Pakistan harnesses the wind, but struggles to transmit electricity

With the aim of diversifying its energy mix and reducing emissions, Pakistan is turning to wind energy by encouraging private investments but the government’s transmission lines are not keeping pace with energy generation.

Swooping expertly under the huge moving blades, the seagulls dived into the water, the sound of their cawing drowned by the rhythmic drone of the huge machine. Set up by the Fauji Foundation, a welfare wing of the Pakistan armed forces, the 40 mammoth towers dotting the landscape are spread across 1,656 acres in Gharo, Thatta district in the Indus delta, some 85 km north-east of the port city of Karachi.

Owned by the Foundation Wind Energy these two projects of 50 megawatts (MW) each were built at a cost of USD 125 million each with 66 per cent foreign loans and borrowing 33 per cent from local institutions.

Pointing to the vast land, an inter-tidal area, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Hafiz Muzaffar Hussain called it “a wasteland”. He is the engineer heading the two projects owned by the foundation, and he spoke tothethirdpole.net about the engineering and construction challenges he faced. With no roads, even navigating to the place was not easy and water rose right up to the camp office during high tide.

“The soil is such we had to dig 32 metres deep to lay the piles’ foundation and fill it with over 300 tonnes of cement and 200 tonnes of steel to withstand the weight of the windmill, the pressure of the wind and seismic activity, if any. The road had to be raised several feet above the ground with underground drains made so that the seawater did not inundate and eat up the road.”

At one time, said the plant’s spokesperson, nearly 800 people were employed, “most of them locals”, but now that the plant is running, it needs not more than 20 to 40 people, with the majority of them providing security.

With the Fauji Foundation having paved the way, two more private financiers are seen setting up camp with heavy machinery strewn around their sites. “When we started investors were quite diffident; today there is a beeline of them veering towards clean energy, with nearly eight from the textile industry alone,” said Hussain.

According to the Alternate Energy Development Board (AEDB), there are six windmill projects – two in Gharo and four in Jhimpir. These are located approximately 85 and 150 km northeast of Karachi respectively, and feed 309 MW into the power-starved national grid.

“By the end of 2018, Sindh would be producing 1,746 MW of energy through wind power,” Naeem Memon, who is the director in charge of wind power at the AEDB, told thethirdpole.net.

Although the Ministry of Water and Power stated that Pakistan has a 1,046 km coastline in Sindh and Balochistan, wind power projects are currently only being installed in Sindh’s 9,700 sq km wind corridor where the Pakistan Meteorological Department estimates the wind power potential to be 43,000 MW, with the exploitable electric power generation potential estimated to be about 11,000 MW.

With the Fauji Foundation settling for tariff at PKR 13.91 (USD 0.13 ) per unit when it signed the project back in 2012, within just three years it has come down to a fixed PKR 10.9 (USD 0.10) on a pay-as-you-generate basis. “In ten years from now, when the loans have been paid, the rate will come down to PKR 6 (USD 0.05) or even less,” said Hussain, who sees a very bright future in this “unlimited” source.

“Pakistan has vast potential to harness clean energy including wind, solar and hydropower. Currently the country generates over 70 per cent of its electricity from imported thermal fuel putting a severe strain on the country’s finances. So yes, growing investment in the wind power is positive and an important step towards balancing the energy mix,” pointed out M. Ismail Khan, from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) which is a major lender to Fauji Foundation’s wind farms.

The ADB sees power as the main constraint for economic growth, stressing better load-management to minimize commercial losses.

The country has an installed electricity capacity of 22,797 MW, but production stands at a dismal 12,000 MW. In recent years, electricity demand has risen to 19,000 MW. About 25 per cent of power is lost through inefficient distribution networks, poor infrastructure, mismanagement and theft of electricity and this need to be fixed. Power shortage in the industrial sector has in the last few years translated into loss to economy to the tune of 2 per cent of the GDP.

Climate expert Fahad Saeed, who heads the Climate Change Unit at the Islamabad-based think tank Sustainable Development Policy Institute(SDPI), said it could be a good time for Pakistan to invest in clean energy by tapping intelligently into the international funding available and demanding technology transfer or investment from the USD 100 billion figure per year earmarked for the Green Climate Fund by 2020.

As for securing funding, Pakistan faced a double jeopardy. While on the one hand “one of the major challenges in this regard is the security situation of the country because of which foreign investors are reluctant to come to Pakistan; on the other hand the investment capacity of local banks to lend the projects is not that huge,” explained Saeed.

As for technology, Pakistan needed to develop its own indigenous capacities towards research and development regarding renewable energy. “No university or research institution in Pakistan is geared to take these challenges up to a satisfactory level,” he lamented.

With imported equipment and technology, the wind energy sector is feeling teething pains. There are some grid challenges. “We are producing more electricity than the transmission line is able to bear the load on its old system,” said its spokesperson. This results in many disturbances to the electricity supply.

The National Transmission and Dispatch Company (NTDC) that operates and maintains the entire network of 41 grid stations and over 12,000 km of transmission lines owned by Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority is unable to keep pace with the new technology and has to upgrade its weak and crumbling infrastructure. “We were told that the system could trip as many as 20 times, but in one year there were 200 such collapses!” said Hussain, which meant the plant had to be switched off that many times.

“There is just one 72 km long 132 KV transmission line and although a second line is available it is not functional yet,” he said. 

For its part, the NTDC is addressing issues related to integration of wind capacity in the system and planning grid stations at Gharo and Jhimpir with a 220 KV transmission line to be able to transmit an uninterrupted supply of electricity from the wind farms to Tando Mohammad Khan. “In its initial phase, which will be completed by end of 2016, it will be able to carry up to 750 MW load,” said NTDC spokesperson Afzal Baloch. “Work is being carried out on an emergency basis.”

Till NTDC corrects old systems and builds new ones, Maariyah Wasim – an electrical engineer also working with the SDPI – proposes a more “practical approach” of setting up microgrids as a smart solution. Microgrids are localized grids, usually established by the community, with their own power generation source and operate autonomously.

While adopting this fast growing technology, she pointed out that the cost of generation of wind needs to be kept in mind along with its capacity factor which ranges from 30-40 per cent. This means that electricity generated from wind power is not reliable on a steady basis compared to coal-based power plants. “The amount of power generation in gigawatt-hours (GWh) is a more accurate indicator than the amount of installed capacity (in MW) that is added to a country’s energy mix,” she said.

“It is important,” Wasim added, that Pakistan ensures energy solutions are affordable and they do not intensify the “vicious cycle of energy subsidies and circular debt”. The basic purpose should be to make “energy available at optimum rate to all consumers”.

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