For Nabiha Amjad, mother of four, a day of four hour electricity cuts is a good day; sometimes the hours without electricity stretch endlessly without hope of light. But things may change for the better soon for the Amjad family and others like them across Pakistan, or so the government says.

Last week, the government announced “zero loadshedding” for more than 15 million consumers. The Minister for Power, Sardar Awais Ahmed Leghari, told the media that 5,297, out of a total of 8,600 feeders across the country will observe zero-load­shed­ding at the strike of midnight on December 3. However power outages will continue in areas where power thefts continue.

“There may be a policy to starve the feeders that have a poor record of payments and recoveries,” said energy expert Vaqar Zakaria, who is the chief executive officer of Haigler Bailly, Pakistan, referring to the defaulting feeders.

A recovery-based loadshedding policy is being pursued, quite successfully, in Karachi by the privately-owned electricity distribution company K-Electric for several years now.

But even theft may no longer be a problem. Given the increase in installed capacity Zakaria foresees a situation where “there will be enough supply available to meet the demand, inclusive of theft and unpaid electricity.”

“Additions to the grid will be in the order of 6,000 MW in 2017-’18; 3,500 in 2018-’19, 2,000 MW in 2019-’20, and 7,000 in 2020-’21,” Zakaria said. “Additions in the first three years are predominantly from coal (70%) and some gas (20%), but will shift to hydroelectric later on as hydropower projects under construction are commissioned.

Zakaria said solar and wind capacity additions will account for remaining capacity. “Additions from the fourth year onwards will be predominantly hydroelectric with Thar coal and solar also added in,” he said.

Press release by the Pakistani government

Amjad, living in a relatively new and affluent Johar Town area – which also happens to be stronghold of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), the governing party, in Lahore – hopes her area feeder will be among the 5,000 chosen ones, and provide her home with an uninterrupted supply of electricity.

When Amjad returned here from Abu Dhabi in 2008, after spending 16 years in a country where all basic amenities are available at the press of a button, Pakistan was at the peak of a massive electricity crisis. It came as a “great shock” for them.

Planning around blackouts

“There were times when we were without power for up to 16 hours day; at times I thought I’d lose my mind!” she recalled. However the family got “used to it and managed to turn their lives around to the loadshedding schedule”. TheUninterruptible Power Supply batteries certainly made the city slightly more liveable.

Of course there were weeks of respite when they enjoyed uninterrupted supply from the mains but according to Amjad, it was worse as “living in uncertainty is far more uncomfortable”.

The International Energy Agency has forecast that the total electricity demand of the country will be 49,078 MW by 2025. Pakistan has an installed electricity generation capacity of 25,100 MW in 2017; the average demand is 22,000 MW and the shortfall is between 5,000 and 6,000 MW because installed capacity does not mean the production of electricity is stable, often enough only 16,000 to 17,000 MW is produced due to low water in hydropower dams, because power plants go off the grid because of faults, or because of transmission losses.

There are scores of families like Amjad’s who have for over a decade now learned to live with intermittent power supply across the country. Cooking times, meal times, entertaining guests, weddings, visit to markets, everything was geared to match the loadshedding schedules.

“Once a week, I would plan to eat dinner at my parent’s home as I wanted to watch a TV serial during that time and my area would be without electricity,” said Huma Khawar, an Islamabad based development consultant.

Soon after the minister’s announcement, the world of Twitter came alive, some circumspect, some all praises for the government.

“Read a news bulletin saying: ‘Pakistan declared loadshedding free country’, 5 mins later, electricity goes” said Zeerak Ahmed from Islamabad. “Govt has very much fulfilled Nawaz Sharif’s promise of making Pakistan loadshedding-free. Even if not entirely, but to a great degree. Looked impossible in 2013” tweeted Ashar Jawad.

Some are cautious.

“Supply can be incremental or lumpy. Additions to power are generally lumpy, with each plant generating, say, 300+ MW. So if the shortfall is 3,000 MW and 10 300 MW plant come into operation simultaneously, deficit can turn into surplus overnight. Maybe this has happened,” said economist Kaiser Bengali, who has served as advisor to both the Sindh and Balochistan governments in the past.

Hassan Abbas, an environmentalist, agrees that it may not be “difficult for the government to let all cylinders fire together for a short while to make a political statement” and then go back to the old routine with electricity playing hide and seek with the people. “This short term measure of providing people with electricity a few months before elections may well do the trick!”

Transmission travails

In addition, Bengali wants to know how all this power will be transmitted.

“We need to know the story on transmission, after all, power cannot be transported in boxes!” he said, adding, “It is not just a matter of laying new transmission lines, even many of the existing ones are sub-standard and suffer regular burn outs.” Half of Balochistan, he points out is without any transmission line. “Should they join in with the power surplus celebrations?”

Nevertheless people like Zakaria feel the government deserves a pat on the back.

“This government has not procrastinated on power; this was their election strategy, and they have been out to create a win-win for themselves unlike past regimes.”

Unlike Bengali, he sees transmission as less of a problem since the new plants are located inland near the demand centres like the LNG plants and coal fired plant in Sahiwal (although the carbon footprint has been completely disregarded while transporting coal over long distances from the port in Karachi inland to Sahiwal).

As for the hydroelectricity capacity located in the north, Zakaria points out that it will not need to be transmitted southwards since coal plants will provide the necessary power. The surplus power from south, however, can eventually be transmitted through the under-construction high-voltage, direct current electric power transmission system lines under construction, if need be.

Outdated and expensive technology

There are still questions out there. Abbas is baffled by increase in 8.7 GW installed capacity through the use of “outdated stuff” when technologies that are cheaper to install, operate and, can be constructed and commissioned much quicker.

“Nobody will tell us the true cost of these projects which also include, besides the principal loan, interests and economic externalities,” he said.

According to Abbas, China installed 88 GW of solar capacity in 2016-’17 alone. Tesla installed a 100 MW battery storage for wind farms in South Australia in less than 100 days and they undertook similar projects in Nevada, California and Haiti. A French electric utility company, Electricite de France S.A., plans to supply power from a 300 MW PV plant for as little as 1.79 to cents/kWh. “And here we are, in Pakistan, bent on investing in energy projects based on outdated technology costing us anywhere between 400 Pakistani rupees ($3.79) to PKR 900 ($8.50)/kWh of installation,” pointed out Abbas

It is unfortunate, said sAbbas, that China is “helping” Pakistan with “outdated technology (coal)” but back home they are going on a “binge” installing solar at less than 10 cents per kWh.

While newer technologies may be quicker and cheaper, those making decisions are reluctant to go down that path. “They know how to get kickbacks and commissions in a particular type of project (dam/coal fired/FO), and would prefer to have that kind of project coming and avoid newer technologies which would require a newer learning curve for corruption!” he said scathingly.

Surplus supply

One Twitter user did a back-of-the-envelope calculation asked: “If Pakistan is producing surplus electricity then why only 65% population will be loadshedding free why not 100%? Doesn’t make sense.”

A figure of 90% access to electricity is conceivable, said Zakaria. The government can use the surplus power for anyone, anywhere. “The medium-sized hydroelectric projects (less than 100 MW) coming in after four years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan administered Kashmir will not only improve grid access, but take the load off the main grid.”

But more than questioning the surplus supply, figuring out how much grid capacity is enough, and when dispersed solar – including that of household rooftops – kick in, was important. Sadly, said Zakaria, “The planners are clueless on this.”

Why coal, why now?

The reasons for riding on coal, imported LNG and even hydroelectric power projects are varied. According to Zakaria, “The drivers are political, with Punjab and Sindh pushing for capacity; businesses like Engro, Manshas etc pushing for projects, and shortages (we need power no matter what) combined. At the same time the shift to hydroelectric has more to do with worrying about balance of payments than environment.” He gives the example of Diamer Basha dam which has not been given the priority it demanded and could have provided both power as well as food security. “This long term project does not yield election benefits” he put it candidly.

On the setting up of coal plants, Zakaria said when these plants were acquired, the prices of solar and wind based capacity were very high. “The situation has changed dramatically in the last few years. It is the classic case of inertia in planning that results in poor decisions. The politicians and businesses do not realize or recognise that commitments are being made for 30 years to buy power, while shortages are a near term issue.”

And so while the experts continue to question, many Pakistanis are reminding the government there is life beyond the Punjab province, with comments like, “There is 21 hours loadshedding in Khyber, FATA. When you say there’s no LS in Pak, do you mean there is no LS in Jati Umra [a residential area of Lahore where Nawaz Sharif lives]?”

This article first appeared on The Third Pole.