Fifth-grader Mehak dreams of becoming a doctor. But the first step towards that dream — getting a formal education — has been fraught with challenges. As one of six children, her parents could barely afford to send her to school. When they did manage to enroll her to a public school in southern Punjab in Pakistan four years ago, studying was difficult because the school had no electricity.
“We had a hard time getting drinking water and we had to attend class in extremely hot weather,” Mehak said. “The fans won't work, and we were not able to sit in class and read in the summertime.” Summer temperatures in southern Punjab can regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius.
Around 10% of schools in Punjab are not connected to the electricity grid due to their remote locations, leaving them completely without power. Those that are connected to the grid aren’t faring much better. Power outages in Pakistan can last up to 10 hours a day in rural areas and four hours in urban areas due to inefficient transmission and distribution networks.
“ADB is working to provide wider energy access throughout Asia and the Pacific. The best way to do it is through the development of renewable energy sources.”
To bring reliable power to schools in far-flung areas that previously had no or limited electricity, the government began installing solar facilities. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) supported this through a $325 million loan that covered both Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where about 20% of schools are off-grid. Almost 2,500 basic health units are also being fitted with solar panels to ensure the continuous delivery of healthcare services. The project, which is nearing completion, is also supporting the construction of around 600 micro hydropower plants in off-grid areas in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
“ADB is working to provide wider energy access throughout Asia and the Pacific. The best way to do it is through the development of renewable energy sources,” said ADB Country Director for Pakistan Yong Ye. “We are happy to support the government of Pakistan to achieve its goal of providing clean, reliable, and sustainable electricity for all.”
“Since the approval of ADB’s Access to Clean Energy Investment Program in late 2016, over 10,700 schools in Punjab and more than 2,000 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have been fitted with rooftop solar panels. More than 1.4 million students are now benefiting from reliable electricity.
Improving the learning environment
According to Shamshir Ahmad Khan, CEO of the District Education Authority, enrolment in public schools in Punjab has risen since the installation of solar facilities. “People who used to send their children to private schools due to the inadequate environment in public schools have started transferring their kids after public schools got these solar facilities,” he said.
Public school teacher Komal Shahzadi said the improvement in the learning environment had changed parents’ and students’ outlooks. “(Before the solar panels) many parents would not send their children to school because of the hot weather in the summer,” she said. “(Having power) made a huge difference. Students now happily go to school.”
Saving money while gaining reliable electricity
These schools are not only enjoying uninterrupted electricity, they are also saving millions in utility bills. Punjab schools that were fitted with solar power collectively save around Pakistani rupee (PKR) 509 million (about $2.8 million) annually. Some schools are even earning by selling excess electricity to the national grid.
The Islamia University of Bahawalpur, which offers courses requiring state-of-the-art technology, also benefitted from the program. The solar panels installed inside campus grounds generate 2.5 megawatts, enough to power the university’s main campus during winter.
The university’s Vice Chancellor, Athar Mehmood, said they have saved around PKR 70 million (around $373,000) in utility bills, allowing them to spend on other, more pressing needs.
“The solar power project has been injecting a lot of good feelings among our university community. For one thing, we are assured that we are not depending on the grid as sometimes grid power is not available,” said Mr. Mehmood. “It’s also environmentally friendly, so we are contributing less to environmental pollution.”
As Asia and the Pacific’s climate bank, this project exemplifies ADB’s commitment to supporting universal access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy services in Central and West Asia, while promoting the low carbon transition.
Empowering people to meet their needs
A further 4,200 schools in Punjab and over 6,000 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are being fitted with solar panels. Arif Qesrani, the Energy Department’s project director for the Access to Clean Energy Investment Program, said they have arranged technical training sessions on how to maintain the solar panels so the schools and health units can resolve basic problems on their own.
“There are many benefits to this technology because operation and maintenance costs are very low,” he said. “Just wipe the panels and these panels are long lasting.”
“With the help of this project, we are giving people the means to meet their power needs. They can make their own arrangements,” added Mr. Qesrani. “This new intervention is creating opportunities.”
“My parents want me to be educated, so I read with a great deal of heart because I want to have good grades in school,” said Mehak. “This why I read by heart, and I'm better at it.”