Some 400,000 solar panels, spread over 200 hectares of flat desert, glare defiantly at the sun at what is known as the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Power Park (QASP) in Cholistan Desert, Punjab, named after Pakistan’s founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The 100MW photovoltaic cells (PV) solar farm was built by Chinese company Xinjiang SunOasis in just three months, and started selling electricity to the national grid in August.
This is the first energy project under the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a key part of China’s ‘new silk road’, linking the port at Gwadar in southern Pakistan with Kashgar in China’s western region of Xinjiang.
The 100MW plant is the pilot stage of a more ambitious plan to build the world’s largest solar farm. Once completed in 2017, the site could have capacity of 5.2 million PV cells producing as much as 1,000MW of electricity – enough to power about 320,000 households. Construction of the next stage is already underway, led by another Chinese company Zonergy.
Eighteen months ago, the site was nothing more than wilderness. Now a mini city has emerged in the middle of the desert, with over 2,000 workers accompanied by heavy machinery, power transmission lines, blocks of buildings, water pipes and pylons.
Reducing emissions, providing livelihoods
The Cholistan desert is an ideal spot for solar power, said Muhammad Hassan Askari, operating manager of the solar park. The area gets 13 hours of sunlight every day while the huge expanse of flat desert is ideal for a large commercial project like this one.
The big advantage of solar power, he said, is that a large park can be completed faster than thermal or hydropower projects, which take much longer and require a lot of maintenance.
The solar park will also shrink Pakistan’s carbon footprint, said Najam Ahmed Shah, the chief executive officer of QASP, displacing about 57,500 tonnes of coal burn and reducing emissions by 90,750 tonnes every year.
Pakistan aims to reduce its reliance on hydrocarbons, especially imported coal, oil and gas, to around 60 per cent by 2025 from the present 87pc. The country has a target to produce 10pc of its total energy mix from renewable sources (excluding hydro-power, which already constitutes 15pc of the total energy mix). The current generation from renewable energy is around 1-2pc.
While Pakistan contributes less than 1pc to global Green House Gas (GHG) output, the country’s carbon emissions are growing by 3.9pc a year. By 2020 it will spew out 650 million tonnes of Co2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) if the current trend continues, said climatologist Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, the UN secretary general’s special advisor for Asia with the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).
The solar park will also eventually generate 15,000 to 33,000 jobs for locals and attract investment to the region.
Some experts worry the project is too ambitious. Former director general of WWF-Pakistan Ali Hassan Habib, who now runs a company providing rooftop solar solutions, welcomed the project but was uneasy about the government “jumping into untested scale”. The plant will be double the size of the existing largest solar PV generating facilities worldwide, he said.
“It may have been better to build the equivalent remaining 900MW closer to where electricity is consumed — on say the rooftops of large parking lots — rather than installing it in remote locations,” he said.
Environmental impact of clean energy
Because solar energy is still finding a foothold in the energy mix and technologies are evolving, not enough is known about the park’s impact on the environment and natural resources.
Some negative impacts have already become apparent. For example, solar power consumes lots of water. PV panels may require little maintenance, according to QASP, but they need to be kept squeaky clean. An estimated one litre of water is used to clean each panel. Water consumed to clean the eventual 5.2 million panels built will be colossal for a country that is fast becoming water stressed. Currently, 30 people take 10 to 15 days to clean the 400,000 cells.
“This year we’ve been very lucky as there have been unprecedented rains and so panels were cleaned automatically,” said Askari.
The construction of a new road network and supporting commercial activities associated with large solar PV projects do leave a substantial “footprint” on the land, agreed Habib.
Shah justified the project, saying it was built on “uninhabited” “waste” land. “An Initial Environmental Examination was carried out and we got a nod from the Environment Protection Department before embarking upon the project,” he explained.
To offset any negative impact, Habib suggested the government set up an “environment and social fund”.
Environmentalists are also concerned about the fate of the millions of PV panels which will wear out within 25 years. The panels will have to be recycled to extract the silicon used to make them, and then replaced.
With just a little over two years left in his term, the success of the solar project is important for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
“The project has huge political implications for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N),” said Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) M Hassan Malik, who is responsible for the security arrangements of the entire QASP area.
”Through this project the government also wants to send out the message to the outside world that it has the capacity to undertake mega projects and will provide foolproof security to investors.”
Working in an area known as a hotbed of criminals and extremists, Malik’s job is challenging. “Not only is the park a national asset, we have foreign nationals working at the plant, so the sensitivity is two-fold,” he said.
There are 800 to 900 men guarding the site, where around 400 Chinese workers and over 2,000 labourers work at any given time.