Pakistan has substantial experience of deploying micro-grids based on micro-hydro systems in rural communities. The Smart Villages Initiative, supported by the Rural Support Programmes Network, Pakistan organised a workshop in Islamabad, Pakistan on 6 October 2015 to consider Pakistan’s experience of developing enabling frameworks for the dissemination of micro-grids. The workshop was an important event in the Smart Villages Initiative’s ongoing programme of engagement in South Asia.
The workshop garnered substantial interest from a wide-range of stakeholders, including representatives from the public sector, donor community, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private sector, and academia. Participants in the workshop were informed about the efforts of rural support programmes in Pakistan to ensure community ownership and involvement in the planning and execution of off-grid renewable energy projects. This is especially true in the case of micro- and mini-hydro power projects.
The success of distributed energy projects in the country has been a result of long-term involvement of NGOs like the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and the Sarhad Rural Support Programme with local communities. The rural support programmes under the ambit of the Rural Support Programmes Network have been actively involved in supporting self-help initiatives through the formation of village- and community-level organisations.
Micro-grids can supply electricity to clusters of dispersed communities in rural areas and can augment supply to the national grid if there is a connection. However, there is a lack of institutional support and buy-in within the public sector. Recently, public sector organisations, especially the Alternative Energy Development Board, have been working to increase the share of renewable energy in Pakistan’s energy mix. But the main focus of government efforts remains on large scale projects supplying the national grid. There is an urgent need to develop the necessary policy and institutional frameworks to support off-grid energy initiatives. The regulatory mechanisms developed by the government are highly centralised with minimal input from other stakeholders, especially the private sector. The lack of buy-in within the public sector also contributes to the lack of implementation of existing regulations.
Lack of access to finance and capital also constrain the development of micro-grids. Ensuring access to finance is a necessary, but not the only, pre-condition to overcoming constraints to the deployment of micro-grids. Financial support needs to be accompanied by efforts to attract skills and expertise from the private sector.
Pakistan has a long history of deploying micro- and mini-hydro power projects. There have been substantial successes and some failures along the way. It is important to learn from these examples to ensure the sustainability of micro-grids in the future. There is a need to ensure that projects aimed at improving energy access have a component supporting the development of enterprises that can use the electricity productively. These enterprises can have a positive impact on the rural economy and contribute to sustainable economic development. Developing local markets is also important as remote villages are likely to have fewer opportunities to engage profitably in commercial ventures. Linking micro-hydro plants to form micro-grids that supply electricity to a cluster of villages is also likely to contribute positively to the local economy and to provide energy for growth.
Extensive community mobilisation and stakeholder dialogue is a major strength of the country’s rural areas, and these resources can benefit the development of distributed grids. The importance of skill development at the local level also came to the fore, especially since communities are often responsible for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of the power plants and the allied infrastructure. At the donor level, there is a need to better coordinate funding activities and for donor harmonisation in supporting off-grid energy projects in rural areas.