December 4, 2015
Perched atop Pervez Hoodbhoy’s rooftop are 10 solar photovoltaic panels with an installed capacity of 2.8 KW that supply his home with enough energy in the daytime to run an air conditioner in the summer, light bulbs, a refrigerator and a few other household appliances. He also has a solar geyser that gives him hot water “even in the coldest of Islamabad nights”. The nuclear physicist believes properly designed homes can save huge amounts of energy. His house is well ventilated and properly insulated so it stays “fairly cool” in summers and “reasonably warm” during winters.
In an informal chat with thethirdpole.net, Hoodbhoy discussed the lifestyle changes that he had made on a personal level to reduce his carbon footprint, as well as the concerns he has for Pakistan’s energy security.
Does your home, and all electrical appliances in it, run entirely on solar energy?
Pervez Hoodbhoy (PH): No, solar does not fulfil all our needs, but it takes care of about 60% of our electricity needs, and 90% of our hot water needs.
What other fuel sources do you supplement solar power with? Are there many cloudy days?
PH: We buy one gas cylinder every month for cooking, and grid electricity is used at night. Solar electricity and heating are in good supply for about 310 days of the year.
How much does your monthly electricity bill come to?
PH: Far too much! I think I have a faulty meter connection and I don’t have the patience to go and argue it out with the Islamabad Electric Supply Company. The solar electricity generated is probably more than the amount we consume daily. However, most of it goes waste because I am not allowed to return this excess amount to the grid.
That sounds bad. Is there a solution?
PH: Of course there is! In Europe, America and China excess solar electricity can be pumped back into the grid and the consumer is only charged for the net amount of electricity consumed. This is called “reverse metering”. If more energy is produced than is consumed, he is paid in cash. In Pakistan I hear that reverse metering has been approved by parliament and a few people are already taking advantage of it. But it is not widely available for lack of the special meters needed – these meters need to measure both the energy coming from the grid as well as going back into the grid.
Has anyone tried to run their home on solar as well after seeing yours?
PH: Several people made inquiries and I know that a couple bought similar systems. The solar geysers are very cheap and I see quite a few on rooftops. I really can’t understand why people use gas geysers which are more costly to operate when such a cheap, environmentally friendly option is easily available.
Do the solar cells, batteries etc. require a lot of maintenance?
PH: Four years after installation, all that was needed was washing of the rooftop panels to remove dust and blowing air through the control panel. The solar geyser has an electric rod for supplementary heating on cold days and it burned out once but was easily replaced at a minimal cost. The batteries have lasted four years and are going strong but will probably require replacement in 1-2 years. They are used at night or whenever the grid electricity goes off – which happens frequently.Do you think it makes more sense to harness energy from solar than nuclear fission?
PH: The reasons are pretty obvious – solar is safer than nuclear and it is now cheaper than oil or gas. Nuclear energy has not turned out to be so cheap if one adds up all the real costs. The fact that solar energy is available only during daytime means that better energy storage is needed, and this is coming fast in the form of high capacity batteries as well as techniques more suitable for large generating stations.
You are aware that Pakistan’s fourth nuclear power plant began operating last month. Why is Pakistan continuing with investing in nuclear reactors if this is an expensive alternative?
PH: Let’s be happy about this – and that we have not had a major accident so far. After all we do need electricity. At the same time, one hopes that truth about radioactive incidents will not be kept from us. More nuclear plants don’t make economic sense to me. We are going for nuclear electricity because the Chinese badly want to sell their reactors to Pakistan – we are China’s only customer for nuclear power plants. China has loaned Pakistan 80% of the amount needed for the Karachi Nuclear Power Plants (KANUPP).
You have never openly objected to the Chashma plant but have been quite vocal about the two nuclear reactors that are being built near Karachi? Why?
PH: After the tsunami initiated disaster at the plants in Fukushima, it became clear that having nuclear plants near any city was a bad idea. If something ever goes wrong with KANUPP, what will happen to Karachi defies the imagination. Fukushima was a small town of 80,000 disciplined people. Karachi has 22 million people most of whom feel no twinge when going through a red light. Evacuating them in any disciplined manner would be impossible. And evacuate to where? A catastrophic disaster doesn’t have to be caused by a tsunami – an act of terrorism, sabotage, earthquakes, or operator error (as happened at Chernobyl in 1986) could all take us down that path.
But with technological improvements and better safety mechanisms, would you say Pakistan should explore nuclear options?
PH: The global nuclear industry obviously aims to make safer reactors. But the problem is that no one can foresee all the ways in which things could go wrong. The fuel contained in a typical reactor core has more than a thousand atom bombs’ worth of fissile material. And, even though a reactor cannot blow up in the same way as a bomb, it can release thousands of times more radioactivity than was released by the bomb explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As far as our options go, Pakistan does not make nuclear power reactors. These are beyond our technological capability. Making bombs is far easier and obviously we are making lots of them.
Clean, cheap nuclear energy is often touted as a means to battle climate change. But how close are we to having nuclear plants that fit the clean, green bill?
PH: Climate change can be better fought by concentrating on solar and wind power, making more efficient electricity grids, and by cutting down on wastage. Also, if one looks into the carbon cost of making nuclear plants, the savings due to cheap nuclear fuel are much less.
How about if we use thorium fission reactors, or is this still an academic discussion?
PH: India has been planning on doing this for 40 years. There’s still no electricity being produced by thorium fuelled reactors. In any case, it’s not an option for Pakistan because we don’t have thorium deposits and do not have the capacity to make our own nuclear power plants.