Off-grid solar: A new hope for Pakistan’s double energy crisis

By Susie Wheeldon, GOGLA Research Advisor

In 2013, Sierra Club Chairman, Carl Pope, noted “Pakistan has two very serious energy problems; energy reliability and energy access.” Four years later the chronic situation is, if anything, even worse: 67 million people still live without access to any power supply, while a further 75 million lack access to reliable energy. In rural areas, power cuts can last for 22 hours a day, while earlier this year, Pakistani media reported that, even in urban centres, energy shortfalls led to power outages for 7-10 hours.

Through a lens of traditional energy provision – the future looks bleak. Pakistan is a net importer of energy, with 40% of generation now coming from the most expensive furnace oil, and the crisis hit a new low this month when thick smog “engulfed” vast areas of the Punjab and caused major transmission circuits and grid stations to trip – leading to 11 major power plants being taken off-line. The situation was emblematic of the Catch 22 predicament of the country’s current energy policy: the crisis leads to reliance on expensive oil power to maintain supply, which then locks in high costs, reduces the ability to improve the power infrastructure, and further undermines efforts to increase energy access, or improve reliability.

Yet, for those without power, a glimmer of hope is emerging: off-grid solar.



Nizam Energy is one of a growing group of off-grid energy enterprises working tirelessly to combat energy poverty in the country. In 2016, the company started an off-grid division, Nizam Bijli, and since then the company has helped un-electrified households across the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan to access 10-100Wp solar systems, installed nearly 500 solar water pumps, and enabled thousands of people to get clean power or water for the first time.

Now, early data from research into the socio-economic benefits of off-grid solar has revealed that – as well as providing power to off-grid households – those who have unreliable grid supply are also beginning to seek out alternative solutions. The notable number of customers in areas with grid-power was unexpected by researchers, but came as no surprise to Nizam’s Team. As Alizeh Tariq, the company’s Business Development Manager, advised:

“People talk about those who are ‘underserved’, but to put that in the Pakistani context, ‘underserved’ can mean blackouts that last nearly 24 hours; it stops people from working, causes dangerous power cuts in health centres and -- on days when temperatures rise to 120 degrees Fahrenheit [49 degrees Celsius] – means families can neither light their homes or turn a fan on to combat the relentless heat. It is dangerous, debilitating and stops millions of people from reaching their potential. Very quickly, off-grid solar can change that”.

Interviews with Nizam’s customers also indicated that, as well as for household use, many new systems are being purchased by business owners who recognise the high value of off-grid solar in driving enterprise.

Another Pakistan-based company which has seen this gap in the market is EcoEnergy. The organisation estimates that around 40% of its customers use their systems to support income generating activities. Last year EcoEnergy received investment from established off-grid energy provider BBOXX, and last week it announced that it will acquire Brighterlite Pakistan– another indication of increased activity in the region.

The growing potential of decentralized renewables has also been recognised by the Asian Development Bank. In an article on Pakistan last year, its Principal Energy Specialist, Sohail Hasnie, highlighted that, “Off-grid solar is the ONLY way to bring electricity to all by 2020.”

With 70% of Pakistan’s population living either without energy access or without a reliable energy supply, solving the crisis certainly won’t be easy, but with the rise of solar alternatives, perhaps those both off-grid, and those woefully underserved by it, will at last see a light at the end of the tunnel.

Photo credit: Nizam Energy.

This article is part of a series of blog posts on the off-grid solar market in Asia in the run-up to the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo (22-24 January 2017 in Hong Kong). Organized by GOGLA and Lighting Global and supported by the World Bank's ESMAP program, the Forum and Expo is the world's premier off-grid solar event bringing together more than 500 off-grid solar professionals. Read more at www.offgridsolarforum.org.

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