reap benefits for sustainable development.

“Renewables are becoming cheap every year. Panels as well as batteries. There is a serious danger of these (fossil fuel) plants to become stranded assets in the near future,” explained Fahad Saeed, a scientist at Climate Analytics and one of the authors of the report.

Back in Islamabad, I asked my engineer friend, Bilal Haq, what he thought of rooftop solar system, which he had installed back in 2016.

“It has given me peace of mind. It was expensive, around Rs1.4 million at the time but it has run smoothly since then. I just need to wash my solar panels every two weeks if it doesn’t rain and top up the lead acid batteries with distilled water every now and then. I have no regrets, even at the peak of summer my electricity bill is never more than Rs10,000 a month. I can run two inverter ACs on it and all my fans, lights, fridge etc. I would recommend it to everyone who can afford it”.

I contacted a popular solar manufacturer to find out how much it would cost for my house,  and the CEO of the company replied,

“It all depends what you want to run with the solar panels and batteries. For instance, five kilowatt of solar which can run one AC will cost you Rs0.8 to Rs0.9 million.”

The company was founded in 2015 and is already supplying solar solutions for homes, commercial and industrial sites. According to the CEO, “business is good”!

(All photos by author)

Rina Saeed Khan

Rina Saeed Khan

The author is an environmental journalist based in Islamabad. She most recently authored the book, "From Mountains to Mangroves: Protecting Pakistan's Natural Heritage" on her travels throughout Pakistan. She tweets @rinasaeed (twitter.com/rinasaeed)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.