Wind power and solar energy in Pakistan

Samir Hoodbhoy was privileged to get his undergraduate education at Harvard University in the early ’60s when John F. Kennedy was President of the USA and the post World War II mindset was for reconstruction and addressing wrongs within the society. He was also fortunate to witness and participate in the technology breakthroughs in robotics systems, semi-conductors and the first mobile cellular system developed.

In Pakistan, he initiated and successfully directed the creation of the Central Design Bureau of Pakistan Steel Mills in 1988-92. In those days, there was a dearth of skilled work force in electronics, and software. He has had the opportunity to lay the groundwork for three leading educational institutions in the field of ICT and been on the Board of Advisors of several other civic and educational organizations.

Since that period, Data Communication and Control (Pvt.) Ltd., which was founded by him in 1992, has been actively developing simulators for industry and the defense services. They rely on the intellectual strengths of youth who he believes have the capacity of accomplishing wonderful results when given the opportunity and guided properly. This is in spite of the adverse environment for research and development activities.

He also firmly believes that the judicious application of science and technology is essential for addressing the overwhelming problems of Pakistan. Developing a culture of "seeking the truth" and promoting the scientific approach to problem solving is his passion.

His current interests include urban planning, building management systems, and developing products and systems for the smart grid and the alternate energy sector.

PAGE: Your views about potential for alternate energy particularly hydrokinetic energy and solar thermal power in Pakistan.

Samir Hoodbhoy: The potential of energy alternatives based on renewable sources of energy is limited only by our ability to innovate, organize, and educate. Hydrokinetic and solar thermal are the two most promising alternate renewable energy solutions that can be used to reduce Pakistan’s rising $10 billion annual fuel imports and energy deficits while at the same time preserve the environment by not adding to the hazards of increased carbon gases emissions that are caused by the use of furnace oil and natural gas.


Pakistan’s geography is most conducive to the exploitation of solar energy as it is the 6th most fortunate country in the world in terms of solar irradiance and where sunshine availability is 8-10 hours per day over much of the plains of Sindh, Balochistan and Southern Punjab.

Solar energy intensity in the sunbelt of Pakistan is approximately 1,800-2,200 KWh per square meter per day which is most favorable for the exploitation of solar energy. The potential capacity for installation of solar photovoltaic power by some estimates is 1,600 GW, which is 40 times greater than present consumption. Based on a range of currently possible conversion efficiencies an area of one sq km has the potential to produce 40-55 M Watts of power and can generate revenue conservatively estimated at one billion rupees per month at current average tariffs of Rs10 per kW-hr. Since solar power is available only during times of sunshine, it can at most meet up to 30 per cent of daily consumption without the need for energy storage such as in underground salt deposits.

The wasteland and desert of Thar, Balochistan and lower Sindh are prime contenders for the establishment of large solar farms with capacities of generating more than 250 gigawatts of electrical power to meet the energy shortfall over the coming decades.

The question of what solar-based technology is most appropriate depends on several factors. Photovoltaic cells with an efficiency of 18-25 per cent are most suitable in localized production of electricity where the solar panels are mounted in proximity of the end user. This also has the advantage of minimizing transmission losses that are associated with conventional utility power generating systems. As prices of photovoltaic tumble downwards, panels with generation capacities of 1 – 100 kWatts will become an increasingly common sight on unattended rooftop terraces of individual homes and high-rise buildings, parking lots and open spaces in both the urban as well as rural countryside. The solar feed-in tariff, which is the price of solar-generated electricity, could drop below 12.5 cents for each kilowatt-hour (kWh) by 2015, equal to conventional coal-fired electricity by that time. This indeed would provide a major boost to using solar farms in Pakistan as well as the region.

Solar panels require additional components such as battery storage units, inverters, and sun trackers that increase the cost of a completely installed system for domestic and commercial users. Many larger efficient solar panels have automated sun trackers that follow the sun during the day and the seasons for maximizing the incident angle of the sun’s rays. However, with abundance of low paid semi-skilled labor, the sun trackers, in certain situations can periodically be positioned manually to point in direction of the sun.

Because solar panels inherently produce DC voltage, they require a DC-AC voltage inverter to step up to 220 volts that is necessary for connecting to the ordinary household in Pakistan. Moreover, in the forthcoming years, more appliances will operate on DC voltage, including computers, TV displays, mobile phones and LED lighting bulbs; this will preempt the need for such a converter thus further driving down the cost of P-V solar panel systems.


Concentrated Solar Power Thermal technology provides an alternative to P-V cells; has conversion efficiencies of 30 per cent and is a strong contender for larger generating plants. CSP uses parabolic troughs or reflecting mirrors onto solar collectors that concentrate the energy for generating steam or that focuses sunlight onto P-V solar cells thereby increasing efficiency of the energy conversion process.

CSP can also be used for preheating of the steam in a modified conventional thermal power plant. This design modification builds on the resources and facilities of an existing furnace oil, gas fired, or co-generation power plant and enables savings on the fuel needed for steam generation. The deserts of Tharparkar and Balochistan have the potential for producing several hundreds of GWatts power. If the energy is stored in salt dunes, this energy would be available 24 hrs, 7 days throughout the year and eliminate the need for expendable fuels.

Internationally, other countries including the USA, Spain, and Israel have initiated major solar thermal power projects with power generation capacities exceeding 100 mWatts. The US has designated significant portions of the wastelands in the state of Nevada and New Mexico for power generation with CSP. Major plans are underway by the European Union to exploit this technology along with host countries Algeria and Morocco. The EC countries expect to generate 15 per cent of their total energy needs with CSP by tapping into the burning sands of the Sahara desert and transmitting the electricity into the European mainland over thousands of miles of high voltage transmission lines. In India, entrepreneurs and the utilities in India plan to generate more than 20 GWatts from the Thar Desert over the next decade.

Within India’s solar energy sector, several mega projects are on the drawing boards and a 35,000 km2 area of the Thar desert is being set aside for solar power projects, sufficient to generate 700 to 2,100 Gwatts. Under the plan, solar-powered equipment and applications would be mandatory in all government buildings including hospitals and hotels.


Hydrokinetic technology extracts the kinetic power from fast flowing water for electricity production. In contrast with politically sensitive and capital-intensive hydro-electric dams, hydrokinetics does not require disturbing the flow of river or causing major dislocations of habitat for the creation of water reservoirs. Water bodies including scores of points along the Indus River, the rapid flowing Kabul and Swat rivers, the irrigation canals of Punjab and Sindh, and the tidal currents of the Arabian Sea hold much untapped potential for hydrokinetic power generation.

In most of the glacier fed mountain streams of Pakistan, the 16,000 MW potential for generating electricity from the fast moving streams is untapped due to difficulties of physical accessibility and to the absence of a power grid network. However, local generation from smaller mini-hydel projects producing 50-500 kW through inexpensive generating units and serving small communities is increasingly being exploited in the mountainous regions. In the plains with slower moving river flow rates but with considerably greater volume of flow, the potential is even greater.

Cross flow turbines inserted in the path of rivers and streams have exciting possibilities but the technological challenges are equally daunting. These include production of efficient, low cost turbines, issues related to placement of the prime movers within the water body, of mechanical stability and mooring, ease of repairs and of bringing the power lines to the consumers. A typical individual micro hydrokinetic turbine can generate from five to 25 kW of power.

Clusters of these turbines can be combined to produce 50-500 kWatts. Their potential is greatest at fast flowing rivers and canals such as along the Ghazi Barotha canal and Hub canal where stream velocity exceeds three meters per sec, and at the foot discharge of existing hydroelectric barrages and dams.

Sites such as along the Kabul River and Swat River have a maximum flow rate of 4 to 5 m/s, with a minimum flow rate of 1.5 m/s. Other than the rivers, there are various sites located along Jinnah, Chashma, Taunsa, and Guddu barrages that have individual capacities of generating about 10 MW of electricity using hydrokinetic energy extraction methods. The power generated in many cases would be adequate for powering a riverside garrison town, a farming community or other population centers that are not connected to the national power grid or those who suffer from incessant load shedding.

In the south, tidal power projects may be used to power localities and small-scale industries located by the sea. An efficient hydrokinetic turbine requires a minimum water current of 2 knots (1.028 m/s) for propelling the blades and generating electricity. Some areas of high potential for application of hydrokinetic technology are the entrance of Port Muhammad Bin Qasim can generate around 34 MW of electricity through tidal energy. Other prominent sites where this technology can be installed are Gwadar, Pasni and Karachi coastal areas.


SAMIR HOODBHOY: For those remote villages that are beyond the national power transmission grid scheme to be integrated with the rest of the country and brought into the 21st century, solar home systems is a most viable option and will be administered under the rural electrification program. The program has been estimated to cost $500 million. One solar household system (SHS) has been assigned a Solar PV installed capacity of 50-120 Watts. 1,000,000 households in the 8,000 villages would generate a demand of 100 MW of solar PV power. This would also mean, a 125 kW load per village. At a rate of 4 USD per watt for PV capital costs, it adds up to $400 million for generation and a $100 million extra for supplementary costs. Admittedly, these cost estimates appear to be reasonable. The villages are selected by the provincial governments through a list of villages provided by water and power development authority (WAPDA).

As most of the rural communities being targeted depend on agriculture for their subsistence and are in water scarce regions, there is an overwhelming demand for the use of solar-fired tube wells of individual capacities of 5-7 HP. Such tube wells if produced locally at affordable costs and using drip irrigation techniques could spark a major breakthrough in the development cycle of the rural countryside. Among the other ancillary benefits of the solar home systems is generating sufficient electricity for battery chargers needed for mobile cell communication and to introduce satellite TV reception that would indeed end the centuries old isolation of these communities.


SAMIR HOODBHOY: With a level of solar irradiance of 19 million joules per sq meter extended over more than 250,000 sq kms of the plains and desert of Balochistan, the potential for solar power exceeds 25,000 GWatts. Even if one per cent of this land mass was apportioned for solar energy farming, this represents a potential generation of 250 GWatts which is 12 times greater than the present installed generating capacity of 20 GWatts in Pakistan. Estimates of the availability of wind potential vary.

According to the Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB), Nokkundi in the Chagai district is one of the world’s most ideal wind corridors where wind speed is almost constantly 12.5 per cent higher than the average required for energy generation. Other parts of the wind corridor includes a 300-kilometre-long area with wide open spaces from Dalbandin to Taftan, a town on the border of Iran, Gharo to Keti Bandar in Thatta district of the Sindh province which is a 60 km long and 170 km deep corridor and estimated to have a power generation potential of 50,000 MW. Similar is the case of Lasbella district of Balochistan province, where wind energy at a sustainable speed, good for power generation is available with little variation in the seasons (five meters per second in winter and eight meters per second in the summer).

Many parts of Balochistan province are barren either due to shortage of surface water or due to non-availability of power. The population in this area is scattered and spread over large remote areas, which render the use of oil engines and transmission costs of centralized power generating stations uneconomical. Whereas the potential for wind generation is attractive, current unsettled political and socioeconomic conditions are disincentives for the construction of large wind turbines and solar farms with capacities of one mWatt. Under settled conditions, this region could easily become an attractive carbon gas free energy producing center within Pakistan. Mini wind farming projects (1-50 kWatts) along with small solar farms scattered over remote inaccessible areas presents an attractive proposition that would help mitigate the localized needs of providing electricity for lighting, communications and for pumping water with tube wells for irrigation and domestic consumption.

Larger wind power and solar power farms with individual production capacity of 0.5-500 MW developed along the wind corridors and the desert hinterland of Balochistan, respectively, have the capacity to radically alter the socioeconomic plight of Pakistan by resuscitating both the agricultural and industrial sectors.


SAMIR HOODBHOY: Foreign investments in the alternate energy sector should be welcomed and pursued but mainly as a seeding mechanism for rapid development of the alternate energy sector. In view of the very large demand and potential for power in the alternate energy sector, it is neither affordable nor feasible for foreign capital to finance the entire requirements.

Apart from the technology content, investment in the power sector includes provision of land and labor for installation, operations and maintenance. This part is a local resource. The land should be allocated from government holdings and labor skills developed in the local universities and technical institutions. Furthermore, the technologies, if imported, should be licensed and paid for. There is no such thing as a free lunch.


SAMIR HOODBHOY: Yes indeed. The Pakistan’s industrial infrastructure is far behind the competition; this is primarily due to the educational setup in the vocational and centers of higher education where innovation and creativity is sacrificed in favor of rote learning. The ‘scientific method’ has also been passed over with the preference given by business and industry to becoming operators and consumers of technology gadgets instead of designers and producers.

Alternate energy solutions with solar, wind power, biogas, geothermal, hydrokinetic and mini- hydel technologies are a relatively new phenomena but their scientific basis is well established since past several decades. It would be appropriate for the engineering curriculum in the universities to be updated on certain key disciplines that are useful for providing solutions. Furthermore, the universities should be encouraged to pursue research and development activities based on long term goal oriented program. For example, turbine design and manufacturing requires a greater understanding of CAD/CAM/CAE (Computer aided Design, Manufacturing and Engineering), CFD Computational Fluid Dynamics.

The integration and engineering of complete systems built from component modules is often viable and preferred for accelerating engineering solutions. Of course, the world is now a global village; it is often more appropriate to purchase these materials or license the processes rather than reinvent from scratch or build all aspects. For example, in the case of solar farms, it would be more expedient to import the photovoltaic cells, which are produced in very high volume at very competitive prices and assemble the solar panels locally. Sun trackers and power trackers could be designed and fabricated locally whereas high performance storage batteries may be imported.

Yes, Light Emitting Diodes represent a drastic reduction of 90 percent of energy required for lighting. High illumination bulbs for residential and commercial lighting require as little as 10-20 Watts. Assemblies of LEDs are labor intensive and should be undertaken locally. Low power LEDs requiring 6-12 volts of DC are ideal loads that can be powered from solar arrays or mini-wind mills directly thus resulting in power savings. When combined with a solar P-V sensor and a storage battery, LED bulbs are being used for overhead street lighting without recourse to power from the utility companies. Compact fluorescent lamps will soon face the fate of the horse and carriage.