Thursday February 29, 2024

Tackling the electricity challenge

Country’s power infrastructure is primarily structured along south-north with major power lines connecting southern and northern regions

January 15, 2024
People at a hotel during a power outage. — AFP/File
People at a hotel during a power outage. — AFP/File

Pakistan is once again facing a shortfall of electricity in winter. Last year, there was a nationwide electricity blackout on account of similar issues. It then becomes essential to discuss in detail the various conundrums and need for integrated planning in the power sector.

The country’s power infrastructure is primarily structured along the south-north, with major power lines connecting the southern and northern regions. These regions are not only geographically distinct but also differ in their electricity generation profiles.

The southern area, extending from the coastal belts of Sindh and Balochistan to the Guddo Thermal Power Station, includes diverse electricity suppliers like K-Electric, Hesco, Sepco, and Qesco. In contrast, the northern region, stretching from Gepco to Gilgit-Baltistan, comprises areas serviced by Iesco, Hazeco, and Pesco.

A closer look at power consumption patterns reveals the gravity of the situation. In 2022, the northern region consumed about 24,389 GWh of electricity, while the central region, which spans from Guddo to Gujranwala Electric Power Company and includes service areas of Mepco, Fesco, Lesco, and Gepco, consumed a staggering 71,721 GWh.

This geographical distribution of power generation and consumption leads to what can be termed as the ‘consumption conundrum’. Each region has a heterogeneous mix of electricity generation sources: the north is rich in hydro resources, the south boasts coal, nuclear, and wind plants, and the central region, being the most urbanized, generates the majority of the electricity demand.

Adding to this conundrum is the power generation mix predominantly reliant on fossil fuels. The majority of these fossil fuel-based power plants, except for a few like those in Kot Addu and Port Qasim, are located in the north. This region also houses major hydro dams like Tarbela and Mangla.

However, the bulk of nuclear power generation, which forms a minor share of the overall mix, is situated in the south. This uneven distribution creates a ‘north-south generation conundrum’. During winter, when hydro dams reduce their output, the central and northern regions increasingly depend on electricity from the south.

This dependency exacerbates the power shortfall, as the dated transmission system struggles with frequent tripping and is prone to nationwide blackouts, especially under foggy or smoggy conditions. This phenomenon is aptly described as the ‘south-north barrier’.

The seasonal variation in electricity demand further complicates the situation. Climate change, with its impact on rising temperatures, has led to a significant increase in electricity demand during summer, primarily for cooling purposes. This seasonal fluctuation sees summer peak demands soaring to around 30,000MW, contrasting sharply with the winter demand of approximately 18,000MW.

Concurrently, there is an increased demand for gas in winter, leading to what can be described as an ‘energy-economics-conundrum’. Hydro dams, which are dependent on water availability, cease power generation due to canal closures in winter. Additionally, many fossil fuel plants undergo maintenance shutdowns in preparation for the summer peak season.

Economic constraints compel planners to limit electricity generation from expensive imported power plants (while still incurring capacity charges) and to rely more on indigenous coal-based plants. This strategy, while economically motivated, leaves the system vulnerable to tripping, widespread interruptions, and outages. The energy economics conundrum combined with the south-north transmission barrier and power consumption conundrum cause short fall and inefficient transmission of power in winter.

Addressing these conundrums, especially during the winter season, requires a comprehensive and strategic approach. Implementing an array of solutions that encompass integrated planning, renewable energy transition, digitization, foreign investment, and organizational transformation can pave the way for a more resilient and efficient power system.

Here’s a detailed exploration of these solutions:

First, integrated planning is paramount. There is a need for a cohesive national energy strategy that harmoniously integrates the various facets of power generation, transmission, and distribution.

This plan should be sensitive to Pakistan’s geographical and seasonal energy dynamics and aim for a well-balanced mix of energy sources, considering the regional disparities in energy production and consumption.

Second, a transition towards renewable energy should be prioritized. Pakistan’s rich potential in solar and wind energy, particularly in its southern and central regions, offers a sustainable solution to the ‘north-south generation conundrum’. This transition should encompass both large-scale renewable projects and smaller, local initiatives.

Third, the digitization and modernization of the grid system is crucial. Upgrading the existing grid with advanced digital technologies will enhance its efficiency and reliability. Implementing smart grid technologies can lead to better demand management, reduced transmission losses, and a more responsive system in case of faults or emergencies.

Fourth, attracting Chinese investment into the transmission system can be a game-changer. Building on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) partnership, Chinese expertise and funding can significantly contribute to upgrading Pakistan’s transmission infrastructure, bringing in both capital and technical knowledge.

Fifth, implementing and upgrading the SCADA system at the National Power Control Center (NPCC) is essential. This upgrade will enhance real-time monitoring and control of the national grid, facilitating quick decision-making and efficient management of grid operations.

Sixth, promoting distributed generation can mitigate transmission losses and reduce dependency on the central grid. Encouraging small-scale renewable installations, like rooftop solar panels and local wind turbines, can contribute significantly to the energy mix.

Seventh, sector coupling is an innovative approach that needs exploration. Linking the electricity sector with other energy-consuming sectors, such as transportation and heating, can provide added flexibility and storage options for the energy system.

Eighth, transforming key institutions like the NTDC, CPPA, and distribution utilities to operate on more corporate and efficiency-driven principles is vital. This transformation will lead to better financial management, operational efficiency, and enhanced customer service.

Ninth, establishing a robust policy and regulatory framework will support these technical initiatives. Such a framework should incentivize investment in the energy sector, ensure fair energy pricing, and promote energy conservation and efficiency.

Tenth, fostering public-private partnerships can bring additional resources and expertise into the energy sector. Private sector involvement can introduce innovation and efficiency, especially in areas like renewable energy projects, grid modernization, and distributed generation.

Last, investing in capacity building and public awareness is critical. A team of engineers, economists and environmental experts can steer the power sector towards sustainability. Training programmes and awareness campaigns about energy conservation and the benefits of renewable energy will be key in the successful implementation of these policies.

A comprehensive approach that combines technological innovation, infrastructural improvements, strategic planning, regulatory reforms, and collaborative efforts across various stakeholders is essential for Pakistan to overcome its winter electricity transmission challenges and move towards a more sustainable and efficient energy future.

The writer has a doctorate in energy economics and serves as a research fellow in the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). He tweets/posts: @Khalidwaleed and can be reached at: