ISLAMABAD // Homeowners in electricity-starved Pakistan are turning to wind and solar power in a bid to overcome a crippling power shortage that is causing deep dissatisfaction with the country's civilian government. Companies selling alternative energy devices say business is taking off as Pakistanis struggle to cope with blackouts of at least six hours a day and the soaring cost of fuel needed for generators.
"I decided a couple of months ago to go for wind energy because it is free, and in Pakistan right now, the energy crisis is very huge," said Salim Ansari, an engineer from Karachi who is having a wind turbine installed on his roof. "Families are deciding whether they buy food or clothes or electricity," Mr Ansari, 45, said. He said his turbine will cost about US$3,000 (Dh11,010) but will pay for itself within three years.
"When I run our generator it causes a lot of noise and pollution, it is expensive and it is bad for the atmosphere and the planet, so with a wind turbine I will get three benefits," he said. Oil prices in excess of $145 a barrel are causing worldwide economic problems, but in Pakistan they are adding to a growing political crisis facing the shaky coalition government elected in February. More than the US-led "war on terror" or the fate of the country's president, Pervez Musharraf, it is the drastic electricity shortage and rising food prices that are the topics of conversation in Pakistani homes.
Although most major cities in Pakistan experience daily power outages of at least six hours, the situation is even worse in the countryside where some villages can spend up to 18 hours a day without power. Pakistan's electricity network is short about 5,000 megawatts, mostly because of a lack of power stations, an inefficient grid system and the delay of several major hydropower projects due to local opposition and lack of funds.
As a result, electricity suppliers cut power for several hours a day because they simply do not produce enough electricity to meet the demands of homeowners and industries. Newspapers often advertise competitions to win a generator - but these are also becoming increasingly expensive to operate because of the rising cost of diesel, petrol and liquefied gas. The government this month raised the price of petrol by 20 per cent and natural liquefied gas by 31 per cent, at the same time, Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, said petrol subsidies were being scaled back.
To run a one kilowatt petrol generator, enough to power an air conditioner, a few fans, lights and a fridge, it now costs between $5 and $9 a day. As a result, people are increasingly seeking cheaper sources of power, said Kamran Rashid, the head of the Pakistan Solar Power Project, based in Islamabad. He estimated that around one per cent of Pakistan's 170 million people are using solar energy - mostly solar water heaters - and that the figure is growing.
"Pakistan has one of the highest amounts of sunshine in the world, yet we are not using it enough," said Mr Rashid, whose group works to increase awareness of solar energy, particularly in schools and non-governmental organisations. "I have had a lot of interest but the government must give subsidies and tell people about the options," he said, adding that the start-up cost for solar panels can be several times that of wind power.
Mohammed Tahir, a sales manager for the US-based firm, Emerging Energy Solutions, which sells and installs wind turbines and solar energy systems, said the company started operations in Pakistan two months ago and its first shipment of wind turbines is due to arrive from China this weekend. With more than 60 orders on its books already, the company is also planning a national advertising campaign.
"It is a very growing industry. We have a lot of potential for wind energy in Pakistan but we are not utilising it properly," Mr Tahir said. The turbines range in size from 350 watts, enough to power a few lights and fans, to one kilowatt, which can supply an air conditioner, to 20 kilowatts for industry. Hybrid wind and solar systems are also on offer, he said. Yet the initial costs of wind and solar energy remain out of reach for most Pakistanis.
There are around half a dozen companies selling wind power and about the same number selling solar. "We have just started the business to sell wind turbines to factories and for commercial use," said Munawar Kapadia, director of Kapadia Enterprises in Karachi. "We haven't sold any yet but I have had a lot of interest through advertising. I think it will really take off, especially in Karachi because it is very windy."
Pakistan's economic concerns are also causing alarm in Washington, which needs a stable government in Islamabad to pursue the so-called "war on terror". Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state, warned the Pakistani government during a visit this week that security, food and power were more important than internal squabbles over the fate of Mr Musharraf. Pakistan's water and power minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, warned electricity companies last month against any unannounced power outages in a bid to keep the situation under control.
But earlier this month, he said electricity tariffs would be increased from next month due to rising oil prices. The government has begun buying electricity from Iran, about 1,100 megawatts a year. It has promised steps to reduce wastage from inefficient transmission systems, stop widespread theft of electricity by people running wires from transmission lines to their houses, and launched campaigns to get people to conserve electricity.
China is helping Pakistan build a new nuclear power station. The government has also pledged to build at least four new power stations but has not said when. The civilian government has not promised anything substantially different to Mr Musharraf's military government, although they have backed away from his emphasis on hydropower "megaprojects". "The prolonged power breakdowns, acute price inflation and personal insecurity are likely to create an extremely difficult situation for the government in a couple of months when the patience of the people finally runs out," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst.
"The power crisis is particularly acute because it is also affecting industry. They need to invest in this now but with so many other challenges it will be difficult for them," said Mr Askari, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University in the United States. "My kids cry at night because of the heat but we cannot afford a generator," said Shaqeel Ahmed, 40, a domestic helper living in a two-room house in Islamabad with his wife and three children.
"This government is worse than the last." @Email:email@example.com