By Khurram Shahzad, AFP
BADAIWANI WALA, Pakistan–For years Pakistanis have sweated and cursed through summer power cuts, but now the government plans to harness the sun’s ferocious heat to help tackle the country’s chronic energy crisis. In a corner of the Cholistan desert in Punjab province, power transmission lines, water pipes and a pristine new road cross 10,000 acres of parched, sandy land. The provincial government has spent US$5 million to put in place the infrastructure as it seeks to transform the desolate area into one of the world’s largest solar power parks, capable one day of generating up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity. The desert park in Bahawalpur district is the latest scheme to tackle the rolling blackouts which have inflicted misery on people and strangled economic growth. Temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius in the country’s center in June and July, sending demand for electricity soaring and leaving a shortfall of around 4,000 MW. “In phase one, a pilot project producing 100 MW of electricity will hopefully be completed by the end of this year,” Imran Sikandar Baluch, head of the Bahawalpur district administration, told AFP. “After completion of the first 100 MW project, the government will invite investors to invest here for the 1,000 megawatts.” River of Solar Panels Engineers and laborers are working in the desert under the scorching sun to complete the boundary wall, with authorities keen to begin generating solar electricity by November. “If you come here after one and a half years, you will see a river of (solar) panels, residential buildings and offices — it will be a new world,” said site engineer Muhammad Sajid, gesturing to the desert. Besides solar, Pakistan is also trying to tap its unexploited coal reserves — which lie in another area of the same desert, in Sindh province.
In January Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated construction on a US$1.6 billion coal plant in the town of Thar, in Sindh. Work has also begun on a pilot 660 megawatt coal-fired plant in Gadani, a small town on the Arabian Sea. Another 600 megawatt coal plant has also been given the go-ahead in the southern city of Jamshoro. But while coal may offer a short-term fix to the energy crisis, authorities are keen to move to cleaner electricity in the long run. “We need energy badly and we need clean energy, this is a sustainable solution for years to come,” said Baluch.