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Earlier this week there was yet another power shutdown countrywide. These blackouts are frequent with the fourth incidence in eight years and the third in the month of January. The frequency of blackouts is only likely to increase as system vulnerabilities are growing unless adequate investment is made in the transmission system and financial constraints are removed from the power supply value chain.

These are structural issues and are not alien to sector experts. It is due to a lack of central planning. Transmission infrastructure has to be developed along with generation for smooth operations. The way IGCEP is being planned, TSEP has to be done similarly. However, it is absent and NEPRA has noted this exception in its latest state of the industry report.

There are several issues the transmission system of the country is facing. One is that the supply has increased in the South while the demand is higher in the North. That is adding to the system vulnerabilities and contingencies. The problem is that the north is distressed –too much load which results in under frequency, while higher supply in the south makes it over frequency.

The system becomes more vulnerable in winter – as the supply of hydel in the north is at its minimum. Then the efficient LNG plants in the north are being run suboptimally as expensive gas in winter is diverted for heating purposes at home. That makes south-to-north transmission critical, and any outage in generation can cascade quickly and result in tripping at chocking points.

If any big generation plant in the south is out, the frequency drops instantly and results in cascading. The issue is the nonavailability of spinning reserves (such as hydel and LNG) in North to not let that cascading happen. Then the ability of any pocket to isolate itself from the others is limited as breakers don’t usually work on time, and that also results in cascading frequency dropping. And once there is a countrywide blackout, the ability to restart various plants and energize the system takes long hours. The black start facility is not everywhere, as having those in hydel and LNG plants is ineffective due to the absence of water and requisite fuel.

It all boils down to governance and financial capabilities to handle. For example, fuel should be diverted to LNG plants in winter, and other spinning reserves. Then the maintenance of high voltage transmission lines and other equipment is not sufficient and the upgradation of overall transmission lines is inadequate.

Over the past many years, ample investment has been made in the generation system while the transmission and distribution system have largely been ignored. A decade back, the transmission system had the capacity to handle 23,000-25,000 MW while the generation capacity was much less. Today, the generation capacity is at 35,000 MW plus while the transmission capability is still stuck at 25,000 MW levels. In this way, the summer peaking lad cannot be managed without load shedding.

In winter, as mentioned above, balancing the generation is an issue. There is a mismatch of load and to balance that higher voltage ought to transmit across the country – not a viable option. Anyhow, at the time of writing, the exact reason for the recent breakdown is yet to be determined. Be it an outage of any one big generation facility all of a sudden or some maintenance issue in the transmission line, the core of the problem persists.

NEPRA has raised the issue of lack of investment in the infrastructure multiple times. The power minister is also recognizing the issue of lack of investment in the infrastructure. The vulnerabilities in the transmission system are only growing with new plants coming online and growing demand. There are many grid stations in the north that are overloaded. Then the high transmission lines become underloaded at times.

The plan is to move towards system operators and into the CTBCM model. How can this work with various transmission issues? How can the last leg of distribution work efficiently when the wire (transmission) business is constrained? And that is even making the new investment in cheap and indigenous energy generation partially ineffective. For example, the generation capacity of Thar coal is reaching 2,400 MW while at best 1,600-1,800 can be evacuated. Then the wind corridor in Sindh is not fully capitalized due to evacuation problems.

The transmission issues are only going to worsen and that would impede the sector to move towards a competitive market. That is why the SOS call is required for adequate investment in the transmission system and in the privatization and deregulation of discos.

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