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January 17, 2021

Rare prolonged power outage exposes fragility of grid


January 17, 2021

LAHORE: The last Saturday’s power breakdown that hit the entire country and couldn’t completely be tackled for long two days has once again exposed the fragility of the grid and the system’s inefficiency.

Normally power supply tends to resume in eight to 10 hours after any major power breakdown. However, power failure that struck this time around in night prolonged up to rare 48-hour duration mainly due to imbalance in power supply, thanks to chronic shortfall in primary energy sources.

Such helpless scenario exacerbated the situation as coal-fired and nuclear plants meeting base-load faltered for extended periods due to their peculiar power generation processes. Such inability of the power plants rendered whole power grid dead with no backup generation available as considerable time was needed for the startup of both coal and nuclear power units.

There was no surplus volume of natural gas in the system pack coupled with lack of additional liquid fuel for running thermal power plants on short notice, forcing managers at helm of affairs to helplessly seeing power grid crumbling away.

Diversion of available re-gasified liquefied natural gas (RLNG) to domestic consumers was blamed for shortfall in thermal power. This partly contributed in intensifying energy crisis.

Special Adviser to Prime Minister on Energy Nadeem Babar admitted long start-up time was mainly behind late resumption of power supply leading to instable grid. However, coal and nuclear power plants taking time to start up and power blackout has nothing to do with gas availability, he said.

Nonetheless, sources said as the country is barely meeting suppressed demand of natural gas in the middle of winter, the country has no cushion for running RLNG-based power plants in emergency situation similar to what whole nation experienced on late last Saturday.

“Had we been able to have greater storage of liquefied natural gas and succeeded in diverting gas to RLNG plants, restoration of power following major breakdown would have not taken 36-48 hours,” said an expert.

The energy adviser said RLNG was diverted to bring the system up. Now that the system is up, RLNG was reverted back to normal use. Guddu power plant, which runs on local gas, providing 1,000 megawatts, is the one that went out of system, triggering nationwide power loss.

Hydropower could be made operational within minutes. But that too was on lowest ebb due to about month-long annual canal closure. Emergency water releases from dams partially helped in bridging power gap following major breakdown.

Hours after major breakdown, federal government scrambled to restore electricity generation after bypassing river-water regulator for launching emergency water releases from dams but the intervention fails to fully bridge the gap between demand and supply of electricity.

Following the power breakdown, the country faced an emergency situation where power generation was virtually reduced to zero and hydropower emerged as only viable option to kick start electricity generation literally in no time, said Rao Irshad, chairman of Indus River System Authority.

“In such a situation, government is empowered to take whatever decision is required for initiating power generation unilaterally,” he said. “We were informed in a conference call about increasing outflows from stored water of Tarbela and Mangla dams with a view to immediately running hydel generation units. The increased outflows enabled the grid to feed hydropower for about 20 hours following the breakdown till coal-fired and other thermal plants were up and running.”

Around half of 10-12,000MW power demand of winter is met by coal and nuclear power plants in the country, said sources. Around 4,500MW coal power capacity along with 1,400MW nuclear power generation was running when human error in Guddu plant led to collapsing of the grid.

As many as 6,000MW of coal and nuclear power generation capacity were out of operation for about 24 to 48 hours following tripping of the grid. This volume of power generation was major contributor in typical winter demand.

The power breakdown has been extended for about two days due to lack of backup arrangements. Fuel shortage emerged as major reason that delayed resumption of power supply, exposing vulnerability of the power system and putting at risk energy security of the county.

The long blackout caused no power supply in major cities and towns. Resultantly, people living in parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Imran Khan located in Mianwali district faced one of the longest power suspensions spanning over 18 hours.

The power supply to Mianwali district was restored first briefly at about 5:40 on Sunday evening – about 18 hours after the breakdown. However, much to dismay of the residents, they had to face outages again nearly after half-an-hour for another two and half hour, extending their powerless lives to 20 hours a day.

A spokesman of the National Electricity and Despatch Company said the concerned distribution company could give a better answer. No one attended call when this scribe tried to contact management of Faisalabad Electric Supply Company, which manages grid in the Mianwali district.

The spokesperson of the power division did not comment on delay in power restoration in the country in general and Mianwali district in particular. Khan won 2018 general elections from NA-95 (Mianwali-I) with a huge margin.

Residents of Okara district had to undergo the similar fate. After power suspension at about 11:40pm on last Saturday night, electricity supply was restored at 7pm on Monday but it proved to be a brief respite as after nearly one hour supply, power was disconnected till 3:30am, lamented a resident of Baseerpur,. People living in many other cities and town also faced two hour suspension in electricity supply after every one hour of energising of grid for whole Sunday and Monday.

The grid should be meticulously integrated network of transmission lines and control facilities, reliable power generation units, interconnecting with power generation for providing smooth lifeline to millions of customers. There is need to provide investment and expertise needed for maintaining a resilient and state-of-the-art power grid on the back of sufficient primary energy supplies.