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Harnessing renewables

A transition to clean energy will not only strengthen energy security but will also reduce air pollution and diversify fuel sources

Harnessing renewables

Almost four years into the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the world, especially developing countries, faces a narrowing window of opportunity to improve the lives of billions within that timeframe, or indeed sooner. Amongst the 169 targets to be achieved through 17 SDGs, SDG 7 is based on a relatively small set of targets, but in terms of ambition they are quite enough for policymakers and businesses to grapple with.

Nowhere is a sense of urgency greater than with SDG 7 which targets to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy access for all” — an area that is both lagging, but concurrently, holds enough potential to be achieved. Energy or SDG 7 is at the heart of SDGs, and is considered to play an important role from job creation to economic development, and from security concerns to the full empowerment of women.

The signs are worrisome though. According to a recent report published by the International Energy Agency (IEA), installations of renewable energy the world over plateaued in 2018 for the first time in nearly two decades of record keeping. This is the first occasion since 2001 that renewables around the world added as much total capacity of 180 GW in 2018 as they did in 2017, an unexpected flattening of growth trends that has raised concerns about meeting long-term climate goals. Even if it’s just a temporary hiccup, a pause in installations is an extremely worrisome sign about the world’s ambition to address climate crisis (climate change).

Whereas, renewables is supposed to have a major role to play in curbing global emissions, its capacity additions need to grow by over 300 GW on average each year between 2018 and 2030 to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement (2015), according to the IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS).

Delivering sustainable energy for all by 2030 not only means vastly increasing the amount of renewable power sources pretty much everywhere, but also cleaning up the energy used in transport and homes, where progress on limiting emissions has remained frustratingly stagnant.

According to an estimate there are around 60 million individuals in Pakistan who are still off grid with no access to electricity, let alone clean green energy. The number swells up when people who have a substandard and irregular access to the grid are included to the list. The gap further widens when one takes into account the shortfall between the demand and supply of energy within the country. To better understand the role of renewable energy in Pakistan, one has to first understand the energy needs of the country and the fuel mix evolution.

According to figures from the Federal Ministry of Energy, Power Division, the country has almost doubled its generation capacity from 17,796 MWs to 33,836 MWs in the past decade (2008-2018). But a breakdown of the installed capacity reveals that the country in order to uplift its beleaguered power sector opted for quick fix solutions. Whereas, the energy industry the world over is going through a massive shift driven by green energy solutions and new energy policies, Pakistan’s current energy mix reveals a dismal 5 percent share of renewables which includes energy from solar and wind only (hydel constitutes for 27 percent of the total energy mix).

Our reliance on thermal power generation constitutes for more than half of our energy mix which includes 16 percent from furnace oil, 12 percent from gas, 26 percent from RLNG, 9 percent from coal and 5 percent from nuclear. For an oil importing country our reliance on thermal power generation indicates a policy failure in the power sector. Burning costly furnace oil and imported RLNG to meet our energy demands has already ballooned into a circular debt of around Rs1.5 trillion that not only poses a potential threat to crippling the economy but also signals towards an energy apocalypse if the circular debt increases and is not paid off. Experts opine whereas the energy mix of a country is a true barometer of its industrial solvency, the case of Pakistan producing expensive electricity and then providing it on a subsidised rate is a recipe of disaster — an idea the country has been romancing with for quite some time now.

At a national or local level, there are many models being used around the world to encourage the deployment of clean energy technologies. But the high upfront capital costs attached with the clean energy technologies and not yet price competitive with conventional fossil fuel technologies, provides less of an incentive for the private sector to invest. So instead of subsidising the clean energy sector, the country is suffering from a case of misplaced subsidies, where the government is subsidising fossil fuels in an attempt to reduce the economic burden of international prices. These subsidies are making it even harder for renewable technologies to compete. Reallocation of subsidies to cleaner sources of energy would allow an easier adoption of these technologies instead of perpetuating the consumption of fossil fuels.

It is worth mentioning that renewable technologies may be more easily implemented in rural “off-grid” areas. In these locations, the lack of infrastructure for conventional energy sources may make it more cost-effective to install local renewable energy systems. An interesting example of this could be the population living in Gilgit-Baltistan and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and rural Balochistan where energy requirement in winters increases. These regions mainly depend on energy from hydel resources but during winters when rivers freeze, people are left with no option but to rely on wood and LPG to fulfill their energy needs.

Within the current scenario it looks quite impossible for the country to meet the SDG goal 7 by 2030. Even though, the Federal Ministry of Energy has provided itself an ambitious target of increasing the share of renewables from 32 percent (which includes 27 percent hydro and 5 percent wind and solar) to 61 percent (out of which 50 percent will be hydro and 11 percent will harness solar and wind energy) in the country’s energy mix by the year 2030.

What’s more, this clean energy revolution needs to be completed in a society where around a quarter of the population still lacks access to electricity, and the availability of clean and modern cooking energy is only just keeping pace with population growth, leaving millions of people relying on dangerous, unsustainable, and polluting fuels. A transition to clean energy will not only strengthen energy security but will also reduce air pollution and diversify fuel sources.

Khan Shehram Eusufzye

Khan Shehram
The writer is a freelance contributor based in Lahore.

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