Aging, obsolete power distribution system blamed for major breakdowns

February 08, 2023

KARACHI: Reasons for the electricity breakdown that brought the country to a standstill on January 23 are yet to be found, but power experts blame the “aging, obsolete and centralised”...

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KARACHI: Reasons for the electricity breakdown that brought the country to a standstill on January 23 are yet to be found, but power experts blame the “aging, obsolete and centralised” electricity transmission system for the 15-hour outage.

On the other hand, people associated with the government organisation responsible for the transmission system brushed aside the perceptions of the experts regarding the national power transmission system.

Although the government is working on finding the reasons of the outage, and has formed a committee to pin the responsibility, The News talked to people in the power sector to ascertain the facts behind the major breakdown.

Comments sought from the private sector power experts squarely blame the aging and centralised power transmission and distribution system, and suggested decentralisation of the electricity transmission system to save the country from major breakdowns.

Pakistanis have suffered from two major electricity breakdowns in four months. The outages inflicted huge financial losses and also disrupted routine life in the country.

Recently, a Renewable Energy Coalition also said that the national grid was “too old, too large and too centralised” and impossible to manage effectively and efficiently, which was why the recent breakdown “is not an isolated incident”.

“Our national grid is too centralised and obsolete that it can’t withstand the transmission of power from one part to the other part of the country, and we see the occurrence of power breakdowns very frequently,” said Shaheera Tahir, a power expert associated in the RE segment.

Explaining the primary factor responsible for such breakdowns, Sheheera noted that most of Pakistan’s hydroelectric power plants were situated in the far north of the country, hundreds of kilometres away from the major population and economic hubs. Similarly, she said that “most of the power plans running on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas are located in the southern parts of the country, far from its most populous central regions”.

The locations of both types of plants necessitates that an elaborate network of transmission lines and grid stations is set up and managed through a centralised system. “This, in turn, means that any defect in any part of this system will have an immediate cascading effect everywhere, leading to country-wide power breakdowns.”

She noted that the world has started de-centralising national grids to ward off such power breakdowns by installing power plants, especially solar and wind plants, to cater to the energy needs of small areas with dedicated grid stations.

“Pakistan should adopt a decentralised electricity distribution system while, simultaneously, replacing the dirty and costly fossil fuels with affordable and renewable sources for electricity generation,” Shaheera proposed.

A decentralised distribution system should “include multiple power backups and multiple control mechanisms located in different parts of the country instead of a single national control room” and it should include “smaller power plants located close to the large centres of population and economic activity”.

Energy expert Mustafa Amjad pointed out that a modern decentralised transmission system was missing in Pakistan and in return, the country was paying a huge price. He too blamed the power breakdowns on the centralised and aging system, “which can’t withstand the transmission of power”.

He believed that a decentralised transmission system with a separate reporting system would be the panacea to save the country from major power outages in future.

He said that although the real facts were yet to come out in the recent power breakdown, the basic reason was the centralised national grid, which could not sustain the electricity. He proposed clean distributed energy resources (DERs) such as rooftop solar PV, or mini/micro grids based on solar and wind energy, which were small and modular technologies and allowed power to be generated and consumed at or near the source, thus reducing reliance on inefficient long-distance transmission and distribution networks.

Dr Fiaz A Chaudhry, former Managing Director National Transmission Despatch Company (NTDC) and Director LUMS Energy Institute, however did not subscribe to the perception that the country has an aging and obsolete transmission system.

He said that infrastructure has been upgraded over the last several years. As far as centralised transmission system was concerned, Chaudhry did not see any fault with it and said that centralised transmission system was found in major parts of the world.

“A de-centralised system can be installed in Gwadar and Chaghi, which are very far from the main grid system”, he said. However, the whole national grid cannot be de-centralised as it would not be feasible for the power plants to operate and transmit and distribute the electricity.

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