Sunday’s power fiasco: What went wrong?

Published: February 26, 2013

Four-member inquiry committee formed as experts warn govt decision to avoid load shedding ahead of elections will cost the entire system. DESIGN: FAIZAN DAWOOD

ISLAMABAD / KARACHI: 

There is a big screen at the National Power Control Centre that is constantly monitored. And on Sunday night as soon as the Uch power plant dropped below 550MW, someone should have noticed.

Distributors should have been told to cut off supplies to ‘unimportant’ consumers so demand was lowered. This did not happen. The result was a domino effect of tripping. Think of what happens when you turn the AC on when the generator is running. The demand was not lowered and the burden was passed on to Karachi which tripped, followed by Hubco, then Tarbela and Mangla.

“Right now the country is not following any load management plan and therefore the National Power Control Centre (NPCC) had no exact idea how to ask distribution companies to reduce the stress on the system,” explained an official of the water and power ministry.

A load management plan would have meant a load shedding schedule and those are vastly unpopular with voters. In fact, after the blackout the prime minister approved Rs40 billion for oil and gas suppliers so power plants work at full capacity. The plan is to keep load shedding to a minimum as elections are around the corner.

“The government does not want to upset voters so there are no planned outages to manage the electricity shortage,” said an official who has held key ministry positions. “[Sunday] was bound to happen. You can’t keep people happy with an uninterrupted power supply when surrounded by so many problems.”

And this problem is not going away: 7,500 megawatts (MW) are produced but the country needs double or 13,500MW. A load management plan should have been in place or in the very least, an SOP for the emergency that developed Sunday.

It appears that the person who is in charge didn’t know what to do. The man who was called in to fix the problem was Chaudhry Masood, who has just retired as the NPCC general manager and is now a consultant. “Masood was called in for help to fix the system last night” an official said. They never found a good enough replacement for him.

The NPCC isn’t the only cog in the machine that has suffered from a lack of competent management. In the last four and a half years, six secretaries linked to the power sector – the top most official after a minister – have been changed. The seventh, Rai Sikandar, replaced Nargis Sethi a few days back.

Power firms come under the administrative control of the water and power ministry. But instead of having experts head these organisations, ministry officials run them. For example, Deputy Secretary Mussadiq Ahmad Khan is looking after the National Transmission and Despatch Company (NTDC), the power ministry’s special secretary Himayatullah Khan looks after the Central Power Purchasing Agency. Zargham Ishaq Khan, a joint secretary, runs the Pakistan Electric Power Company.  They are paid by the government and the companies. The power distribution companies from Gujranwala to Quetta are also being run by temporarily appointed bureaucrats.

Despite this shaky set-up, the government was quick to blame the privately run Hub Power Company for the disaster Sunday. But its CEO, Zafar Iqbal Sobani, said they had rung the alarm. “We had informed the NTDC,” he told The Express Tribune. “We told them that [they had] to bring up that level,” he said referring to how the load frequency had dropped to 48.5 hertz, below the normal 50 hertz on the national grid because of the shortage.

And thus it appears that even the NTDC is to blame along with the NPCC. Energy expert Arshad Abbasi said that organisations like the NTDC should always be governed by professionals and not bureaucrats. “I think it is a conspiracy to lead Pakistan to a collapse through energy collapse,” he said. Sunday’s breakdown was caused by poor management and bad governance in the power sector.

“If there was something wrong with one power plant then only a certain area should have been affected,” added Najamul Hassan Farooqi, an energy consultant. “The NTDC should have contained the fallout. They could have stopped the load from being transferred onto the entire system.”

For whatever it is worth, a committee has a week to make an inquiry. The committee consists of a member of Wapda, the NTDC technical director, chief engineer for system protection and the joint secretary of the power ministry. The prime minister was informed that the breakdown was caused by a “technical fault”. Perhaps human lack of planning would be more appropriate.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 26th, 2013.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Awais
    Feb 26, 2013 - 2:56AM

    That’s fine. Atleast we did not betray our good old bhuttos in the last elections!

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  • JJ
    Feb 26, 2013 - 3:08AM

    Nothing to say v know its last GIFT from AWAMI HUKMAT to PAKISTANI AWAM…WISH U GOOD LUCK PPP FOR 2013 ELECATION.

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  • Bhatti
    Feb 26, 2013 - 3:12AM

    This is how our country is running :( why cant we bring good ppl like Imran Khan & Asad Omer into power :( Vote for PTI!! & Hope for things to get better!!

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  • Hammad
    Feb 26, 2013 - 3:36AM

    I guess this was bound to happen sooner than later, what with all the load shedding going on. This reminds of the blackout in NY.

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  • Ayesha Bhaalay
    Feb 26, 2013 - 5:13AM

    Think of what happens when you turn the AC on when the generator is running

    What happens?

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  • Ayesha Bhaalay
    Feb 26, 2013 - 5:15AM

    They are paid by the government and the companies. The power distribution companies from \
    Gujranwala to Quetta are also being run by temporarily appointed bureaucrats.

    As a Pakistani, this makes me sad to no ned :(

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  • Polpot
    Feb 26, 2013 - 7:29AM

    It is disappointing that no one looks at the Loadshedding issue from the citizens perspective
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    ET pls run an article as to what problems average Pakistanis faced and exactly how long were they missing power in their cities. Fancy engineering analysis are secondary .

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  • ab
    Feb 26, 2013 - 8:14AM

    there are still plenty of people that will vote for the parties that are in power. i wonder when we will wake up and come out of zaat baradari things and vote for the people that are capable.

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  • Asif
    Feb 26, 2013 - 8:51AM

    Until & unless this country is run by competent professionals who are masters of their field and know what they are doing, I don’t think we’ll be any better in the future. Maybe even worse off.

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  • MAD
    Feb 26, 2013 - 9:57AM

    Im sure even those who do not agree with the politics of PTI will agree that the party’s policy statement that all public sector organizations should be run by people who are competent and have relevant qualifications. experience and skills to run these. Presently civil servants and political appointees who lack relevant skills and experience are often appointed to key positions resulting in overburdening of the few competent workers left and consequently such incidents continue to occur.

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  • Faraz
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:00AM

    hmmmm so 8,028 MW was in production against capacity of 14700MW

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  • fawad
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:16AM

    Domino effect of Political appointees. If this continues then every organization in Pakistan is going to be equally inefficient soon.

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  • Imzi
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:17AM

    Think of what happens when you turn the AC on when the generator is running
    What happens?

    Generator Trips and does not provide power..

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  • Ali Hasan
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:30AM

    This is a most excellent piece of journalism. Concise, factual and free of much judgement.

    Recommend

  • ManofSteel!
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:37AM

    A very good report, especially for a layman like me.

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  • Liberal
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:37AM

    Pakistan is fighting against terrorism which is more important than these petty issues. This happens everywhere. India also suffered from a grid black-out recently. So we should not divert our attention from the core issue, i.e. eliminating religious extremism from Pakistan. Only PPP and its liberal allies can do that and we should keep supporting them. If something goes wrong, US will come to rescue us as it always did.

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  • Enlightened
    Feb 26, 2013 - 10:43AM

    Gross mismanagement of this power fiasco has been stated as conspiracy against Pakistan which gives a clear indication that nothing can change in this country.

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  • Umer Farooq
    Feb 27, 2013 - 1:13AM

    This situation is obviously not being faced the very first time … we should have contingency plans to avoid black outs of such kind. It is utterly the lack of technical insight, decision making capabilities and poor management attributes on the part of our utility companies. Even KESC should have plans to get isolated from National Grid in case the system gets overloaded on account of tripping at the National grid end and further we should have our own black start generators so as to avoid dependency on WAPDA for the restoration of power in the metropolis as early as possible like it happened this time when the complete restoration in the city took around 14 to 20 hours.

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  • Usman
    Apr 10, 2013 - 8:31AM

    Nice report indeed

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