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Shuttered powerhouse: Neelum-Jhelum’s tumultuous journey

A significant reason for the massive loadshedding of electricity prevalent across the country is the absence of some billions of kWh units in the national grid this summer due to the complete shutdown of the 969MW Neelum-Jhelum hydropower station from May 1, 2024. The plant has faced significant operational challenges that have led to its current non-operational status.

Shuttered powerhouse: Neelum-Jhelum’s tumultuous journey

A significant reason for the massive loadshedding of electricity prevalent across the country is the absence of some billions of kWh units in the national grid this summer due to the complete shutdown of the 969MW Neelum-Jhelum hydropower station from May 1, 2024. The plant has faced significant operational challenges that have led to its current non-operational status.

Due to the blockage caused by the collapse of the headrace tunnel of the powerhouse in July 2022, major repairs were undertaken that lasted for about twenty long months costing Rs6 billion. Power generation at the plant was restored in August 2023 but restricted to 530MW. However, major cracks were discovered again in the headrace tunnel in April 2024, and power generation was completely suspended.

This has resulted in loss of energy to the extent of 5.15 billion units annually and direct losses amounting to Rs55 billion per annum. The government now plans to appoint international consultants to study the causes of cracks developed in the headrace tunnel and other technical issues and recommend remedial measures. However, no timeframe can be given as to when the study will be completed. The power station will face a prolonged shutdown, it seems. On the other hand, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has formed a cabinet committee to probe the technical faults in the powerhouse.

The idea of utilizing the waters of the Neelum and Jhelum rivers for electricity generation was conceived several decades ago, with initial feasibility studies for the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Plant (NJHP) dating back to the 1980s. The project aimed to exploit the significant hydropower potential of the Neelum River, which flows through the Azad Jammu and Kashmir region before merging with the Jhelum River. The project's inception can be traced back to the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda), which undertook extensive studies to evaluate the technical and economic viability of the project. However, due to various financial and technical challenges, the project saw numerous delays. It wasn't until 2002 that a detailed engineering design was completed, followed by the groundbreaking ceremony in 2008. The project was further delayed due to funding issues, legal hurdles, and the complex terrain of the region, which posed many construction challenges.

The NJHP is an engineering marvel, designed to divert water from the Neelum River through a 32.5 km long tunnel system, generating electricity as it descends into the Jhelum River. The plant comprises an underground power station with four Francis turbines, each with a capacity of about 242MW, bringing the total installed capacity to 969MW. This design minimizes the environmental impact on the river system and surrounding areas. One of the most remarkable aspects of the project is the extensive tunneling work. The tunnels, which include both headrace and tailrace tunnels, required advanced tunneling techniques and machinery to navigate the difficult and often unstable geological conditions of the region. The project also features a 47-metre high dam, creating a reservoir to ensure a consistent water flow to the power station.

After years of planning and construction, the Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Plant officially commenced operations in April 2018 marking a significant milestone in Pakistan's journey towards energy self-sufficiency. Since becoming operational, the NJHP has played a crucial role in alleviating the power shortages that have plagued Pakistan for years, now playing a pivotal role in Pakistan's energy landscape. The plant contributes approximately 5.15 billion units of electricity annually to the national grid, significantly reducing reliance on fossil fuels and enhancing the country's renewable energy portfolio.

Although the NJHP officially commenced operations in April 2018, it has faced significant operational challenges that have led to periods of non-operation. Since its inception, the plant has been plagued by several issues. It has experienced frequent technical malfunctions, including issues with the turbines and the tunnel system. These technical problems have led to multiple shutdowns, affecting the plant's ability to generate electricity consistently. The complex and unstable geological and environmental conditions of the region have caused difficulties in maintaining the integrity of the tunnels and other infrastructure. This has resulted in unexpected repairs and maintenance, further disrupting operations. Changes in the river's flow patterns and sedimentation have also posed challenges to the plant's operational capability.

The construction and operational phases of the NJHP have seen significant involvement from Chinese contractors, primarily through the China Gezhouba Group Corporation (CGGC). The CGGC brought in specialized expertise and technology required for the complex tunnelling and construction work. Their experience in large-scale hydropower projects was instrumental in navigating the challenging terrain and technical requirements of the NJHP. Chinese financial institutions, among other international donors, provided substantial funding for the project, which was crucial in overcoming the financial hurdles that had delayed the project for decades. This financial backing was essential for both the construction and initial operational phases. Despite these contributions, the involvement of the Chinese contractor has not been without controversy.

Critics have pointed out that high costs associated with Chinese expertise and equipment have contributed to the financial strain on the project. Additionally, there have been concerns about the quality of some construction work and equipment, which have been linked to technical issues faced by the plant. All these factors contributed to long delays and huge cost overruns in the planning and execution of the mega project. The cost of the Neelum-Jhelum project escalated from an initial Rs91 billion to Rs500 billion as per the fourth revised PC-1. Resultantly, the unit construction cost of the project comes to $4.23 million per MW, compared to the under-construction Dasu and Diamer-Basha multipurpose hydropower projects of similar size and complexities, which is $2.25 million and $2.48 per MW, respectively.

Various news stories of alleged corruption, financial irregularities, mismanagement and extending undue favours to contractors and consultants during the project execution were reported by the media on the basis of government auditors’ reports but without any logical conclusion. It is ironic that at this belated stage, the government plans to appoint local consultants to carry out the Third-Party Validation of the project. It would have been more pertinent to study the current status of reliability, availability and performance evaluation of the NJHP with a focus on its technical issues.

In recent years, there has been a similar failure -- that of the Gilgel Gibe-II hydropower plant in the mountainous region of Ethiopia. The headrace tunnel collapsed soon after the beginning of commercial operations of the hydropower plant, which was commissioned in 2010. It has similar characteristics, operating conditions, and configuration as the NJHP -- with four Francis turbines each of 105MW installed capacity housed in an underground powerhouse. Pakistan can learn from the Ethiopian experience as there have been valuable technical studies conducted on the failure of the headrace tunnel. In this case, tunnel instability was observed as a result of the influence of rock material properties -- the tunnel having experienced severe squeezing problems due to stress concentrations around the tunnel.

Looking forward, the NJHP has the potential to become a cornerstone of Pakistan's renewable energy infrastructure, provided that operational challenges can be effectively addressed. Key steps in this direction include ensuring regular and thorough maintenance of the plant’s infrastructure, addressing technical issues promptly to minimize downtime, and continuing to leverage international expertise, while also building local capacity to manage and operate the plant. Indeed, prevention and mitigation management of tunnels is a special subject.

The Neelum Jhelum Hydropower Plant represents a significant achievement for Pakistan; however, its journey has been fraught with challenges that must be navigated carefully to ensure its long-term success and contribution to the country’s energy needs.

The writer is a retired chairman of the State Engineering Corporation, and former member (PT) of the Pakistan Nuclear Regulatory Authority.