By Aamir Saeed PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pakistan's northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province plans to supply solar power to 5,800 off-grid households in 200 villages, promoting clean energy amid conventional electricity shortages. The provincial government has earmarked 400 million rupees ($3.94 million) for the nine-month solar project, which will equip up to 29 households in each village. The scheme is part of the Green Growth Initiative launched a year ago in Peshawar by former international cricket star Imran Khan, who is chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which governs the province. The initiative aims to boost economic development in a way that uses natural resources sustainably, by increasing uptake of clean energy and forest cover, for example. The provincial government plans to hook up at least 10 percent of the 40 percent of the province that is off-grid in the next three years with solar power and small-scale hydroelectric plants, said Atif Khan, provincial minister for education, energy and power. It is already setting up micro-hydro plants - which harness running water and do not require dams - in the mountainous north of the province, while off-grid households in the south will be provided with solar energy. The government will pay 90 percent of the cost of the solar equipment, with the rest shouldered by households. Families will receive a 200-watt solar panel, two batteries and other accessories to run a ceiling fan, a pedestal fan, three LED lights, and two mobile phone charging slots. NO MORE 'BEGGING' In total, the project will generate 1.2 megawatts (MW), in the first stage of a wider plan to provide all off-grid households in southern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with solar energy. Across the province, total demand for electricity in grid-connected areas is 2,500 MW, but they receive only 1,600 MW from the national grid run from Islamabad, the country's political center. “We will exploit renewable energy resources and produce our own electricity, after which we will not need to beg from the center,” said Imran Khan. He told a workers' convention in Islamabad last month he would pay full attention to resolving Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s energy crisis, besides bringing significant improvements in education and health. According to the World Bank, some 44 percent of households in Pakistan are not connected to the grid. More than 80 percent are in rural areas, where a World Bank survey found that 30 to 45 percent of households use kerosene as a primary or secondary source of lighting. Some use candles, due to the high cost of kerosene. Pakistan faces a year-round electricity shortfall which rises to around 8,000 MW in the summer. The country’s rural areas suffer blackouts of more than 14 hours a day while urban areas experience up to 10 hours of daily power cuts. VALUE FOR MONEY? Promoting renewables is the best solution to the energy crisis, because lighting off-grid households with solar requires only a one-off cost and effort, said Naseer Ahmad, president of the Renewable and Alternative Energy Association of Pakistan. “Investing in (solar) energy is much better than investing in the construction of dams and exploration for fossil fuels,” he said. It also avoids greenhouse gas emissions, and provides a more reliable supply of power than the overstretched grid, he added. But he suggested the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government should cover only half the cost of the household solar equipment while the rest should be paid by the recipients to enhance public interest in the project and mobilize more funding to extend it. Ahmad also urged the provincial government to launch an awareness campaign about the benefits of clean energy, encouraging individuals to start installing solar panels on their own. “Solar energy will also improve people’s quality of life by cutting their spending on kerosene and firewood,” he said. Opposition party members in the province and some clean energy experts have expressed reservations about the project, arguing the government should focus instead on grid-based solutions. “The off-grid projects are a waste of time and money. These are temporary measures and are not sustainable,” said Senator Zahid Khan of the Awami National Party, a major opposition group in the provincial assembly. Most beneficiaries of the solar scheme are poor people, he said, raising the risk they might sell the solar equipment for cash, or let it fall into disrepair because they cannot afford to maintain it or replace the batteries. “The government should start building small dams in the province as this would not only help generate enough electricity but also provide water for irrigation and drinking,” he said. (Reporting by Aamir Saeed; editing by Megan Rowling)
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