(Recasts after measures announced)
By Augustine Anthony
ISLAMABAD, April 22 (Reuters) - The Pakistani government announced on Thursday measures to cut state electricity consumption by half, as Pakistan battles a chronic energy shortage which is inflaming public anger and stifling industry.
Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Water and Power Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf announced the measures -- including turning off lights and air-conditioners in government offices -- to reduce a daily shortfall of 4,500-5,000 megawatts (MW) and encourage energy conservation in the private sector.
The main reason for the shortage is that past governments failed to anticipate growth in demand and delayed implementing power and dam projects that would have boosted output.
“We inherited this problem,” Gilani told a news conference.
“I assure you that the government will not leave a single stone unturned to sort it out.”
Pakistan has the capacity to generate about 14,500 MW from current resources, a top energy official said.
A lack of investment in existing plants, outdated grids and rampant electricity theft mean that some grid companies experience line losses of 30-40 percent, analysts say.
Lengthy power outages, known as load-shedding, can last 6-8 hours a day in cities, while cuts can be much more frequent in rural areas. The cuts often trigger protests by stick-wielding men who block main roads, burn tyres and throw stones at police.
“I appeal to the public to be patient,” Gilani said. “If they take to streets and damage shops and buildings, that is again a loss to the country.”
The new measures include an extra day off for government workers and turning off half the lights in government offices.
Shopping centres will be ordered to close at 8 p.m. while lighted billboards, neon signs and other decorative commercial lights will be switched off. A traders group opposed some cuts.
Only top government employees will be allowed to use air-conditioning in their offices, and only after 11 a.m.
Six of 10 independent power plants are being tested or are about to be, Ashraf said, which will add 400-600 MW to the national grid. Five rental power plants being installed will add another 605 MW.
An extra 186 million cubic feet of natural gas will be provided to the power industry and 300 MW will be diverted from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to other areas, Ashraf said.
Days off for businesses will be staggered throughout the week and agricultural water pumps will lose electricity during peak hours of demand -- 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Other measures include restricting the use of wedding halls for Pakistanis’ extravagant and lengthy marriage ceremonies to only three hours of use.
The recommendations come out of a three-day energy summit and will take effect over the next few days.
The goal, Ashraf said, was to reduce the amount of scheduled load-shedding by one-third and eliminate unscheduled cuts.
“Conservation is the best policy because we could save energy without spending money and it is the easiest way,” he said.
The measures will save 500 MW, Ashraf said, and an additional 740 MW will be generated by the diversion of natural gas.
The crisis has crippled industry, notably textiles, the main export sector and largest manufacturing employer. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has cited the power shortage as a serious economic constraint.
“Electricity shortages continue to prevent the economy from achieving its potential,” the IMF said this month.
An IMF emergency loan package of $7.6 billion agreed in November 2008 helped avert a balance of payments crisis and shore up reserves. The IMF increased the loan to $11.3 billion in July.
The IMF is urging the government to remove all subsidies on electricity, which will lead to higher prices for consumers.
Moments after the plan was announced, the Karachi Traders Action Committee announced its opposition to some measures.
“We will not abide by the government’s decision to close markets by 8 p.m. and will work our regular shift of 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.,” said Siddique Memon, the committee’s chairman. He said the group would challenge the measure in the courts.
The government has vowed to increase supplies but needs money to do so. The United States and Pakistan last month outlined steps to refurbish power stations, part of a $125 million U.S. aid pledge for the sector.
Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Writing by Chris Allbritton; Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait