To Keep Power On, Pakistan Tries Lights Out

Some balk at energy efficiency measures to address chronic shortfall

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

The halls of the Gulf Way Shopping Center were dim and deserted, but filled with the racket of diesel generators powering the few lights there.

At 8:30 p.m., the mall in Pakistan’s largest city was still open, despite new rules from the government calling for shops to close early, part of measures to slash the country's electricity use and stave off power outages.

In this subtropical country of more than 165 million people, Pakistanis are in the habit of shopping late, and many shops used to stay open until 10 p.m., or even past midnight.

Despite the ongoing Taliban insurgency here, the economy has been growing fast, at more than 5 percent a year for most of the past decade.

Power production hasn’t kept up with booming demand. Many blame short-sighted government planning and failure by both government-managed and private power providers to build new generation stations. Others point out that conflicts between Pakistan's provinces have hampered the building of more hydroelectric dams. (Water shortage also is a chronic problem.)

(See “Nuclear Reactors, Dams at Risk Due to Global Warming.”)

Regardless of the reasons for the crisis, many shops are defying the new energy conservation rules, issued in late April, and the country is having trouble keeping the lights on.

Closing early “would be fine if the power wouldn't go out during working hours,” said Hasan Khan, who rents a small indoor stall in the Gulf Way Shopping Center that's jammed with colorful bolts of cloth, and lit with two low-energy compact fluorescent bulbs.

These days, temperatures across the country are often topping 100ºF (35º to 38ºC), and shop owners normally would fight the heat with air conditioners, often running full blast.

But customers know to come in the evening, Khan said: “They want to come earlier, but they say it is too hot when there is no power.”

New Rules for Weddings, Banks

Under the new rules, the festivities around weddings, which typically run well past midnight, must also wrap up early. Lighted signs and billboards are supposed to go dark at night. And government offices and banks are now taking two-day weekends, instead of the usual one day.

Even so, the country still isn't producing enough power to keep the lights on for everyone.

The solution, for now: Different parts of Karachi and other cities and villages have to take turns getting electricity.

By 9 p.m. one recent evening, the Gulf Way Shopping Center was in the midst of its fourth power outage of the day, a regular feature of life in Pakistan called “load shedding.”

Farooq Hanif’s jewelry shop in the mall normally would be brightly lit, making the gold in the display cases dazzle. But during the outage, the mall's aisles were dim as the shops relied on generator power.

Hanif said it’s hurting his business, because customers fear they’ll become easy prey for thieves when they leave his shop with their purchases. “It is dark here so people are scared to come and carry these things away,” he says.

In Karachi, many neighborhoods have regular outages of an hour at a time—three or four times a day. But unannounced power outages stretching to 12 hours or more also have become common.

The situation has triggered power riots. Last summer, people gathered on the streets weekly, burning tires and shouting slogans against the government, which manages much of the power sector, or the private Karachi Electric Supply Corporation. Sometimes these grew into violent clashes with the police, in which stones and bottles were exchanged for tear gas shells and baton charges.

A Need for Lifestyle Change

Despite skepticism from shop owners, government energy officials insist the new measures are paying off.

“It is very successful. There have been major savings because of this,” said Mohammed Khalid, director general of energy management and conservation at the government-run Pakistan Electric Power Company in Lahore.

“The unannounced load-shedding has been eliminated,” Khalid said. He pointed out that power managers are also making sure that electricity flows to the country’s textile mills—crucial, because cloth is one of Pakistan’s main exports.

“Before the situation was very grim,” said Tanveer Alam, spokesman for the Federal Ministry of Water and Power in Islamabad.

Now, Alam said, “People are slowly beginning to change their habits and are going shopping before 8 p.m.”

“It is absolutely necessary to change [lifestyles],” he said.

The cutbacks, said Khalid, have shaved down the peak electricity demand by about 800 to 1,100 megawatts. With the country's peak electricity production of 12,700 megawatts, there is still a shortfall of about 2,800 megawatts.

“It's too little, too late,” said economist Asad Sayeed, who directs the Collective for Social Science Research in Karachi. “They should have started this two years ago.”

Sayeed said it’s difficult to get everyone on board, because in Pakistan, “there has never been a conservation drive before.” His hope is that the new measures will be carried out in a transparent and fair way, to help a “sense of community develop.”

No Easy Way Out

That’s important, in Sayeed’s view, because working together to save energy will be crucial when there’s no easy way out of a crisis so long in the making.

It will take years to build enough new power plants, dig enough mines, or erect enough windmills to generate the needed electricity in Pakistan, he said.

Pakistan once had vast natural gas reserves, but those fields are not producing as they once did. The gas keeps the fires burning at many of the country's power plants, and the country has more cars than any other country—more than 2 million—running on natural gas.

“People used and abused it,” Sayeed said. “I remember when I was a child, some people would leave the stove on all day, even when nothing was cooking.”

"The big lesson is we blew it off, and we could have preserved these resources better," he said.

In the 1990s, many power plants were built to run on oil as well as natural gas.

"At the time it made a lot of sense because the price of oil was so low," Sayeed said.

"Nobody envisaged that the oil price would jump the way it did," he said. Now oil prices are so high that some of the oil-fired power plants sit idle, even as people clamor for more electricity.

It will take a long-term view to dig out of the crisis, officials and shopkeepers agree.

“But we have no planning,” said the jeweler Hanif in Karachi. “If a revolution comes then maybe something can happen,” he added, laughing. “Otherwise it seems unlikely.”

(See “Struggle for the Soul of Pakistan.”)

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