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In Power-short Pakistan, Switch to Solar Power Hit by Rumors


FILE - Technicians work on solar panel in power station at Hub about 25 km (15 miles) from Karachi, Pakistan.

Mohammad Aslam has finally found a way to give his family relief from extended power cuts. In February this year he installed a 300-watt solar power generating system on the roof of his house.

In Pakistan, power outages scheduled by the country's strained public electric utilities frequently hit households, lasting as long as 10 hours a day in towns and cities and up to 16 hours in rural areas.

The situation is worst during the brutally hot summer months, when air conditioners often overload the national grid.

Buying solar panels to create power at home might seem an obvious way to bridge the gap. But although the panels have been available since 2014 in Aslam's town of Larkana, in the southern province of Sindh, the 35-year-old entrepreneur waited two years before finally installing one.

Cost wasn't the problem. Instead, he said, he was put off by rumors that solar panels would actually make things worse.

Unscrupulous local utility officials, he says, told him that the dark-colored solar panels, built to absorb the sun's rays and convert them to electricity, would increase the ambient heat in the buildings they were attached to, pushing the temperature indoors even higher.

According to Aslam, the officials even said that the growing use of solar panels was to blame for the more frequent and intense heat waves that Pakistan has experienced - something scientists say is entirely untrue.

Climate change and worsening extreme heat is instead driven largely by a huge expansion in the use of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas since the start of the industrial revolution, they say.

"I discovered it was a fake rumor only after I installed the solar system on the insistence of my friend, a graduate in electric engineering," Aslam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

His friend assured him that the rumors were just a trick by utility company employees bent on discouraging wide-scale adoption of solar energy adoption in order to safeguard their jobs.

Tariq Mehmood, general manager of the Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO), a public power utility, said he was not aware of any IESCO employees spreading rumors.

"Our power utility has nothing to do with [any rumors] and disowns them. People shouldn't believe them," Mehmood said in a telephone interview.

‘A great relief’

Aslam's new solar home system - two solar panels, four ceiling fans, four energy-saving lights and a rechargeable battery - cost him $500.

During the day the system powers the ceiling fans and stores enough electricity in the battery to run the fans and lights for six or seven hours at night if the grid electricity supply goes off. The battery can recharge in sunlight in three hours.

"We have fans and lights [that] remain on whenever power outages hit us. What makes me more happy is that my family feels a great relief thanks to it," Aslam said.

Abdul Karim, a solar panel retailer at the Aabpara electronic market in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, said prospective customers often mention having heard the rumors that solar panels add to heat problems.

"To prove these rumors wrong, often I have to take them to the rooftop of my shop to show them the solar system that powers my shop," Karim said. "Then many buy solar systems from me."

As solar home systems become more affordable, many households see them as an alternative to trying to get a new electrical connection via the public power utilities.

According to Mir Ahmad Shah, executive secretary of the Pakistan Renewable and Alternative Energy Association, public utilities that control power distribution and supply fear that the gradual adoption of solar energy will make people less reliant on the national grid.

"Employees of the public power utilities are hampering this growing shift to solar energy through rumors, because they fear the growing adoption solar energy systems will lead to overall revenue decline from new connection applications," Shah said.

Cash for service?

Retired Pakistan Railways employee Raja Jameel said he was unsuccessful in getting a grid connection two year ago for his new home in Ghouri, a rural locality on Islamabad's outskirts.

"What [finally] worked in a matter of a few hours to get what I was denied for nearly four months was a $50 bribe to a superintendent of IESCO," Jameel said in an interview.

He said he believes that in some utility companies, employees responsible for approving new power connections try to dissuade potential solar adopters by spreading false rumors about the panels, largely because they do not want to lose potential bribes for approving new grid connections.

Jameel plans to build a second story onto his home to rent out, but he says he will install a 2-kilowatt solar home system to power it, rather than begging for a new power connection from the utility.

IESCO's Mehmood said that although the utility had periodically received complaints from customers about bribe-taking, it had taken steps to reduce the problem.

"IESCO management has controlled [bribe-taking] through a strong online public complaint redressal system established a few years ago. Besides, we have made the process of sanctioning and issuing new electricity connection systems more transparent and hassle-free," Mehmood said.

In an interview outside the Parliament building in Islamabad, Minister of State for Water and Power Abid Sher Ali did not deny that power distribution companies, including IESCO, have had problems with corruption, but said the government took all complaints regarding such matters seriously.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding bribery in the public power utilities across the country," Ali said.

The minister added there is a robust complaints mechanism, and that any employees found to have been corrupt are demoted or dismissed.

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