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‘Disrupting’ power crisis

Published Feb 29, 2016 06:38am

IT might seem risky to disrupt a crisis and a power crisis in particular has already too many disruptions. Nonetheless, change is coming to this previously intractable dilemma, brought by new, disruptive technologies.

Just as emails have disrupted postal services and personal computers have disrupted typing pools, new technologies are remaking the electricity industry. If authorities seize the moment, Pakistan can leapfrog over many of its current problems.

Power systems need to get smarter not bigger. Electricity can now be produced where it is consumed. Centralised, mega-plants are being by-passed. Distributors will not simply send power down the line but will actively manage networks, with lower throughput and greater variations in loads and supply. Customers’ power use, downstream of the meters, will also be shaped by IT algorithms to minimise consumption by turning off unneeded appliances when power loads (and hence power prices) are high.

The electricity industry will not be about making money from an undifferentiated commodity. It will be about cleverly providing electricity services. And, of course, cleverer means more efficient and that opens up new solutions to old problems, for those with the wit to seize the moment.

‘Pakistan will jump ahead if it embraces the disruptive technologies’

It is always true that making use of disruptive technologies means overcoming resistance, both technical and political, but the problems in prospect with the new technologies are more tractable than those so evident in the current strategy. Incremental improvements to the existing system will not give Pakistan reliable, affordable, sustainable power anytime soon.

The disruptions are as inevitable as the transformation of broadcasting or telecommunications. Pakistan can regain the initiative in power by using the new technologies not to solve but to reset the current problems.

Those current problems are well known and well documented. Pakistan has sufficient generating capacity but it cannot afford to bring it all on line: imported fuel prices are too volatile, debt hangs over the utilities, transmission losses are huge, theft of power is rife, bills are unpaid, dispatch procedures do not reflect merit, etc.

Change is presently impeded by bureaucratic inertia. We can see that in the Nandipur project which, for over a year now, has failed to attract a suitable committee head to inquire into the matter. The annual Nepra report routinely chronicles the poor performance.

All of that is well known and, at a glance, the crisis appears unresolvable. Significant change seems to require a most unlikely reversal of chronic weaknesses that have led to the crisis in the first place. That is why these new technologies are so significant. Just as smart, often digital, increasingly cheap communications technology has transformed Pakistan’s telco sector, so the disruptive technologies will bring change to the power sector.

The central idea is that existing power systems are distinctly sub-optimal. Digital technologies are allowing the grid to be better managed so that the cheapest generators with the fewest transmission losses are dispatched to the nearest loads. At the user end, intelligence can now be added to manage power use and, increasingly, power generation and storage. Peak loads will be attenuated as more of these management systems start operating in real time. All of this will transform network usage and performance.

But by far the biggest change is coming from the sharp, accelerating declines in the cost of generating and storing photo-voltaic power. Every two years solar installation rates are doubling and photovoltaic-module costs are falling by about 20pc. Even without the subsidies that governments are phasing out, present costs of solar installations will halve by 2022. The pay-back period for solar cells on homes will be less than four years.

It is this new, distributed generation that will most disrupt the crisis and it is decentralised solar that will lead the change.

There will be some large-scale solar plants but what will be more important is decentralised solar, both within

existing networks and off-grid. As has already happened in Australia, power users will install solar cells on their rooftops. Most of that power is fed back into the grid and this arrangement will be important in Pakistan.

The impact of the disruptive technologies accelerates when the declining cost of storing decentralised power is added to the declining cost of generating it. This will make the new technologies truly transformative.

People who are on-grid will charge up their batteries first, for use later that day, and supply back to the grid only once they have banked as much as they can. People who are off-grid will never become connected. They will operate micro-grids, not individually but collectively, at the village level.

This means that the remote people of Pakistan will never be connected by wires to the rest of the nation. Instead they will generate and store their own power and they will communicate by wireless technologies. That will be much cheaper and more efficient. Pakistan will jump ahead if it embraces the disruptive technologies and deals with the challenges.

That means dealing with the incumbents. Power distribution companies in particular will not like it that users are not merely sources of load at the edge of the network but vary their behaviour across a wide range, including supplying electricity back into the system on occasion. Problems like voltage intermittency (so-called flicker) or harmonic oscillations that can damage network equipment are major challenges. The additional costs will need to be considered by regulatory authorities if the beneficial disruptions are to be encouraged.

A key question is whether Wapda will drag its feet. What is needed is political leadership that lifts the considerations out from the quagmire of middle level, cautious officialdom.

All this simply reminds us that disruption will not be costless but, equally, let us also remember the benefits of these technologies. As inevitable as the sun rising, households will start generating power each morning. Fuel inputs will not be needed. Demands on the network will fall as the day lengthens, transmission losses will decline, the batteries will charge and, when the sun sets, they will add to the power available, immediately and directly. This will be cheap, efficient and sustainable.

And these benefits are multiplied when we think of the nation-building task ahead of providing power across the whole nation. Distributed generation means it will not be necessary to build the network out to the national borders. Not only no capital costs in all those towers and lines but no ongoing operating costs and transmission losses.

Pakistan’s power crisis seems never-ending. Current efforts to solve it fail to engender much optimism but change is coming from outside the system. If the new opportunities are embraced, Pakistan can recapture the initiative. The authors are members of the Adelaide Alumni Research Network