Scary blackout


As the massive breakdown stretching into its second day has hit the country, rumours abound that the scary power outage would test patience of the nation for months. A trivial blame game has also set in motion rumours on the country’s default which also weighs heavy on the nation’s nerves. The static national grid station, unsubstantiated allegations of nefarious power plant outages, the state’s libertarian approach to electricity markets and its deliberately isolated power grid have all been targets of pundits and politicians quick on the takes but light on the facts.
The truth is, there is plenty of blame to go around. That gives easy fodder for instant experts trying to confirm their priors. But the failure to restore electricity fully at the grid stations across the country in enduring deadly cold and extreme discomfort deserve a closer look at what went wrong, and what to do about it. Despite tall claims of Khurram Dastgir, Minister for Energy that the power restoration process has been completed, major urban and rural areas of the country are still deprived of electricity. The ongoing shortage of electricity was pointed out by Dastagir in a presser that there will be a shortage of electricity for the next couple of days. He elaborated that approximately 6,600 megawatts of coal and 3,500MW of nuclear plants would take an estimated 48 to 72 hours to restart. He maintained that “until these plants start running, there will be limited load management, excluding industrial users.” The breakdown that caused a massive power outage in Punjab and much of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa for most of the day is an obvious example of the incompetence of this entire lot.
It is the clearest signal yet that the power bureaucracy is in dire need of reform, which should begin with replacing DMG cadres in positions of authority with properly credentialed professionals. The same critical node in the grid cannot be allowed to be a source of tripping that cascades through the entire system, causing power plants to fall like dominoes. No doubt the bureaucracy will move to save its skin the same way it has in similar situations in the past: by fabricating an eyewash of an inquiry report.
The plain fact is that technology exists that can help prevent cascading effects of tripping in one section of the grid from knocking out all other power plants. Unfortunately, the bureaucrats who are running the show in our power sector have far too pedestrian a grasp of the technicalities they have to supervise to be able to properly select and oversee the installation of such technology. The result is repeated tripping at the same point in the grid, and endless blackouts across the country. Like much of national infrastructure, the power network desperately needs an upgrade. The federal government needs to stop the outages as lessons from the recent breakdown demanded investment in the distribution system.
Time has come for the authorities to shun blame games and intensify investment in the network before the unbearable heat of the coming months. Pakistan has enough installed power capacity to meet demand, but the sector is so heavily in debt that it cannot afford to invest in infrastructure and power lines. Analysts say transmission and distribution are the weakest links. The government needs to take stock of the scaring fiscal situation and political instability so that the nation could heave a sigh of relief.