Welcome back load shedding!
Syed Mansur Hashim wrights for The Daily Star
As the mercury itches upwards in the closing week of May and metrological bulletin informs us gleefully that the temperature will be getting hotter in the coming days, people living in both urban and rural areas have been greeted with power outages (popularly known as load shedding). For hours on end, particularly throughout the night, Dhaka city residents now enjoy the cacophony of generators for hours. They are of course the luckier residents. The less fortunate residents rely on Instant power supply (IPS) systems which sputter out after a while leaving people to suffer an unwanted sauna. And then of course there are the toiling masses constituting the lower tier of society, for them there is no respite at all. The children and the elderly suffer the most in this situation and millions resort to the good old haat pankha to make the best of a bad situation.
According to Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) data, last Saturday the country generated about 8,244 megawatts (MW) against an installed capacity of 13,179 MW. We are informed that “technical glitches” were responsible for about 1,965MW of electricity load-shedding and the other 776 MW of lost power production was due to a lack of sufficient gas supply to power plants. What all this points to naturally is that our energy supply is far less secure than we had been led to believe. If we look at what is happening in some of the rural areas outside Dhaka (which fall under the purview of REB), the situation is quite terrible, where load shedding ranges from anywhere between 6-8 hours a day.
Needless to say, it is pointless to talk about the country as a whole. The major economic hubs in Bangladesh are concentrated around Dhaka and Chittagong and it is hardly surprising that the business houses and industrial estates are suffering the brunt of these power outages. Industrial output is severely hampered according to the FBCCI, whose president Md. Shariful Islam (Mohiuddin) stated quite bluntly recently: “The country has sufficient power production. But the problem is we don't have ample distribution networks that are consistent with the generation capacity.” This has long been a problem that is not unknown to policymakers but while inaugurating new power plants is great for publicity, upgrading distribution and transmission networks is not. Industrial production has been hit badly across the board. While large RMG conglomerates may be able to face losses by running their industrial units with backup diesel generators, what happens to those industrial sectors that sell to the domestic market? Their sales proceeds are not in foreign currency. Indeed, even industrial estates like Export Processing Zones are not above load shedding.
Latest newspaper reports tell us that we have several hours of power outages in Mirpur, Shewrapara, Kazipara, Khilgaon, Goran, Jatrabari, Dania, Matuil and Demra which are the worst hit. That does not mean people living in other parts of the city are doing much better. It is perhaps made tolerable in the more affluent parts of the city where buildings have some form of power backup which at least keep the fans turning as the rainless days continue. It is well known that power demand peaks during May – June period. So why exactly did BPDB decide to undertake maintenance for some of its biggest power plants during this time? According to BPDB's public relations department, the newly-installed Summit Bibiyana-II 341MW power plant (along with some other big plants) is down for maintenance. This is terrible planning, especially when we take into account gas shortages and other “technical glitches” have taken out more than 2,500MW of power supply from the equation during some of the hottest weather spells that occur at this time.
We are now finally waking up to the sad reality that our power transmission and distribution systems are prone to weather fluctuations like tornadoes and cyclones. Our lack of foresight in upgrading these systems is translating into a power system that is unstable at best. We are informed that the World Bank has recently approved a US$59 million loan for facilitating our power sector modernisation plans in April. WB has also approved $357million and endorsed the first $100 million under the Scale-up Facility Fund. This loan will be used under the Power System Reliability and Efficiency Improvement Project to reduce power outages, load-shedding cut electricity generation costs. This of course is very good news, but why has it taken so long for us to avail such concessional loans? And what is the timeline for its implementation?
At the end of the day, we are left in the dark as to what authorities are going to do about this chronic load-shedding problem. We stand on the verge of the holy month of Ramadan and have been assured that there will be “uninterrupted power supply” for the devout when they wake up for 'sehri' and breaking of fast during 'iftar'. What about the rest of the day?
The writer is Assistant Editor, The Daily Star.