In Pak­istan, switch to so­lar hit by ru­mors

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

Mo­ham­mad As­lam has fi­nally found a way to give his fam­ily re­lief from ex­tended power cuts. In Fe­bru­ary this year he in­stalled a 300watt so­lar power gen­er­at­ing sys­tem on the roof of his house. In Pak­istan, power out­ages sched­uled by the coun­try’s strained public elec­tric util­i­ties fre­quently hit house­holds, last­ing as long as 10 hours a day in towns and cities and up to 16 hours in ru­ral ar­eas.

The sit­u­a­tion is worst dur­ing the bru­tally hot sum­mer months, when air-con­di­tion­ers of­ten over­load the na­tional grid. Buy­ing so­lar pan­els to cre­ate power at home might seem an ob­vi­ous way to bridge the gap. But al­though the pan­els have been avail­able since 2014 in As­lam’s town of Larkana, in the south­ern prov­ince of Sindh, the 35-year-old en­tre­pre­neur waited two years be­fore fi­nally in­stalling one.

Cost wasn’t the prob­lem. In­stead, he said, he was put off by ru­mors that so­lar pan­els would ac­tu­ally make things worse. Un­scrupu­lous lo­cal util­ity of­fi­cials, he says, told him that the dark-col­ored so­lar pan­els, built to ab­sorb the sun’s rays and con­vert them to elec­tric­ity, would in­crease the am­bi­ent heat in the build­ings they were at­tached to, push­ing the tem­per­a­ture in­doors even higher.

Ac­cord­ing to As­lam, the of­fi­cials even said that the grow­ing use of so­lar pan­els was to blame for the more fre­quent and in­tense heat waves that Pak­istan has ex­pe­ri­enced - some­thing sci­en­tists say is en­tirely un­true. Cli­mate change and wors­en­ing ex­treme heat is in­stead driven largely by a huge ex­pan­sion in the use of fos­sil fu­els such as coal, oil and gas since the start of the in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion, they say.

“I dis­cov­ered it was a fake ru­mor only af­ter I in­stalled the so­lar sys­tem on the in­sis­tence of my friend, a grad­u­ate in elec­tric en­gi­neer­ing,” As­lam told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion in an in­ter­view. His friend as­sured him that the ru­mors were just a trick by util­ity com­pany em­ploy­ees bent on dis­cour­ag­ing wide-scale adop­tion of so­lar en­ergy adop­tion in or­der to safe­guard their jobs.

Tariq Mehmood, gen­eral man­ager of the Is­lam­abad Elec­tric Sup­ply Com­pany (IESCO), a public power util­ity, said he was not aware of any IESCO em­ploy­ees spread­ing ru­mors. “Our power util­ity has noth­ing to do with (any ru­mors) and dis­owns them. Peo­ple shouldn’t be­lieve them,” Mehmood said in a tele­phone in­ter­view.

‘A Great Re­lief’

As­lam’s new so­lar home sys­tem - two so­lar pan­els, four ceil­ing fans, four en­ergy-sav­ing lights and a recharge­able bat­tery - cost him $500. Dur­ing the day the sys­tem pow­ers the ceil­ing fans and stores enough elec­tric­ity in the bat­tery to run the fans and lights for six or seven hours at night if the grid elec­tric­ity sup­ply goes off. The bat­tery can recharge in sun­light in three hours. “We have fans and lights (that) re­main on when­ever power out­ages hit us. What makes me more happy is that my fam­ily feels a great re­lief thanks to it,” As­lam said.

Ab­dul Karim, a so­lar panel re­tailer at the Aab­para elec­tronic mar­ket in Is­lam­abad, Pak­istan’s cap­i­tal, said prospec­tive cus­tomers of­ten men­tion hav­ing heard the ru­mors that so­lar pan­els add to heat prob­lems. “To prove these ru­mors wrong, of­ten I have to take them to the rooftop of my shop to show them the so­lar sys­tem that pow­ers my shop,” Karim said. “Then many buy so­lar sys­tems from me.”

As so­lar home sys­tems be­come more af­ford­able, many house­holds see them as an al­ter­na­tive to try­ing to get a new elec­tri­cal con­nec­tion via the public power util­i­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Mir Ah­mad Shah, ex­ec­u­tive sec­re­tary of the Pak­istan Re­new­able and Al­ter­na­tive En­ergy As­so­ci­a­tion, public util­i­ties that con­trol power dis­tri­bu­tion and sup­ply fear that the grad­ual adop­tion of so­lar en­ergy will make peo­ple less re­liant on the na­tional grid. “Em­ploy­ees of the public power util­i­ties are ham­per­ing this grow­ing shift to so­lar en­ergy through ru­mours, be­cause they fear the grow­ing adop­tion so­lar en­ergy sys­tems will lead to over­all rev­enue de­cline from new con­nec­tion ap­pli­ca­tions,” Shah said.

Cash for Ser­vice?

Re­tired Pak­istan Rail­ways em­ployee Raja Jameel said he was un­suc­cess­ful in get­ting a grid con­nec­tion two year ago for his new home in Ghouri, a ru­ral lo­cal­ity on Is­lam­abad’s out­skirts. “What (fi­nally) worked in a mat­ter of a few hours to get what I was de­nied for nearly four months was a $50 bribe to a su­per­in­ten­dent of IESCO,” Jameel said in an in­ter­view.

He said he be­lieves that in some util­ity com­pa­nies, em­ploy­ees re­spon­si­ble for ap­prov­ing new power con­nec­tions try to dis­suade po­ten­tial so­lar adopters by spread­ing false ru­mors about the pan­els, largely be­cause they do not want to lose po­ten­tial bribes for ap­prov­ing new grid con­nec­tions. Jameel plans to build a sec­ond storey onto his home to rent out, but he says he will in­stall a 2-kilo­watt so­lar home sys­tem to power it, rather than beg­ging for a new power con­nec­tion from the util­ity.

IESCO’s Mehmood said that al­though the util­ity had pe­ri­od­i­cally re­ceived com­plaints from cus­tomers about bribe-tak­ing, it had taken steps to re­duce the prob­lem. “IESCO man­age­ment has con­trolled (bribe-tak­ing) through a strong on­line public com­plaint re­dres­sal sys­tem es­tab­lished a few years ago. Be­sides, we have made the process of sanc­tion­ing and is­su­ing new elec­tric­ity con­nec­tion sys­tems more trans­par­ent and has­sle­free,” Mehmood said.

In an in­ter­view out­side the Par­lia­ment build­ing in Is­lam­abad, Min­is­ter of State for Wa­ter and Power Abid Sher Ali did not deny that power dis­tri­bu­tion com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing IESCO, have had prob­lems with cor­rup­tion, but said the gov­ern­ment took all com­plaints re­gard­ing such mat­ters se­ri­ously. “We have a zero tol­er­ance pol­icy re­gard­ing bribery in the public power util­i­ties across the coun­try,” Ali said. The min­is­ter added there is a ro­bust com­plaints mech­a­nism, and that any em­ploy­ees found to have been cor­rupt are de­moted or dis­missed. — Reuters

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