In­no­va­tive power so­lu­tions

The Pak Banker - - Front Page - Khur­ram Hu­sain

TOO much of our eco­nomic com­men­tary has de­scended into a pall of the same old laments. Not enough think­ing is be­ing de­voted to so­lu­tions that are out­side the box. Take the power cri­sis as the ma­jor ex­am­ple. All think­ing and com­men­tary is fo­cused on the large is­sues of fuel pric­ing and sup­ply, of cir­cu­lar debt and line losses. These are big prob­lems, no doubt, and their res­o­lu­tion is crit­i­cal to find­ing a way out of the sit­u­a­tion. But they are not the only way for­ward, and the deeply in­tractable and in­ter­con­nected na­ture of the chal­lenges they present means most re­for­m­minded com­ments tend to de­scend into a gen­eral la­ment at the hope­less­ness of it all.

What is lost in this ex­ces­sive gloom is in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions, small scale, that can be repli­cated in large num­bers. Some of the most in­no­va­tive think­ing in the field in­volves what they call the 'point of con­sump­tion' gen­er­a­tion. This means ex­actly what it says, that you gen­er­ate the elec­tric­ity ex­actly where it is meant to be con­sumed.

The think­ing is not dif­fer­ent from how com­put­ing has evolved over time. The ear­li­est com­put­ers were main­frames, large boxes with mas­sive amounts of com­put­ing power locked up in them, con­nected by wires to a mul­ti­ple num­ber of ter­mi­nals from where users ac­cessed this com­put­ing power sep­a­rately. In time main­frames were re­placed by desk­top com­put­ers, which con­tained all their com­put­ing power in one unit with a ter­mi­nal. And even­tu­ally of course the desk­top gave way to the lap­top, which has now given way to the tablet.

Some­thing sim­i­lar is hap­pen­ing in the power sec­tor around the world, but a lot more slowly.

The old model, to which we are all com­mit­ted, is of a sin­gle large power gen­er­a­tion house, linked by wires to many houses where the elec­tric­ity is con­sumed. But the new model en­vi­sions many small power-gen­er­a­tion points, lo­cated at the points of con­sump­tion, which can use the power sup­ply from the grid to sup­ple­ment its own ca­pac­ity, or feed its sur­plus elec­tric­ity back into the grid.

In ur­ban ar­eas, this is hard to imag­ine as of now. I don't know many peo­ple who have suc­cess­fully in­stalled so­lar pan­els at home to bring down their pur­chases from the grid, nor do we have 'two-way' me­ters that can chan­nel elec­tric­ity back into the grid for us.

But in re­mote ar­eas, a mar­vel­lous ex­per­i­ment has moved be­yond the draw­ing board into re­al­ity, and is gath­er­ing mo­men­tum. Across Gil­git-Baltistan and Swat and Dir, for in­stance, mi­cro hy­del projects are be­ing adopted with re­mark­able speed, and with re­mark­able re­sults.

Large num­bers of vil­lages, that were un­til re­cently liv­ing with­out any prospect of elec­tric­ity be­cause the cost of bring­ing the grid to them was pro­hib­i­tive for our cash-starved gov­ern­ment are now en­joy­ing free elec­tric­ity throughout the sum­mers thanks to a small tur­bine, and a man­u­ally cut chan­nel to carry wa­ter fall­ing from moun­tain streams.

The tech­nol­ogy used in these mi­cro hy­del projects is all in­dige­nously man­u­fac­tured in Be­sham near Swat. I hear it was brought to Pak­istan as part of an aid pro­gramme run by some Euro­pean agency, but I'm not sure of its ori­gins.

What I'm sure of is the speed with which it has been adopted across the moun­tain com­mu­ni­ties, from Dir and Swat to Gil­git-Baltistan. I've seen tiny vil­lages propped up high on rocky moun­tain­sides lit up with light bulbs at night us­ing this tech­nol­ogy, which the vil­lagers have pur­chased by pool­ing their money. And I've seen this across Gil­git-Baltistan.

Very sim­i­lar think­ing can be ap­plied down coun­try. In the plains of Pun­jab, for in­stance, moun­tain streams may not ex­ist, but the wa­ter flows in the canals can be used to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity dur­ing the sum­mers us­ing sim­i­lar tur­bines, adapted for use with slow-mov­ing, high vol­umes of wa­ter.

Small tur­bines in­stalled in con­tain­ers can be low­ered into the canals dur­ing the sum­mer time, with a sin­gle wire run­ning to the near­est grid sta­tion, and the elec­tric­ity pro­duced can be shared by a sin­gle community.

Thou­sands of such small-scale projects can light up large ar­eas of ru­ral Pun­jab through the dif­fi­cult sum­mer months, per­haps enough to keep small-scale in­dus­try go­ing and pre­vent liveli­hoods from shut­ting down.

This is not rocket sci­ence. It is al­ready be­ing done on a large and rapidly grow­ing scale across the moun­tain re­gions of the north, and adapt­ing the same tech­nol­ogy for use in the plains of Pun­jab re­quires only a small push from the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment. There are many 'point of con­sump­tion' so­lu­tions around the world which har­ness the lo­cal ge­og­ra­phy of the area be­ing ser­viced to de­velop in­no­va­tive power gen­er­a­tion sys­tems on a small scale.

So­lar ap­pli­ca­tions and wind ap­pli­ca­tions are very ex­pen­sive if we think of them in terms of the old 'main­frame' model of large-scale power gen­er­a­tion houses feed­ing a na­tional grid.

But if we think of them in terms of 'point of con­sump­tion' gen­er­a­tion they be­come a lot more fea­si­ble, es­pe­cially for com­mu­ni­ties that don't need much more elec­tric­ity than what it takes to run a few bulbs and a cou­ple of fans.

None of this is to im­ply that work on the large-scale prob­lems of the power sec­tor should stop. It is sim­ply to sug­gest that it would be a good idea if that work were to be sup­ple­mented by ef­forts to in­no­vate and de­velop more 'point of con­sump­tion' gen­er­a­tion ideas as well.

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