HOVING into view behind a row of eucalyptus trees, the twin cooling towers of the Sahiwal power plant, a 1,320-megawatt facility in central Pakistan, are so large they seem other-worldly. Yet it is not only size that makes an impression. Labourers built the entire plant in a record 22 months, a year faster than is typical. “Even at home we don’t work this hard,” says the chief engineer of the Chinese power company that operates Sahiwal, describing how floodlights were hung from cranes so construction could continue through the night.
Pakistan’s government is hungry for power. Last month the chief minister of Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, announced that his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), which also runs the national government, will shortly fulfil its campaign promise to end blackouts.
Fridges and fans still cut out without warning, but far less often, and for less time: in August the gap between supply and peak demand fell to about 12% of output according to Arif Habib, a research firm, the lowest in years. That is thanks chiefly to a construction blitz. By elections due next year, the PML-N will have installed some 9,000 megawatts of generation capacity, increasing the total by half. “We will remove the darkness from Pakistan,” proclaims Mr Sharif, under a glittering chandelier in his offices in the capital.
All this makes a change from 15 years in which successive governments failed to respond as population growth far outstripped the power supply. By 2012 outages lasted for as long as 20 hours a day, fuelling a sense of national despair. People were reduced to cooling off in filthy canals.
Much of the new power comes from private coal-fired plants like Sahiwal, built by Chinese firms as part of a $38bn investment in the power sector under a joint development scheme called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Coal-fired power previously accounted for less than 1% of generation in Pakistan, compared with over 70% in neighbouring China and India. Much of Pakistan’s electricity comes from huge hydropower projects, but their output is as variable as the rainfall that feeds them. Solar power, another potential alternative, presents similar problems. Meanwhile, Pakistan is beginning to exploit large indigenous reserves of coal.
But even if coal is a rational choice in principle, the power the new plants produce is expensive. Under the PML-N, the average electricity tariff for industry has risen to $0.13 per kilowatt-hour, higher than in India ($0.12) and Bangladesh ($0.09). In the cavernous gloom of a closed textile mill in Faisalabad, a manufacturing hub, a layer of dust covers a graveyard of heavy machinery. “Now we have electricity and gas, but because of the price we can’t compete with India and Bangladesh,” sighs the boss of the biggest textile firm in the city.
The government has at least stopped selling power at half the price recommended by NEPRA, an independent regulator, slowing the growth of the $8bn of debt weighing down state-owned power firms. But the expense of importing coal and liquefied natural gas is helping to sap Pakistan’s dwindling foreign reserves. If, as many suspect, the government is eventually forced to devalue the rupee, the cost of imported fuel will rise, further pushing up power bills. Earlier this year the energy minister was moved to another job after cautioning against building too many power plants that rely on imported fuel. Meanwhile, the construction of Diamer Basha Dam, a 4,500-megawatt hydropower project, has proceeded frustratingly slowly.