It's 9pm on a Saturday.
The phone is constantly ringing in a small dark room furnished only with chairs and a desk with a register lying open on the top.
On any other Saturday, the phone attendant would be jotting down the details received on the phone in the register. But today, he is just busy answering every call with —
“The main grid station has tripped and we don’t know how long it will take for the electricity supply to be restored.”
Bang! The receiver is put back before the voice on the other end has time to react.
Ayyaz (not his real name), the phone attendant, works in a sub-divisional office of an electricity distribution company in Lahore.
He is the distribution company’s interface for consumers and is greeted more often with abuse than salutations as he is held accountable for shutdowns, power tripping and faults in the electricity supply — none of which are his fault.
These exchanges with consumers are even more heated on days when a power debate has ensued in the media between the government and the opposition. Just as he is ending his long work shift, his wrinkled face dots with a smile as he shares —
“We (the consumers and the providers) are all in the same boat. Working in the electricity distribution sector is one of the toughest professions out there. We have spent more time in these rooms than with our families and yet we are constantly met with anger, contempt and hatred. Sometimes things are within our control and more often they are not.
“Things have improved, and I hope will continue to do so.”
This question of why we still do not have uninterrupted power supply has become even more mainstream. Power tripping, load shedding and breakdowns are followed by a blame game in the media as well as offline.
However, the matter is much more complicated than the contours of these debates would suggest.
To be able to mitigate Pakistan’s power crisis, it is important to understand how the system actually works, how much progress has been made over the years and what needs to be done to address the remaining challenges.
The previous government was able to increase the installed generation capacity in Pakistan to approximately 28,000 megawatts, according to Wapda officials.
Quite a feat. With that taken care of, what are the bottlenecks that persist?
The transmission and distribution capacity is stalled at approximately 22,000MW. The maximum total demand coming from residential and industrial estates stands at nearly 25,000MW (there are seasonal fluctuations, of course).
This leads to a deficit of about 3,000MW when the demand peaks and hence there is a need to shed the ‘extra’ load. The result, we all know.
The additional 3,000MW required cannot be transmitted to where it is needed even though it can be generated.
There are several moving parts to the supply chain.
After power is generated in powerhouses, the voltage is stepped up to be transmitted via primary transmission lines to 500/220 kilovolt grid stations.
In these grid stations, the voltage is converted to 132kv and then transmitted via secondary transmission lines to 132kv grid stations.
From here, they are transmitted to distribution lines and delivered to consumers.
The capacity of all these units — primary transmission lines, secondary transmission lines, grid stations, distribution lines, distribution transformers — has failed to keep pace with the increase in generation capacity.
There are several plans in place already for expanding the capacity of the transmission and distribution systems. Funding for some has been promised but some are still awaiting that lifeline.
For example, by 2021-22, the National Transmission and Dispatch Company plans to roughly add 23 500Kv grid stations and 62 220kv grid stations to the system.
Similar plans are in place for the expansion of existing transmission lines, roughly adding 9,000km to the 500kv transmission lines and 12,000km to the 120Kv transmission lines.
The willingness to overcome this shortfall is evident in the conversations with several key members of those involved in the process.
But despite best intentions, the implementation of these expansion plans has failed at various levels.
As one delves deeper into the execution process, it becomes evident that there is a clear lack of managerial capacity and oversight to drive the projects to completion.
The pre-qualification criteria for these contracts is weak. Most of these projects never see the light of the day as the executing agencies lack the resources and skills to deliver quality outputs.
Hence, in order to effectively deliver, we need to improve the managerial skills of our workforce to complement the good intentions, honesty and hardwork that is definitely visible at various cadres.
These deficiencies in the skillset are amplified by the fact that political patronage distorts effective deployment at various levels in this sector as well.
Key appointments are highly politicised at the cost of merit. This not only impacts performance, but brings down overall efficiency by diminishing motivation.
Add to this mix the inventory and stock mismanagement throughout the supply chain, but more so in the distribution systems.
When a neighbourhood is jolted by a ‘transformer blast’, which is sometimes caused by overloading of the system, the transformer needs to be either replaced or repaired.
Editorial: Load-shedding despite megawatts
This can only be seamlessly done if there is backup stock of what is needed. Summer brings about an increase in these occurrences since electricity usage is at its peak.
Moreover, the total load/demand by a household may be underreported. Add electricity theft to it and you have an overloaded transformer which may trip several times leading to blackouts for hours.
Yes, we may well be as much part of the problem as the service providers and the policy planners.
So where do we begin?
I like this question for it emanates hope. But this question is being asked of a structure that is institutionally very complex.
No one entity oversees the entire process. No one entity will own up to the systemic deficiencies.
A clear action plan is needed at every divisible chunk of this supply chain.
Use of data may help identify the high impact projects that can take precedence over others. And while we design the action plan, it is important to address the underlying issues that mar the implementation process.
Any solution can only be effective in as long as the extent to which it addresses these underlying factors.
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Estimate the total shortfall at each of these units – primary transmission lines, secondary transmission lines, grid stations, distribution lines, distribution transformers.
Follow this with a data driven priority ranking of what project within each unit needs to be funded first.
Top this with human resource interventions along the supply chain and creative consumer engagement. Most importantly, follow the planning and deployment with data-driven process monitoring, troubleshooting and impact feedback.
The plan is simple.
Inject data-driven planning. Inject expertise.
And voila — there shall be light!
Header illustration by Zoha Bundally
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