NIAS Pakistan Reader

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NIAS Pakistan Reader
PR Explains: Pakistan’s power outage

  Bhoomika Sesharaj

What happened?
On 23 January, Pakistan experienced a significant power breakdown affecting essential cities in the country, including Rawalpindi, Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta and Karachi. The Ministry of Energy confirmed that the system frequency of the national power grid “went down” at 0700 hours in the morning and caused a “widespread” breakdown in the power system across the country. The ministry said that the system maintenance is “progressing rapidly” starting from the restoration of grid stations from Warsak. Additionally, the Ministry also said that a “limited” number of grids of the Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO) and the Peshawar Electric Supply (PESCO) were restored. 

Quetta Electric Supply Company (QUESCO) said that two transmission lines had tripped and that nearly 22 districts of Balochistan including Quetta were out of power. K-electric spokespersons said that the company is “busy restoring power” and that the maintenance of the sector is their “priority,” adding that the issue is being looked into. IESCO said that the power outage in the country has affected nearly 90 per cent of Karachi, affecting the electricity supply of 117 IESCO grid stations and that a full restoration would “take some time.” 

Geographic Spread: Where did the power outage happen?
The power outage affected the entire country, including Karachi, Lahore, Quetta, Peshawar and Islamabad. On 24 January, Energy Minister Khurram Dastgir said that the electricity across the country had been “fully restored,” but that major cities like Karachi, Quetta and Lahore were still “deprived of power.” Additionally, he said that power at all 1,112 stations the national was resumed, but held that there would be a shortage of electricity for the next two days. He elaborated that nearly 6,600 MW of coal and 3,500 nuclear plants would take about two to three days to restart and that when these plants resume, there will be “limited load management,” leaving out industrial users.

Speaking about Karachi, he said that the electricity situation in Karachi is “complicated” and that K-Electric has its system. IESCO’s response to the situation remains inconclusive as it maintained the management is in “constant communication” with the authorities all over the country to continue its restoration efforts. QESCO also held that the electricity in the province was “partially restored” from the 220kV Uch-Sibbi transmission line, with Quetta’s power supply coming from the 132kV Sibbi-Quetta circuit transmission line as well. 

LESCO, however, reported another “frequency” issue in its system and said that preceding yesterday’s power breakdown, power is restored in all areas of the city, but load management is being handled and would power resume soon. 

Earlier this month, the government issued a directive to all the malls and markets in the country to shut by 2200 hours under a new energy-saving plan, where it expects to save nearly PKR 62 billion this year. 

Outage: What caused the current outage in Pakistan?
First, temporary remedial measures. Responding to the power outage, Dastgir said that the power outage is not “major” and that the breakdown was caused by frequency variation and voltage fluctuation in the south of the country. He said that the power-generating units were “shut down one by one.” Further, Dastgir laid out that at the time of power generation, the consequence of each megawatt on the power tariff is considered and the electricity demand is “lower in winter.”  He said that the system is usually turned off at night and switched on one by one in the morning.  Preceding this outage, the power grid broke down in October 2022, with power restoration taking longer than expected, leaving nearly 220 million people without electricity for basic activities like pumping drinking water and hospitals. 

The National Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA) also imposed a fine of nearly PKR 20 million on the National Transmission and Despatch Company (NTDC) for “breakdowns and collapsing of its towers.” Dastgir remarked that the ministry was engaged to address matters of reconnection, repair and investigation and that the “right measures” would be taken to tackle the issue. The government’s temporary measures put the country in a tough spot, with long-term issues like load shedding and delays in reworking the power structure of the country causing more problems than solutions. 

Second, unequal power distribution. The electricity industry in Pakistan has been sustained as an industry inundated with regulatory changes over the last two decades, with regulation and distribution guidelines put in place to structure the standard pricing of electricity in the country. The reforms motivated in 2002 were less efficient, with the unbundling process separating the power generation from the network-based part of the industry. Transmission networks in Pakistan carry high voltage power and come from Karachi Electric and the NTDC and compete at a much lesser scale with the private firms operating in the sector. The power is distributed by NEPRA through DISCO companies sectioning them sector-wise. Most of the power in the country is distributed unevenly, with most of the electricity going to households and industries. Pakistan’s agricultural and other imperative services see less priority on their distribution scale and require a larger managerial effort.

Third, the demand and supply gap. On 30 June 2020, the State of Industry Report by NEPRA said that the total installed capacity generation in Pakistan was 38,719 MW. Out of the 38,719 MW of Installed Capacity, the system supplies 35,735 MW of electricity, with KE supplying 2984 MW. The peak hour demanded only 26,252 MW of the total power supply from the NTDC and asked for 2604 MW from KE. The gap in energy supply and demand poses major issues to the power sector with transmission losses leading to tougher tariff rates. The gap also brings in an energy deficit in Pakistan, with uneven transmission and distribution of power causing power outages like the one today. To restart the power, the systems use a mechanism called the “Black Start Mechanism,” which uses much more power than usual.   

Is Pakistan's energy mix the primary reason for the outage?
Pakistan’s power sector generates both renewable and non-renewable energy and comprises an energy mix that could be transitioned into a sustainable one. Renewable sources include wind, solar, and bagasse, with thermal and nuclear power lying under the non-renewable resources. According to Pakistan’s Economic Survey, thermal energy still has the largest share in electricity, totalling nearly 60.9 per cent in FY2022. Hydel generation stood at about 24 per cent, nuclear energy has increased to 12.35 per cent and the contribution of renewable in electricity generation has only increased by three per cent in FY2022. 

The marginal proliferation of renewable resources into the energy mix has failed to make a major shift in the consumption pattern of electricity in the country. Energy experts hold that the country is “far, far away” from meeting its sustainable development goals of 20 per cent renewables by 2025, and said that the country would see impending doom in its way if it continues to depend heavily on its fossil-fuel-based power projects. 

Pakistan’s transition into the renewable sector could bring the country about USD 866 million in investment in the next 10 years, with the shift bringing gradual and necessary change for the energy sector. The impact of these shifts could exhibit long-term monetary gains and prevent the effects of climate change. 

Or is Pakistan’s energy infrastructure the reason for the outage?
Pakistan’s power sector is riddled with debt and lacks resources to run its oil and gas-powered plants and has struggled to invest in credible infrastructure and power lines that could tackle the crisis. Power officials in the country have consistently complained of load shedding and transmission lines being too long and insufficient and remarked that the country can rely on its power installed capacities to meet the increased demand for electricity, but fares less when times of voltage fluctuations arise in the country. 

Resounding the imperativeness of the power outage, NEPRA said that it has taken “serious notice” of the power breakdown in the country and has issued directives to the NTDC to submit a “detailed report” on the blackout as well. The agency said that it had imposed fines on trippings similar to this one in 2021 and 2022 and has “consistently” issued directives and suggestions to resist these matters from repeating. Although the authorities involved in the issue have rushed to solve the energy feasibility in the country, the power breakdown poses a larger problem to the country as it faces vulnerability in the energy sector in the coming days. 

Along with a fragile economy and an impending global economic slowdown, Pakistan’s dependency on imported fossil fuel for its energy poses a threat to its renewable energy goals in the future. The power outage exposes the country’s breakdown in energy governance and questions the government’s plan for the future of energy production in Pakistan. The country stands at nearly PKR 2.47 trillion in circular debt and mostly records it because of fuel payments which would be reduced if the government focusses on carving out solutions with renewable energy. In FY2021, the net foreign direct investment (FDI) in the power sector increased to USD 911.1 million from USD 765.6 million in the previous year and mostly consisted of investments in the coal sector.

Widespread outages persist despite govt’s claim of ‘fully restoring’ power,” Dawn, 24 January 2023
Millions left powerless: Country grinds to halt as massive power outage paralyses life,” The Express Tribune, 23 January 2023
Major power breakdown hits Pakistan after grid failure,” The Express Tribune, 23 January 2023
Tahir Sherani, Qazi Hassan, Ghalib Nihad, “Restoration efforts underway as major power breakdown hits Pakistan,” Dawn, 23 January 2023
KE, NEPRA put on notice for power outages,” The Express Tribune, 22 January 2023
Salman Siddiqui, “Pakistan's foray into renewable energy,” The Express Tribune, 28 December 2022
Country still feeling ‘heat’ of power breakdown,” The Express Tribune, 14 October 2022

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