A labourer naps at a factory in Hyderabad as the country ground to a halt during a nationwide power outage.—Umair Ali
A labourer naps at a factory in Hyderabad as the country ground to a halt during a nationwide power outage.—Umair Ali

• Khurram Dastgir blames power outage on ‘frequency mismatch’ arising out of inadequate maintenance
• Efforts to revive power system continue late into the night; many parts still without electricity
• PM takes notice of disruption; Nepra seeks detailed report

ISLAMABAD: Millions of citizens were left without power on Monday after a massive breakdown hit the fragile national grid in the morning and kept almost the entire country without electricity until late in the night.

Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir said on Monday night, more than 12 hours after the breakdown occurred, that officials had begun restoring electricity across the country. Power was beginning to return in parts Islamabad and Balochistan, he said.

The minister had earlier said that electricity across the country would be fully restored by 10pm on Monday after the breakdown — triggered by “frequency variation” in the national grid — hit Pakistan.

In an interview with Geo News earlier, Mr Dastgir said the breakdown was not “major”. He said, “In winter, the demand for electricity reduces nationwide, hence, as an economic measure, we temporarily close down our power generation systems at night.

“However, when the systems were turned on in the morning today, frequency variation and voltage fluctuation was observed in the south of the country […] somewhere between Dadu and Jamshoro […] because of which power generating units shut down one by one,” he explained.

According to the Associated Press, officials said it all started when electricity was turned off during low-usage hours overnight to conserve fuel across the country, leaving technicians unable to boot up the system all at once after daybreak.

Sources said the initial voltage fluctuations forced the “frequency sensitive” nuclear power plants, particularly the 1,100-megawatt K-2, to exit the system and go into ‘island mode’ as per their inbuilt security features, leaving the under-capacitated national grid to shut down in a cascading fashion across the country in a few moments.

But this belies repeated claims by successive governments since 2015 that safety equipment, techniques and best practices had been introduced to enable various parts of the grid and power plants to go into ‘island mode’ and shut down in case of any surge or plunge in electric supply, instead of crippling the entire country.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and the National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (Nepra) took “serious notice of the countrywide breakdown” and ordered an investigation into the incident and sought a detailed report, respectively.

PM Shehbaz also constituted a three-member committee to investigate the matter and fix responsibility. The regulator reminded that it has also previously imposed fines on similar tripping incidents, blackouts and system collapses in 2021 and 2022.

Mismanagement?

“The power system dynamics have witnessed a sea change over the past decade or so, but the culture of ad hocism and non-professionalism has become a permanent feature,” a power sector expert said and referred to a substantial increase in the share of renewable sources of energy, but without proportionate improvements in safety measures to balance the system and protect the national grid in cases of untoward incidents.

As the repeated efforts to revive the power system could not succeed until the evening, Mr Dastgir attributed this to “challenges” in the country’s hydropower plants.

But a Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) official, requesting not to be named, said there was no problem at all with any hydropower station. Unless faults in the grid were identified and addressed, no power plant – let alone a hydropower plant – could be synchronised for electricity evacuation, he said.

In a televised address, Mr Dastgir confirmed that the “widespread breakdown” occurred at 7:34am across the country and was caused by “extraordinary fluctuation in voltage” in the North-South transmission corridor and the resultant mismatch in frequency.

The same section of transmission line had always led to power system collapse over the years because of greater power availability in the south and its requirement in the north. The minister said the national grid system was fortunately safe and no defect was reported in its network throughout the country.

However, insiders blamed the incident on mismanagement, saying that the National Transmission and Despatch Company (NTDC) without a chief executive at present. Besides, for almost 13 years, bureaucratic and political interference did not allow the only two engineers of relevant technical qualifications to hold the top position for more than a few months. The NTDC spokesperson did not respond to requests for comments.

Dependence on renewable energy

An expert told Dawn that the share of renewable energy sources, particularly wind and solar power, increased rapidly over the past few years and their intermittent nature required a lot of proportionate safety protocols, which did not happen in the absence of system experts.

The increase in the dependence on renewable energy and local fuel-based power plants — although a positive development from the perspective of foreign-exchange saving — resulted in lower availability of traditional base load plants like those running on furnace oil.

Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2023

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