Last week a chaotic situation was created when almost the entire country plunged into darkness due to sudden breakdown in power supply that took more than 36 hours to restore fully, with some cities without power for more than 14 hours. It is alarming that despite the fall-back systems and procedures, domino effect could not be arrested and it took an inordinate time to fix the fault. Other countries, too, have had similar problems, but they were able to restore normalcy within a couple of hours.

Pakistan’s energy generation capacity is over 23,000 MW, which far exceeds the peak summer demand of electricity. It is interesting to note that Pakistan is a power surplus country and not a power deficit country. What it needs is not just more electricity, but essentially cheap electricity. Electricity shortage crisis is thrown up by a lopsided energy mix, tilted towards thermal generation and, there too, the use of expensive fuel - furnace oil. Factors further accentuating the problem are: inefficient machines - especially boilers in the thermal sector, governance issues, exorbitant line losses and theft. Lack of public awareness for resource conservation further worsens the situation.

At macro level, there is absence of a single focal personal - the national energy manager. At least, seven entities have something to do with electricity generation; of these some work at cross-purposes by default and some by design. Neither we are short on resources, nor is the generation capacity below par. The underlying issue is that the government cannot generate electricity due to the non-availability of funds. However, funds can only be generated by controlling line losses or theft of electricity and by activating effective revenue collection mechanism.

Governance related issues result in the non-recovery of bills of the tune of Rs 120 billion per year. So far, none of the power distribution companies have invoked the Electricity Act 1910 to recover the outstanding dues from the defaulters. Moreover, a major portion of theft (about 50 percent) is being covered under the garb of line losses.

Line losses are scaling unacceptable heights. Overall line losses during 2010-11 were 20.6 percent, resulting in the wastage of around 16 billion units as compared to 15.5 billion units a year earlier. The estimated quantum of line losses is around Rs 160 billion per annum. In Sukkur, Larkana and Peshawar regions, the line losses are around 38 percent, i.e. highest in the world.  The Karachi Electric Supply Company (KESC) posts 36-38 percent and Hyderabad about 22 percent losses.

As regards theft, in the jurisdiction of the Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO), theft ratio stands at 30 percent, in Hyderabad Electric Supply Company (HESCO), 19 percent, in Sukkur Electric Power Company (SEPCO) 25 percent, in Quetta Electric Power Company (QEPCO) 22 percent; whereas, in the whole of Punjab the average electricity theft is between two to three percent.

Though the problem is manifold, a significant factor is the energy mix. In the 1980s, the country’s electricity generation relied on a fuel mix of approximately 60:40 in favour of hydropower versus thermal. This changed over the following decades; by 2010, the fuel mix was 30 percent hydropower and almost 70 percent thermal. According to a recent World Bank report, oil now accounts for nearly 40 percent of electricity generation with gas and hydropower at 29 percent each: the remaining 2 percent is generated by nuclear power plants.

Pakistan needs to reverse the trend in the energy mix back in favour of either hydropower, or the next cheaper alternative fuels, which are nuclear, gas and coal. It has huge coal reserves; indeed the fourth largest in the world. However, in our energy mix, the share of coal power is only 7 percent as compared to world average of 40 percent. Coal is one of the major sources for producing cheaper electricity; per unit cost is around Rs 4 per kwh. The government has now decided to enhance the share of coal in the overall energy mix up to 18 percent by 2030. A beginning has been made by taking a policy decision to convert 4,200MW output from the existing thermal power plants to coal under a medium term programme. But it’s too little and too late. The government incentives for evolving an overall optimal energy mix are crucial.

Nevertheless, the core issue confronting the alternative energy solution providers is to find cheaper add-ons to reconfigure the energy mix for managing power generation at affordable price; a task easier said than done. Paradoxically, most of the vendors presenting such solutions end up focusing on the production side, rather than the cost.

All endeavours at finding alternative means of power generation must, therefore, be examined in the context of economy of scales, efficiency of machines and materials, environmental impact and implementation of best managerial practices to slash per kwh cost for the end-user.

An alternative energy should be continuously available and cost effective. Contemporary alternative energy research trends should focus on: solar, wind, ethanol biofuels, geothermal energy, hydrogen and algae fuels, biomass briquettes, biogas digestion, biological hydrogen production, floating wind farms etc.

Hydro-generated electricity is the cheapest, it does not consume water.  Some of the projects are under development, while some cannot be taken up due to lack of national consensus. One of the most untapped water resources is flood water. During super floods of 2010, an equivalent of five times the envisioned reservoir of Kalabagh Dam was wasted down into the Arabian sea due to  lack of adequate storage arrangements.

The next economical way of power generation is nuclear; per unit cost becomes quite cheap if the power plant capacity is 1,000 MW or more.  Here, the issue is of getting around the restrictions in the context of Pakistan’s access to civilian nuclear technology and to have assured supply of reactor grade fuel. Pakistan has requisite knowhow and expertise of managing nuclear fuel cycle. It needs to consider the option of fabricating its own nuclear power plants. Over 40 years experience of safely operating the nuclear power plants makes another good argument for this approach.

Studies reveal that Pakistan has a huge potential for renewable energy as well. In selected wind corridors, 40,000-50,000 MW electricity can be generated. Its current installed capacity is 50 MW.  Pakistan is an extremely sunny country and the solar energy can be utilised for the fulfilment of its energy requirements. For example, if 0.25 percent of Balochistan is covered with solar panels with an efficiency of 20 percent, enough electricity would be generated to cater for the entire country. The use of solar energy is environment friendly and helps reduce deforestation. However, the solar means of power production are infrastructure heavy and the production cost is on the higher side, around Rs 14.40 per kwh.

Alongside wind, solar power generation suffers from inherent weakness: both are not continuous and require heavy duty batteries for storing the electricity for lean or no power periods.  The pace of research and development in these domains indicate that technical solution would be available in three to five years timeframe to address the continuity problem; and mass production would result in lower production costs.

In the overall context, there is a need to formulate a long-term national strategy to achieve an optimum energy mix that could assure continuous availability of sufficient electricity at an affordable price. Long-term solution lies in hydro, coal and nuclear power as major sources.

The writer is a retired air commodore and former assistant chief of air staff of the Pakistan Air Force. At present, he is a member of the visiting faculty at the PAF Air War College, Naval War College and Quaid-i-Azam University. Email: khalid3408@gmail.com