In the posh Defence district of Lahore, Naveed Sheikh recently installed 32 large Canadian Solar panels on the roof of his villa.
Though the payback on his $14,000 investment will take more than 10 years, Mr. Sheikh, a former banker turned caterer, says it isn’t about the practical math, especially after struggling with 12 hours of electricity blackouts a day for over a year. “The mental relief that I have [now] – there is nothing to beat that,” he said.
Across Pakistan, people need a quick fix to an electricity crisis that is crippling the country’s economy and eroding its quality of life. Unwilling to wait for their government to build promised dams and plants, ordinary Pakistanis are snapping up solar panels – not because they are eco-conscious but because they are desperate.
“Last year, there was no acceptance of solar being a solution. This year, people have come to realize that this is something that would help them in the power crisis,” said Abdullah Umer, head of the Lahore flagship store of Nizam Energy, whose company has teamed up with Guelph-based Canadian Solar to sell made-in-China panels. It has completed more than 100 commercial and residential projects in 10 months. “We’ve only touched, I think, about 15 to 20 per cent of the [solar] market up until now – 80 per cent of the market is still untapped,” he said.
The number of companies has jumped from 120 a year ago to nearly 450 today, explained Mr. Umer, adding that many of them are small single-person startups that are looking to ride the solar wave.
Solar-panel prices have been dropping globally and have brought the technology within reach of Pakistan’s middle and upper classes.
Ramadan will no doubt fuel the hunger for more panels. The central government failed to deliver on a promise to suspend “loadshedding” during key times when people are preparing to start their fast before sunrise and when they are about to break their 16-hour fast at sunset.
Lahore residents protested in the streets and burned tires, reported Geo News.
The tipping point, according Mr. Umer, came earlier this year when the government of Punjab, the country’s most populous and prosperous province, distributed 210,000 free solar lanterns that would have otherwise cost just over a month’s average wage – about $125 each.
“People who interacted with that system did realize that solar does work,” he said, adding that each lantern could power three bulbs.
The federal government is also jumping in. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has expressed interest in alternative energies like solar power as an important part of the solution to the electricity crisis. During a visit to China this month, he visited a solar company and invited Chinese investment in Pakistan.
Last month, Mr. Sharif’s younger brother, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, said his province was teaming up with the Asian Development Bank to deliver solar energy projects totalling 2,000 megawatts.
Pakistan’s current electricity generation capacity is 23,5000 megawatts. It needs to be producing up to 6,000 extra megawatts in order to meet the existing demand that will only continue to rise as Pakistanis build bigger homes and install electricity-heavy appliances.
To solve the power crisis, the current government is leaning to hydro-electricity projects and converting existing power plants that use costly imported oil in to less expensive coal plants. There is also talk of Chinese-built nuclear reactors.
In the meantime, there are large solar companies such as Saudi Arabia-owned Tuwairqi and Pakistani-owned Izhar trying to fill the darkness, fitting government buildings, malls, universities and converting traffic signals to solar.
There are also smaller companies such as Islamabad-based Sun Energy System, whose common residential installation is a one-kilowatt solar-panel system costing the equivalent of $1,660 and powering five ceiling fans, five energy-saving bulbs and an LCD television.
Earlier this year, Sun used Facebook to reach Pakistanis living in Canada, inviting them to buy a solar-panel system for loved ones in Pakistan ahead of summer and Ramadan. “We installed about 35 units,” said general manager Mohammed Aamir Malik about the campaign. “We had so much work here that we didn’t pursue it any further.”
The savvy entrepreneurs of Lahore’s bustling computer market on Hall Road are also looking to ride the solar wave. Along with the latest deals on laptops, cell phones and car audio systems, every third shop is now selling solar panels.
“People are looking at neighbours [who have installed solar panels] and then they want it too,” said salesman Sohail Ahmed. Outside his shop, a rickshaw driver is busy loading three boxed solar panels – about the width of the rickshaw – into the back seat before leaving with the new owners.
Hall Road’s latest niche product – solar panels – riles Abdullah Umer at Nizam Energy’s offices on the other side of the city.
“You’ve got panels that are of sub-standard quality, panels that are being falsely re-branded – a 100-watt panel being sold as a 150-watt panel. This is where people lose confidence,” he said.
But salesman Mr. Ahmed says the panels are, in fact, authentic and reliable.
“The government should support this [solar energy]. They should give people subsidies for installing these panels,” said senior police officer Javed Hussain, as he examined dozens of stacked five-foot-tall solar panels for his elderly mother’s home.
“Her [back-up battery] has been dead for two months,” he said, adding that she lives outside Lahore where blackouts are so acute that home-battery systems powering a few ceiling fans and light bulbs are not getting re-charged by the electricity grid.
As the clock ticks on the national government’s promise to solve the electricity crisis in three years, Mr. Hussein sees solar as a key part of the solution.
“I don’t see what else they can do,” he said, adding that making hydro-electric dams will take time.