South Asia has an interesting mix of countries displaying diversity in terms of natural resources, landscape, per capita income, culture, happiness index, etc. On the energy front all these countries today are facing a multitude of challenges in meeting their rapidly growing requirements in a sustainable manner.
While governments of each of these countries have been trying to do their best, there are still shortages in terms of access, availability, and quality of supply. For example, not long ago, Pakistan’s power supply situation was more than satisfactory with a surplus supply of electricity, while India was a sink for electricity in the region. While India continues to suffer from perennial electricity shortages, Pakistan is now faced with a serious energy crisis, less than a decade since its surplus scenario in the early 2000s. Energy chaos is not unique to these two countries only, other nations in the region (Nepal, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan) are also faced with the daunting challenge of ensuring energy security in varying degree.
South Asia, with nearly 20% of world’s population and only 5% of commercial energy consumption, indicates a huge potential for energy consumption in the region. Per capita energy consumption in India and Pakistan is less than a third of the world average, reflecting the vast majority of the population without access to modern energy sources.
Regional Cooperation in Energy Sector
As the region faces the challenge of meeting its growing energy requirements in an environmentally sustainable manner, a regional approach to energy supply, therefore, offers significant advantages in terms of improving the utilisation of existing supply and production capacities, improving access, optimising future investments, and nurturing a peaceful world.
Undoubtedly, there are distinct advantages for South Asian countries to cooperate in the energy sector. As energy has strong correlation with poverty, reliable energy supply will certainly help in alleviating poverty, achieving sustained economic growth, and improving balance-of-payments accounts for some participating countries, a fact which is commonly acknowledged by all.
An inter-connected regional grid can also help reduce volatility in the provision of renewable energy (RE) through better utilisation of grid connected RE, thereby, addressing the intermittency issue of energy production and consumption from RE. This could further spur the deployment of large-scale grid connected RE projects in member countries.
In the power trade, although there are instances of bilateral exchanges in the region (India–Nepal, India–Bhutan), there is no integrated regional market for electricity trading. Several technical feasibility studies have been carried out in the past two decades but the realisation of a regional energy trading market remains, largely, a pipe dream.
Examples to Follow
Around the world, several inter-country power pools from Europe to Africa are either in operation or emerging. Europe wants to expand its energy market into North Africa to tap the abundant solar energy potential of the Sahara. Talks are underway to establish a North Africa (Maghreb) – Europe inter-continental, inter-connection for electricity trade. In Southeast Asia, ASEAN has been active in energy cooperation. Unfortunately, South Asia has lagged behind in tapping such opportunities, despite the known socio-economic and environmental benefits on offer.
The Way Forward
If South Asian countries are serious about their energy future, it is imperative that they should come together, make vigorous efforts, and harmonise tariff-setting formulae, practices, develop market rules and regulatory frameworks for inter-connected grid with sense of urgency. The SEC (SAARC Energy Centre) was established with near ideal objectives of promoting development of energy resources, including hydropower, and energy trade in the region; development of renewable and alternative energy resources; and promotion of energy efficiency and conservation in the region. Either the dream of this institution has faded away with time, or it was unable to fulfill the same due to a lack of mutual trust and political willingness to move forward.
As several countries in the region share somewhat similar socio-economic characteristics, cross-border learning could easily be adapted to suit local conditions, driving maximum benefits. To enhance cooperation in energy – particularly in the clean energy space in South Asia – it is pertinent to forge new alliances to cooperate in planning, development, demonstration, and knowledge sharing for strengthening the region’s capability in addressing energy issues, thereby accelerating economic growth and social progress. In this context, experience and expert sharing for promoting renewable resource based electricity generation in the region, and the demonstration and transfer of renewable energy technologies (RETs) should be encouraged among countries in the region.
Such efforts would go a long way, not only in the development of clean and renewable resources as instruments of sustainable energy development in member states but would also create conducive conditions for a successful transition towards sustainable energy provisioning on a wider scale. TERI’s efforts in setting up RE-based lighting and water systems in the Pakistani village of Gah is a humble beginning in this direction. Greater partnerships between research institutions, industry, academia, and the civil society will act as soft confidence-building measures for establishing integrated energy-trading market in future.
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