01/25/2013 07:12 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Renewables to the Rescue

You know an economic crisis is severe when, in a conservative Muslim society, you encounter not only squeegee men, but hijab-covered squeegee women at traffic lights, as you do here in Pakistan.

In Karachi, the lights stay on. In Islamabad there are black-outs and load shedding, but cars and taxis can still fuel up with CNG. Here outside the protected zones of those commercial and political capitals, the full impact of Pakistan's energy crisis comes home. Long lines of cars waiting for rationed CNG clog the streets, reminding me of the gas lines of 1974. Factories are being dismantled and crated up to be shipped to other countries, their owners no longer willing to tolerate days without power or natural gas for their operations -- cooking oil manufacturers lament that they are no longer able to provide quality products, because they have to substitute fuel oil for natural gas in burners which rapidly clog.

Pakistan has two energy problems. Most of the rural population is still without electricity, clean cooking, and most still -- a long-standing access problem. But the cities and industries that a few years ago had reliable electricity (mostly from hydro and imported oil) and transport (a significant fraction from Pakistani natural gas) are now strangling on interruptions, rationing and absolute shortages. This reliability problem stems from multiple causes -- global warming and deforestation have cut hydroelectric power significantly and dried up reservoirs (including the one built to serve Islamabad when it was created in the 1960s) dropping water tables. Sky-high world oil prices have made the 36 percent of Pakistan's electricity that comes from imported oil exorbitant for the local economy. Finally, bad planning, foolishly low prices and a failure to complete planned pipelines for supplemental gas from Iran or Central Asia have left the country desperately short of fuel for homes, factories and vehicles -- a triple whammy with no obvious quick fix.

But the electricity shortage -- both reliability and access -- has a surprising set of potential solutions. While renewable energy still retains a "too expensive for a poor country" reputation here, the reality is that short-term solutions to Pakistan's energy poverty almost all will come from efficiency and clean energy -- not historical sources like imported oil, mega-dams and natural gas. Pakistan squanders a huge chunk of its natural gas heating domestic water -- a low-grade task handled in China and Nepal with low-cost solar water heaters. Replacing diesel power generators in remote cell-phone towers and rural industries with small scale bio-mass would relieve the country of a substantial oil imports tab -- at a much lower price.

Sunlight, not oil, can be used as the source for water pumping. Meeting afternoon peak power loads with reliable roof-top solar panels would beat the cost of diesel generators, and pour voltage stabilizing electrons into the grid just when they are needed most - on hot afternoons. Pakistan's northern, mountainous regions boast thousands of sites for potential village micro-hydro projects, only 2 percent of which have been developed. The cost is trivial. Even remote villages have proved they can handle the upkeep and maintenance themselves. In Pakistan's populated plains, replacing kerosene imports with indigenous sunshine using small solar micro-grids could reduce the energy bills of the rural poor, increase their incomes and quality of life, and end the scourge of kerosene fires and pollution. And from Karachi north a stunningly accessible wind-corridor could provide up to 20,000 MW of cheap grid power -- whose fluctuations could be nicely paired with Pakistan's 30% hydro-power to follow seasonal and daily demand variations.

It's significant that all of these renewable solutions are cheaper than the fossil fuel options they would replace -- if not as cheap as the hydro-power and subsidized natural gas Pakistan had grown used to. But more important, each of these solutions can be deployed incrementally, quickly and affordably -- unlike massive power plants or dams or natural gas pipelines, which can languish for decades in complex regional, financial and political grid-lock. The lift they impose on Pakistan's capacity-strained governance structures is not trivial --urban roof-top solar requires feed-in tariffs keyed to the value of peak power, the wind corridor won't be developed without reliable long term prices and a better managed grid -- but compared to the difficulty of agreeing on some of Pakistan's stalled mega-hydro projects renewables can move quickly with only modest government support.

There are barriers -- a major one is that interests that profit from importing oil for power plants don't want to see wind and solar take its place -- but there are also powerful business and political forces demanding action now -- and the "now" part is what matters. Renewables may be clean -- but that's not what Pakistanis are demanding. Renewables are cheap -- that's nice, but not the most important thing. Renewables, however, are also fast -- and that may make all the difference, both to this country's ability to work through its twin energy crises, and to the legacy that response leaves for the climate.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."