There is enough wind, water and sun to power off grid communities in Pakistan but the rate of conversion from no energy to alternative energy remains painstakingly slow. Nearly 32% of the population depends on the dim glow of kerosene light that is insufficient, expensive, environmentally unfriendly and hazardous to both life and health.

So why are we not galloping into off grid solutions like the rest of the world? There are several barriers that are keeping us from nationwide off grid electrification.

For one, we lack financial leasing solutions to ease the purchase and maintenance of new technologies. The Bank of Punjab is the only outfit that is currently providing loans to urban dwellers who must at least have a minimum monthly income of 400 USD. Customers can lease equipment worth 30,000 USD or less. Unfortunately, these numbers mean nothing to the off-grid community in Pakistan. Still, there are organizations like d.light, Buksh Solar and SRE solutions that are at least beginning to electrify villages, however, none of the programs are truly prevalent yet.

Not surprisingly, the second major obstacle to off-grid electrification is the government itself. Solar energy solution providers, who are beginning to steal an utterly insignificant chunk of the energy pie, have had to rethink their businesses because of a fluctuating tax on solar panels. Whether the government has been attempting to exert its control on wily importers or actually thinking some unfathomable policy to promote local manufacturing, the net result, thus far, is negative.

Thirdly, some of the off-grid communities already have access to solar energy solutions through the black market that can cost as little as 30 USDs. Needless to say, these products have no after sales service or longevity, which means that owning a solution for 30 USDs is not necessarily an affordable option. Regardless of that, starting a legitimate renewable energy business, in an off-grid town, parallel to an incredibly cheaper black market product, discourages entrepreneurs from taking the plunge in this sector. Similarly, multinationals looking to ‘illuminate’ Pakistan through renewable energy are discouraged from making any long term commitment.

There are, however, a host of small and medium sized firms, taking out a lesser risk, providing solutions to residential communities, industries, agribusinesses and the government itself. But these organizations are not exactly looking for social impact and therefore their businesses are not modeled to cater to low-income, off-grid customers.

So this brings us back to the challenge/opportunity players in the off grid sector have. 32% of Pakistan translates to approximately 64 million people. If we assume, on average, 8 individuals reside in each household, the end goal is to electrify 8 million households – a goal that is beyond the capacity of any one organization in Pakistan.

So what should the government and other non government organizations working towards affordable energy be doing?

The first thing we need to do is to find a flexible solution model. We can begin to do this by defining the problem (which will vary from region to region). In Gilgit-Baltistan, for instance, impure drinking water is not a problem. In fact, the water is so rich in nutrients, some scientists claim that it is responsible for an unusually high average life expectancy rate in Hunza, a popular tourist destination of the province. Hence, solar water heaters that also purify water, are not required in GB and village dwellers could suffice with a less sophisticated energy solution.

Moreover, Gilgit Baltistan is blessed with both perennial streams of water and an abundance of sunlight. The water supply, however, is more reliable, more conducive to constant harvesting, less dependent on energy storage, significantly cheaper and thus better than a solar energy solution (if the choice exists). Considering this, it would not be prudent to apply a broad stroke of solar electrification across Pakistan’s landscape. In cases where wind and water offer consistent harvesting, companies with expertise in the aforementioned sources of energy need to step up in the off grid sector.

We must also take a closer look at the global success stories in off grid electrification and critically evaluate each model to understand which one best fits Pakistan.

Amongst the few companies that have received significant funding and media attention, is a company called Off.Grid:Electric. Mainly operating in Tanzania, Off.Grid:Electric doesn’t sell the ownership of a solar energy solution but the service of providing electricity. It’s a scalable model that has already won millions of dollars in grants to help electrify rural Africa.

Another model worth looking into is the one implemented at Barefoot College in India. Unlike Off.Grid:Electric, Barefoot College is not exactly a business in the strict sense. Instead, it is an institute that educates and empowers women to start their own businesses as social engineers capable of setting up and maintaining solar energy solutions. Women from across the world learn how to design and build a solar energy solution at Barefoot College – mostly through sign language. When they return to their villages, they pitch to investors, create a board of responsible individuals to give credibility to the enterprise and then get to work. This model has thus far trained 740 women to become solar engineers and their respective enterprises have brought electrification to 450,000 rural people across the globe.

Yet another noteworthy effort is that of the Alternative Technology Association (ATA) in East Timor. Much like Barefoot College, ATA develops solar engineering skills through universities at the grass root level. The skilled labor is responsible for the installation and maintenance of the solar energy solution he/she installs. Customers of this service pay 2 USDs a month; money that goes straight into a village fund. The fund sustains the labor of the project and the cost of cyclical battery replacement. Over ten years, since the inception of this project, some villages in East Timor have accumulated enough funds to meet additional community needs like modern agricultural equipment and educational tools for children. Like Barefoot College and Off.Grid:Electric, ATA has received international acclaim for its efforts, which includes the recent 250,000 USD Google Impact Award.  

So yes, the world is indeed galloping forward in powering off-grid communities. And the next big question in Pakistan – where millions live without sustainable energy – is this: which of the aforementioned designs are best suited to illuminate off grid villages?

The answer does not have to be limited to any one model. It could be all of the models independently working towards electrification or a combination of a few. But before we zone into a working model, there are certain other pre-requisites we need.

Firstly, as a nation, we need a superior understanding of energy efficiency. This includes an effort at the state level to promote energy efficient housing designs to reduce our collective energy demand. This also means that renewable energy solution providers must possess the flexibility to explore the entire spectrum of energy solutions and implement only those that best suit a certain environment.

Lastly, and most importantly, we need donor agencies, financial institutions, the government of Pakistan and social enterprises to collaborate towards making energy solutions viable across off grid Pakistan. If the players mentioned above do not sincerely strive to find the right balance between social impact and financial gain, off grid communities in Pakistan are likely to remain in the dark.