Geothermal Renewable Energy And Pakistan's Power Crisis

Pakistan has the opportunity to tap into its geography and invest in geothermal energy sources to generate cheap power, but it does not at the moment have any policy on tapping into this abundant energy source

Geothermal Renewable Energy And Pakistan's Power Crisis

The energy crisis is one of the most important structural issues in Pakistan's economy. According to a news source, "At present, Pakistan imports a third of its energy resources and ranks among the lowest (99 out of 110) in energy security, according to the World Energy Council". Extended dependence on imported fuels has mainly been the reason for the huge burden on Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves and the frequent fluctuation of fuel prices. The circular debt of Pakistan's power sector had reached Rs5.7 trillion by the end of November 2023. It rivals the annual foreign debt servicing burden on the country's coffers, a heavy leg pushing down on the country's neck. To battle this crisis, which Pakistan has been facing for the past three decades, it needs to invest in renewable sources as long-term energy solutions.

No country can work without adequate energy. At the same time, the most important thing for Pakistan right now is to achieve economic sustainability. It can do that by growing at a rate of 6% to 7% per annum over 10 to 15 years to improve the living standards of its population and meet its financial obligations.

In such a scenario, Pakistan has a two-part problem: finding energy and doing so at a cost that does not further its financial burden, and doing all of this very quickly. Introducing new technology in such a scenario could be key to mitigating this crisis. 

One solution to tackle the energy crisis is to explore the use of geothermal power. 

The industrial use of geothermal energy began in 1827, while large-scale electricity production from geothermal sources commenced in 1911. The world's first commercial geothermal power plant was built in 1913 at Larderello Steam Field, Italy. 

But over a century later, it continues to feature in the energy mix of various developed and developing countries. In 2023, the US had the largest installed geothermal capacity in the world, producing some 3,700 megawatts (3.7 gigawatts) of electricity through geothermal power plants.

A country worth mentioning here is Turkiye. With little indigenous oil and gas resources, Turkiye has around 1,700 megawatts of installed capacity in geothermal power plants. What is remarkable is that its first well started in 2017. 

Still, another case study is that of the tiny island nation of Iceland, which does not rely on import-driven energy; rather, it pioneered geothermal power generation to attain self-sufficiency. Iceland lies on a fault line, which implies that this country has access to abundant geothermal energy reserves. Iceland harnessed this energy to provide its people with cheap power to the extent that people could bathe outdoors in heated swimming pools throughout the year. They were also able to grow crops and farm fish. The aluminium production industry in Iceland now contributes to around 40% of its exports. Seeing their success, other developing countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, and Kenya have successfully replicated this model.

Over the past century, the technology used in geothermal power plants has evolved. One technology employed in countries such as Italy is dry steam, where the steam is sent to the turbine to power it. On the other hand, flash steam power plants and binary cycle power plants use hot water sourced from underground wells used in other power plants. These technologies have drastically improved the efficiency of power plants. 

Pakistan has been working to improve its profile of renewable energy sources, a segment that has shrunk in recent decades and tilted heavily in favour of non-renewable sources such as natural gas. The use of coal after constructing power plants under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has also increased. 

Beyond tapping into traditional, indigenous renewable energy resources, there is a need to work on geothermal integration and geothermal sustainable production by using heat extraction technologies from the deeper parts of the earth. With negligible emissions and lower operating costs, it can offer a solution for cheap electricity to the people of Pakistan.

Many geothermal hot springs and mud volcanoes (including some of the world's tallest) are found within Pakistan's seismic belt. The presence of these geological fractures can be exploited to produce abundant clean energy. In this regard, Sindh and Balochistan have lots of untapped potential for geothermal energy. Large reserves of this energy are found in Gilgit-Baltistan as well. 

Given Pakistan's geothermal profile, the country can potentially generate around 15,000 megawatts of power to meet its power challenges. Pakistan's per capita annual electricity consumption in 2022 was 644 kilowatts. The country's maximum total electricity demand in 2020 was 25,000 Megawatts. By comparison, some countries consume over 10,000 kilowatts per capita. This is a difference which not only manifests itself in overall production and power demands but also in terms of overall development. 

Pakistan has the opportunity to exploit geo-exchanges as well. To do this, all we have to do is dig deeper into the earth to a point in the earth's crust where the earth gets hotter and use binary geothermal power plants to produce power for heating buildings, operating water plants and greenhouses. This energy is cheaper and cleaner than coal plants. Moreover, this energy is available around the year.

At the Davos World Economic Forum 2022, one of the issues discussed was the need to develop long-term sustainable energy sources and how several countries had managed to grow their economies through the productive use of geothermal energy.

Pakistan is one of the 46 member states of the Global Geothermal Alliance. However, geothermal energy does not feature in any recent policy document of the IGCEP, Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB), National Transmission and Dispatch Center (NTDC) or Ministry of Energy. This lack of interest on the part of the government can be attributed to the fact that perhaps it is due to the high capital cost of setting up geothermal power plants. However, once operational, geothermal power plants are cheap to maintain and offer inexpensive electricity, as they do not require traditional, expensive fuel inputs and are always running. Hence, contrary to most renewable sources, they have high capacity.

Pakistan must be ready for sustainable development in energy growth through development, including sustainability and maintaining biodiversity in the ecosystem, and this can very much be achieved through the optimal use of geothermal energy, which is there in abundance within the seismic belt of Pakistan.