In the flat scrubland of Pakistan’s scorching Thar Desert, hundreds of workers have been toiling for two years in the vast open pit of the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Co. Taking three-hour breaks during the hottest part of the day and living in a makeshift village of shipping containers, they’re digging for fuel to sustain a $3.5 billion power project. So far they’ve scraped away about 500 feet of Aeolian sand, dirt, and coal to create a milewide hole.
Seven hundred miles to the north, in the Cholistan Desert, lie the skeletal beginnings of a solar farm that’s supposed to expand to eight times the size of New York’s Central Park. It’s the largest solar project in Pakistan, where the government has recently announced an ambitious plan to generate 60% of its power from renewable sources such as sun, wind, and water in about a decade.
If these grand developments in the desert suggest that coal and solar are in a close-run contest, they’re not. Before 2016, Pakistan had a single coal-fired plant. It now has nine, supplying 15% of the nation’s electricity, with another four under construction. Solar power provides about 1% of energy needs and is getting a tiny sliver of investment compared with what’s going into coal. Solar and other renewables may someday eliminate Pakistan’s dependence on coal, but that day is probably decades away.