The solar project
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BY RAJA MUHAMMAD ATIF AZAD | 9/30/2015 12:00:00 AM
ENVIRONMENTAL concerns do not figure highly on our list of priorities as we debate the merits of national projects. For instance, the Quaid-i-Azam Solar Park (QASP) has recently attracted much controversy about its operational efficiency; there has not been much focus, though, on the environmental costs, some of which directly add to the operational costs.

But solar energy is meant to be both sustainable and clean. After all, Pakistan is a sun-rich country and reliance on solar power can decrease fuel imports thereby improving energy security and protecting foreign exchange reserves. Moreover, solar energy is clean: as claimed, the project can save an estimated 57,500 tonnes of coal burn resulting in the reduction of carbon emissions by 90,750 tonnes every year. Once completed in 2017, the solar park will have the capacity of producing 1,000MW of electricity, powering over 320,000 households.

So what`s the problem? It turns out that if the solar panels are not squeaky clean, their efficiency can drop by up to 40pc. Therefore, QASP uses one litre of water to clean each of its 400,000 panels; this number will grow to 5.2 million panels when the project is completed.

The cleaning process is manual and takes between 10 to 15 days after which the process must be repeated -unless it rains. Since rains are rare in Cholistan where the QASP is located (thus allowing maximum exposure to sunlight), even a conservative cleaning interval of 15 days can cost up to 124 million litres of water annually. Considering the global average consumption of water, that quantity fulfils the annual needs of about 9,000 persons.

Moreover, the manual process can be suboptimal in a number of ways: dust can settle back before the panels are re-cleaned, thus decreasing energy production. Also, manual cleaning can cause wastage water and, sometimes, damage the panels. Furthermore, maintaining an infrastructure required to deliver water to the desert increases the cost of production.

These numbers should be seen in the context of future developments. The cost of solar panels has dropped by one-third in the last five years and should continue to decline at a rate faster than that for competitors such as wind and nuclear power. Also, since solar power does not carry the risl(s associated with nuclear reactors and large hydro-projects, its share must increase in the national energy mix. India, for a reference, aims for 100 gigawatts by 2022 (about 100 times the capacity of the QASP). Meanwhile, independent solar power production for domestic and irrigational uses is picking up, while awareness about efficient cleaning solutions remains low.

However, Pakistan`s water resources are depleting and the country has been declaredwater-stressed. The situation is worsening as the population grows in an already densely populated region, while intra-regional relations are less than enviable. Water disputes, thus, can be explosive. In fact, India is projected to face a water shortfall of 25pc by 2030. Also, erratic weather patterns across the subcontinent make water availability less predictable; this fuels demand for energy both to pump groundwater and to counter weather-inflicted disasters such as the heatwave in Karachi earlier this year.

Therefore, Pakistan must carefully evaluate its solar projects and look at water-conserving options from around the world to maximise gains. For instance, Israel a world leader in water conservation dry-cleans solar panels: instead of using water, the 20-acre Kibbutz Ketura solar parl( in Israel uses a crew of small robots to push the accumulated dirt as they glide along the surface of the panels. Itself solar-powered, the process is remote-controlled and can be repeated every night or as required.However, since importing Israeli technology can easily be misconstrued as endorsing Israeli policies, Pakistan must also look at alternatives. For example, in 2010 the prestigious MIT Technology Review highlighted research from Boston University that exploited the fact that dust particlesare either charged or can be charged, and therefore a small amount of electric current can repel these charged particles. Moreover, to bolster plans for a $109 billion solar industry in Saudi Arabia, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has produced solutions that are reportedly optimised for hot and arid climates.

Also, Pakistan must encourage domestic research and development towards water entrepreneurship; the Higher Education Commission must announce funding grants and link this development with the `Knowledge Corridor` that the minister for planning, Ahsan Iqbal, wants to establish in collaboration with the US.

Since energy shortages in the country have been acute, the government feels compelled to alleviate these shortages and thus maximise political gains for the next general elections.

However, political expediency should not sacrifice sustainability. Careful planning at this stage will be beneficial for the expansionary plans in future, and will ultimately mitigate costs that can potentially become untenable.• The writer is senior researcher at the University of Limerick, Ireland.