Renewables find niche in Pakistan

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An extreme electricity shortage in Pakistan has left many Pakistanis looking for alternatives to power from the grid. Now a growing number are turning to energy from the sun and wind. Asma Khalid reports from Lahore.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. One of the luxuries of living in a country like the US is that we can take a lot for granted like a reliable supply of electricity, for instance. Millions of residents of the developing world aren't so fortunate. Yesterday we reported on an electricity crisis in oil-rich Venezuela. Today we bring you a similar story from another part of the world, but with a twist. An extreme power shortage in Pakistan has a growing number of people there turning to energy from the sun and the wind. Asma Khalid has our story.

ASMA KHALID: College students Mehreen Ahmed and Madeeha Virk are longtime friends and neighbors. They're cooking dinner together in their middle-class, Lahore neighborhood in the dark. The power is out again. As they chop vegetables in the dim glow of one battery-powered light bulb, the young women joke that they feel like their grandparents living in a village fifty years ago, with one big difference.


KHALID: We were born into a city of bright lights, they say. But today, that city is often dark. More than 40% of Pakistanis have no access to electricity. And even those who do have power suffer through constant blackouts. The country's electric grid has lagged far behind demand for years. So utility companies now rely on blackouts to ration the supply. The chronic outages have led to riots and promises from the government to address the problem. But, a few Pakistanis who can afford to are taking matters into their own hands.

SHAHID SYEED KHAN: These are our solar panels, and that's our wind turbine.

KHALID: Architect Shahid Syeed Khan stands on the roof of his Karachi home with some of the technology that's helping him sidestep the city's creaky electric system. His 10 solar panels and single wind turbine generate 5 kilowatts of electricity. That's enough to run a computer, TV, eight fans, and forty light bulbs. It also charges up batteries for when the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow. Khan has also designed his home to use less electricity than most of his neighbors. For instance, downstairs there's a wind tunnel to circulate air.

KHAN: You can feel the breeze here at this moment in time. Very rarely do we have to use air conditioners in this house.

KHALID: Khan is not totally off the grid. For now, his renewables are just a backup system. And an expensive one. It cost more than six thousand dollars. That's way beyond the means of an average Pakistani. But Khan says it's more reliable than the conventional batteries or generators many others here rely on. And in the long run, he says, it's cheaper.

KHAN: The investment will pay back in five years.

KHALID: After that, his power will be free. And, of course, the system is emissions-free as well. That's a big upside for someone like Khan, who's passionate about the environment. But most Pakistanis likely don't care about being low-carbon. They just want to live a normal life. Muhammad Sarwar is tapping into that desire. Sarwar sells backup electricity systems from this office in Karachi, including an average of about 10 kilowatts a day of solar and wind systems. He appreciates the environmental benefits of clean renewable power, but he's motivated by patriotism.


KHALID: Sarwar speaks in a mix of Urdu and English that's common here. He says when he was in college he read about Pakistan's looming power shortage. He decided he had to help solve the problem. Today, he sells his power systems mostly to factories, villages and universities. So far, the high price has limited his sales of renewable systems to just a handful of homeowners. But Sarwar is optimistic his work will help bring renewables into the mainstream. And so is the architect Shahid Syeed Khan.

KHAN: When the mobile phone first came, I couldn't afford one. In fact, when the computers first came, I couldn't afford one. But now everybody has mobile phones. We all can afford computers. So as more and more of it is spent on the technology and more and more people get involved in purchasing it, the prices start to come down.

KHALID: Governments around the world are making big investments in renewable energy to try to bring prices down. Earlier this year, Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari committed to making renewables a bigger part of the answer to his country's energy crisis. The government set a goal of getting at least 5% of Pakistan's electricity from renewables by 2030. But Pakistan has a poor record of living up to its energy promises. So, for now, it's largely up to ordinary Pakistanis to stimulate the market for renewables. Back in the kitchen in Lahore, Mehreen Ahmed says the promise of even more blackouts this summer doesn't discourage her. Instead, it inspires her.

MEHREEN AHMED: It's very necessary to have energy efficient housing, solar panels, green buildings.

KHALID: We need solar panels and energy efficient houses, Ahmed says. She's majoring in architecture in school. She wants to build that next generation of homes here. Houses designed to help nudge Pakistan toward a clean and reliable energy future. For the World, I'm Asma Khalid, Lahore, Pakistan.