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Stop running after nuclear energy, solar and wind power is the solution for Pakistan!

By Ahsan Ashraf

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The efforts to attain nuclear power have increased globally in recent years. Several advocates in Pakistan, such as the recent article by Kazmi (Jan 7, 2014), have argued that nuclear power promotes economic development along with meeting the shortfall in energy supply.

A critical question I would like to ask is that, is nuclear power absolutely necessary for an economic development, given the potential safety risks and the vast amount of investment that it requires?

With Pakistan’s incredible potential of untapped renewable resources, why is Pakistan trying an untested nuclear technology when the rest of the world is moving towards greener energy solutions?

I feel that this is a preposterous idea.

Nuclear energy faces immense challenges, in terms of capital intensity and availability of supplies and technology. The growth rates implied by such advocates for the development of nuclear power suggest a realisation of targets, which very few countries have been able to achieve.

China is currently the only supplier of nuclear supplies to Pakistan but in order to meet projections, Pakistan would require access to advanced technologies from Western countries. These constraints raise questions about nuclear development, especially where our government is particularly prone to overestimating their ability to develop such resources and install generating capacity and underestimate costs.

In a recent news piece by Ilyas (Nov, 26 2013), it was argued that the recent nuclear power project is a step towards a load-shedding free Pakistan. Governments in the past (the current government included) have made several such promises that are merely hollow words, to gain popularity amongst the masses. These statements are backed by little or no scientific substantiation.

Load shedding is a problem not only due to the gap in supply and demand of energy but also due to deep-rooted and intrinsic issues such as corruption, bribery, subornment and nepotism. These problems cannot be tackled by a nuclear power project, where the stakes are very high and the prospect of exploitation and dishonesty inevitable – particularly by a government that has been accused of corruption twice in the past.

Very few countries have been able to achieve and maintain the level of nuclear energy growth as Pakistan is estimating. The United States and France had a growth rate of 7% and 14% respectively from 1980 to 1990s and India has only attained 4.9%.

All growth rates have since levelled off.

In order for Pakistan to meet its own nuclear development estimates, it would have to emulate and surpass the efforts of countries like the United States and France. This idea seems highly unlikely and unrealistic to me.

Development of nuclear power requires long-lasting coordination between private and government sectors and a strong government effectiveness and control of corruption, since nuclear projects require large capital expenditures. Compared to countries like the United States, France and South Korea, that have developed nuclear power at impressive rates in the past, Pakistan cannot compare in government effectiveness and control of corruption.

I believe that renewable energy provides for a much better solution for Pakistan’s energy crisis. Pakistan receives an average of 2000 kilowatt-hour (kWh) per square metre of solar irradiation and eight to nine hours of sunlight a day. Just a quick look at the map of the global irradiation in Pakistan is enough to argue that we have the potential to meet the projected 40,000 megawatt (MW) demand in 2020.

Comparing this to a country like Germany, where 36.4% of energy was renewable in 2013 with peaks of 61% on certain days, and projected targets such as 80% average by 2050 has an average irradiation of ~1000 kWh per square metre.

This is, on average, half of what Pakistan receives.

Recent studies have shown that in the long run electricity generated from solar technologies can be cheaper than that from nuclear fuels. The potential for wind power is also very significant in Pakistan, with 50 gigawatt (GW) of generation capacity at the Gharo-Keti Bandar wind corridor, near Karachi and Hyderabad.

The primary concern over technologies such as solar has always been that they remain far too expensive and are not reliable. This is an ages old idea that has been stuck in the minds of the average layperson for decades. Wind power has led the way in becoming more economically viable and solar is following suit in the near term.

The primary problem for solar energy in developed countries has been grid integration. However, almost half of Pakistan is still off the grid. Pakistan can use Germany’s people-driven energy model and become self-sustainable with the involvement of local businesses. As for the mystery surrounding solar and wind power sheds, we can see that this change has already begun.

A local village, Narian Khorian, has installed 100 solar panels by the help of a local firm. Today, all houses in the village have sufficient energy to run an electrical fan and two light bulbs. An average solar panel lasts almost 25 years and has no maintenance costs associated with it. There is no downtime or risk of failures that may cause large-scale evacuations or other threats to life and/or property. This is the solution that Pakistan has been looking for: a change that is driven by the people on fundamental grass root level.

From a cost standpoint, the current cost estimate for the nuclear project is $ 9.59 billion. At a capacity of 1000 MW per plant, electricity would cost 5.7 cents/Watt assuming constant generation rate. Nuclear plants have significant down time due to maintenance that adds to the cost of operation and ultimately, to the cost for consumer.

On the other hand, wind power can provide 5.6 – 8.7 cents/Watt using technologies that are available today. There is no downtime and very low associated maintenance costs. I think, most importantly, there is no risk of failures that can cause catastrophic damage.

Due to the wind corridor in Sindh, the potential for wind power in Karachi is extremely high. A combination of wind and solar can easily meet and exceed the demands of this growing city. Solar/Wind power is no longer as expensive and unaffordable as it once was.

The predominant reason that solar power has been expensive in Pakistan is because all panels are primarily imported from other countries. I think that the cost of these panels can be significantly reduced if they were made in Pakistan. The basic raw material for silicon solar cells, quartz, can be found in abundance in the northern regions of Pakistan. Silica, the other main ingredient, can also be found in River Sindh, in inexhaustible quantities.

If an investment was made to get basic equipment to extract, this Pakistan can develop its own solar cells, given Pakistan’s labour source. I believe that this will not only stimulate the economy and provide jobs for the local population but will also help militancy issues that have plagued the northern areas. It’s a solution not only for Pakistan’s energy crisis but has the potential to significantly help the economy and stability of the nation.

Pakistan has proposed several renewable energy schemes that have always been left unattended. Examples of these include the proposed Thatta power plant and the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park in Bahawalpur. We need to inject funds into such projects and give local businesses more motivation to come into the energy sector.

A tariff-based incentive, such as the one offered in countries like Germany and Belgium, can stimulate local investors into the renewable energy sector. Pakistan needs to skip the nuclear experiment that other countries have tried and failed at in the past.

For non-grid connected Pakistanis (which is almost half the population), the potential for solar/wind technologies is extremely high. There will be lower upfront cost and no reliance on the central government for investment in infrastructure requirements for transmission and distribution. Further there is a predictably lower fuel cost and solar/wind farms can often be built in stages with the first phases of installation becoming immediately productive.

Lastly, even if the funding of a certain project is constrained due to a change in government or other political factors, the already built solar/wind farms will remain productive whereas a fractionally built nuclear facility cannot produce anything.

It is time for our government and our business sector to work towards more reliable schemes of power energy, instead of building nuclear power plants.

Ahsan Ashraf is a PhD candidate in Physics focusing on exploring nanoscale spatial inhomogeneities affecting the performance of organic and CIGS photovoltaic devices at the Sustainable Energy Technologies Division, Brookhaven National Lab, NY. Share/Bookmark