For years Pakistanis have sweated and cursed through summer power cuts, but now the country’s government plans to harness the sun’s ferocious heat to help tackle its chronic energy crisis.
In a corner of the Cholistan Desert in Punjab Province, power transmission lines, water pipes and a pristine new road cross 4,050 hectares of parched, sandy land.
The provincial government has spent US$5 million to put in place the infrastructure as it seeks to transform the desolate area into one of the world’s largest solar-power parks, capable one day of generating up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity.
The desert park in Bahawalpur District is the latest effort to tackle the rolling blackouts which have inflicted misery on people and strangled Pakistan’s economic growth.
Temperatures can reach 50?C in the country’s center in June and July, sending demand for electricity soaring and leaving a shortfall of around 4,000MW.
“In phase one, a pilot project producing 100MW of electricity will hopefully be completed by the end of this year,” Imran Sikandar Baluch, head of the Bahawalpur District administration, told reporters.
“After completion of the first 100MW project, the government will invite investors to invest here for the 1,000MW,” he said.
Engineers and workers toil in the desert under the scorching sun to complete the boundary wall, with authorities hoping to begin generating electricity by November.
“If you come here after one-and-a-half years, you will see a river of [solar] panels, residential buildings and offices; it will be a new world,” site engineer Muhammad Sajid said.
Besides solar energy, Pakistan is also trying to tap its unexploited coal reserves in another area of the same desert, in Sindh Province. In January, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated construction on a US$1.6 billion coal plant in the Sindh town of Thar.
Work has also begun on a pilot 660MW coal-fired plant in Gadani, a small town on the Arabian Sea. Another 600MW coal plant has also been given the go-ahead in the southern city of Jamshoro.
However, while coal may offer a temporary fix to the energy crisis, authorities are hoping to move to cleaner electricity in the long run.
“We need energy badly and we need clean energy; this is a sustainable solution for years to come,” Baluch said.
“Pakistan is a place where you have a lot of solar potential. In Bahawalpur, with very little rain and a lot of sunshine, it makes the project feasible and more economical,” he said.
Baluch believes that the new solar park will make Pakistan a leader in that energy in the region.
The initial pilot project is a government scheme, but private investors are also taking an interest.
Raja Waqar of Islamabad-based Safe Solar Power is among them. His company plans to invest US$10 million to build a 10MW project in the new park.
“The government has allotted us land over here. Infrastructure — the transmission line and road are available here — that is why we are investing,” Waqar said.
Spending 1 million dollars per megawatt is a sizeable investment, but Waqar said the company expected to reap returns on it for at least the next decade — and others were looking to get on board.
“There are up to 20 companies who are investing in this park and their projects are in the pipeline,” he said. “Some of them are working on 50MW, some on 10 and others on 20.”