How to solve Pakistan’s energy crisis

The world is confronted with a challenge to cut emissions at a swift rate to ensure net zero targets are met. In the meantime, countries around the world are scrambling to attain a clean energy profile while also guaranteeing security of supply and avoiding any unwanted socio-economic fallouts. The challenge is a wholly distinct one depending on the country under examination.

In the case of Britain and much of the developed world, industrialization commenced over two centuries ago. Shortly after James Watt patented the steam engine in 1769, coal was used to make iron and power ships, locomotives, and other machines. Coal became the backbone of the British Empire that extracted wealth from around the world and left behind economies that were less than a shadow of the then industrialized world. Those same economies, most of whom still find themselves in the category of developing nations, are now faced with a monumental task. They must grow their economies, pull populations out of poverty and upscale their inchoate industries while being held accountable for prolonged dependence on fossil fuels and its effects on the planet. This is the predicament that we find ourselves in today. In devising a long term strategy, Pakistan will have to reconcile three main aspects of its energy profile: It must have a generation mix that is highly indigenised; has low carbon emission, and; is able to support an ecosystem that allows for practical grid load management.

At present, Pakistan imports a third of its energy resources and ranks among the lowest (99 out of 110) in energy security according to the World Energy Council. The recently published Indicative Generation Capacity Expansion Plan (IGCEP) 2021-2030 has outlined plans to expand hydro as well as solar and wind generation so that it accounts for 60% of Pakistan’s energy generation by 2030. The rest of the demand is expected to be fulfilled by local and imported coal and RLNG among other sources. However, even if these targets are met, imported coal and RLNG will still account for around 24% of installed capacity in 2030. Continued dependence on imported fuels is set to remain a burden on the country’s foreign exchange reserves and expose the economy to sudden changes in fuel prices spurred by political developments elsewhere. In a world that is weaning off coal, it is also an added blot on Pakistan’s carbon footprint. Emissions intensity in the power sector currently stands at 353 g-CO2/kWh and will decrease to 200 g-CO2/kWh according to IGCEP calculations. Although this may seem encouraging, countries like the United Kingdom have set targets three times lower than IGCEP’s best case scenarios. Furthermore, it is worth remembering that Pakistan lags behind the rest of the world in electrification, particularly in the electric vehicles space, and will eventually need to close this emissions gap if it wants to approach net zero. Given the ongoing capacity payments crisis on existing thermal power plants and the dwindling costs of renewable energy and battery storage, the need of the hour is certainly not an expansion of coal-fired generation.

The government’s primary focus at this juncture is on providing cheap electricity to the population and overcoming problems like load shedding and capacity payments on existing thermal plants. However, the country still requires a strategy to rid itself of dependence on fossil fuels in the years after 2030 and adopt a well-grounded plan for grid stability and load management. Large scale problems like this rarely have silver bullet solutions but a hitherto unexplored area of interest that may offer profound support is geothermal power: Renewable heat energy extracted from deep underneath the Earth’s surface. Geothermal plants have negligible emissions when compared to coal-fired power plants and also have longer lifespans and lower operating costs.

Several countries have managed to veritably grow their economies in the post-war years. However, few have managed to do it in a thoroughly sustainable manner. A country that rarely comes to mind in such discussions is Iceland, once amongst the poorest countries in Europe. Rather than being pushed into an import-driven energy policy, Iceland pioneered geothermal power generation in a bid to become self-sufficient. As it turned out, lying on a fault line meant that the country was blessed with abundant geothermal energy reserves. Eventually, geothermal generation reached levels so high, and energy became so cheap, that the Icelandic people were able to bathe in outdoor heated swimming pools all year round, grow crops and farm fish never before seen on the island and develop thriving energy intensive industries such as Aluminium production which now accounts for 40% of its export. Since then, developing countries like Indonesia, Philippines, Turkey, and Kenya have been inspired by Iceland’s model and built capacities between 0.9-2 GW.

For decades, we Pakistanis have lamented the fault lines beneath our feet and have had to bear the tectonic tragedies that emanate from it. Why not seek to reverse the curse of these geological fractures and exploit the clean energy that their indelible presence may offer? There are few estimates of exactly how much geothermal power can be generated in Pakistan. The few estimates that have been floated are in the staggering range of 10 GW or more – maximum total electricity demand in Pakistan in 2020 was 25 GW. Studies have cited particularly large reserves in Gilgit Baltistan and Balochistan. The use of geothermal energy for heating and cooking applications would also mean less pressure on the economy to rapidly electrify these sectors of consumption. Pakistan is one of the 46 member states of the Global Geothermal Alliance, and yet the lack of government interest in this field is striking. Geothermal energy does not feature in any recent policy document of the IGCEP, Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB), National Transmission & Dispatch Center (NTDC) or Ministry of Energy. Perhaps the high capital costs of setting up a geothermal power plant is seen as a glaring deterrent. However, once operational, geothermal power plants are cheap to maintain and offer inexpensive electricity, as they do not require fuel and are always running. Hence, unlike most renewable sources, it is not intermittent and has high capacity factors.

Home grown geothermal power has the potential to give the country a much needed boost in fulfilling rising energy demands while limiting emissions and adhering to international commitments. In addition, the economy will call upon a more indigenised energy supply, thereby reaping the strategic benefits of no longer being hostage to capricious contingencies associated with imported fuels. In due course, these measures will also make electricity more affordable for the masses.