Generating power


Saad Hammadi chronicles the power sector of the country- its past failures, recent improvements and its future needs

Illustration by Shibu Kumar ShillEven a few months back, one of most frustrating, painful and exhausting aspects of life in Dhaka, or for that matter any other part of the country, were the frequent power outages. Businesses, including the thrust sectors of our economy, households, students, goods, including perishables, as well as various kinds of services have been inadvertent victims of load-shedding for over a decade now. The chain effect of load-shedding bore a much higher cost that went beyond the direct sufferings.

Meanwhile, the power sector, despite facing some of the harshest criticisms, threatened by riotous situations like the one in Kansat, sat idle, riddled by massive corruption. Years of political influence had destroyed the process of tender distribution; the power distribution had been manipulated, while huge sums of money in unrealised electricity bills had virtually put the sector in a standstill.

A recent sea of change, however, with load-shedding coming down significantly, and power shortages going down from thousands of megawatts to merely hundreds, has brought back some hope for the sector.

In the long run, however, a significant part of the population which now remains out of the national power grid will gradually demand its inclusion. Experts, therefore, point out, that the current upsurge in power is merely a brief honeymoon.

At a glance

  • Power shortage brought down from approximate 2,000 MW to 300 MW
  • 58 per cent of the population outside the national power grid
  • Limited gas reserves threat to the future of electricity supply
  • Corruption drive increased PDB’s revenue by 110 per cent
  • 2020 ‘electricity for all’ project depends on resources’ availability
  • Existing resources may fulfil 50 per cent of the 2020 target

Fighting the anomalies

According to official statistics derived from reliable sources in the power sector, against an estimated demand of 4,500 megawatt in the national power grid, the Bangladesh Power Development Board has been successful in meeting more than 4,100 megawatt.

Last year, power shortage was estimated at 1,300 megawatt while at one point the shortage had reached 2,000 megawatt.

A New Age investigation last year revealed that nearly 600 garment factories were affected by the power loss everyday, which slashed away one-third of the working hours, resulting in a production loss by 30 per cent. Further affected were the school and college going students, whose examinations often coincided with the peak time for power outage during the summer.

Overcoming those obstacles was not readily possible as the power sector’s hands were tied under bureaucratic wrangles and a lot of decisions were imposed by the prime minister’s office. More recently, according to top officials of the power ministry, a lot of the decision-making has been decentralised which has increased the pace of work and implementation.

Power sector insiders reveal that maintenance of the power plants and power units has contributed to the recent development in power generation. The power management is monitored from the highest authority of the government which has changed its operational strategies.

‘Extensive schedules for the maintenance of the power plants have improved generation,’ says Saiful Hasan Chowdhury, a deputy director of the Bangladesh Power Development Board.

Earlier, the power plants sanctioned for maintenance and repairing remained idle for months because of sluggishness in the maintenance service. To overcome the load shedding the government has increased the maintenance hours by twice the time taken earlier, points out Saiful. ‘Although the current power generation falls short of the demand, we are making our efforts to maintain the improved state of power supply,’ he says.

Surprisingly, the power generation has increased within the existing capacity that comprises of 27 power plants and about 100 power units in the country. Although the installed capacity of the existing power plants accumulate to 5,275 megawatt as of June 2006, but considering their age of service consumption and system loss, the actual power generation varies even at its best capacity. Another 12 units remain under maintenance, which if commissioned may generate 4,600 megawatt of electricity, exceeding the current demand.

Availability of timely gas supply has facilitated the turnaround in power crises as more than 90 per cent of the country’s power plants are operated on gas-based generation, says Saiful.

Separate weekends for industries has helped curb the crisis significantly, supported by the shortened market hours. Such measures are however, unlikely to ensure a stable power supply, insiders point out.

Crisis still lingers

In spite of the power sector developments, the crisis has not completely subsided and many of the existing population under the national power grid can expect to face power problems. In many parts of Dhaka city, residents say that the only change in the electricity supply is that the frequency of an hourly interval has fallen. The multiple failures experienced before has come down to twice or thrice a day.

Stability of power generation as per the requirement depends on the availability of gas resources and the water supply in Kaptai, says Mohammad Khizir Khan, chairman of the Bangladesh Power Development Board.

‘A crisis of 200 to 300 megawatt is likely to remain even at the full capacity of the existing power resources,’ says Mohammad Abdul Jalil, director general of the Power Cell.

30 per cent of the generation capacity almost always remains under maintenance and therefore even the power generated is not fully available for consumption, explains a highly placed source at the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh, which is responsible for transmission of generated power to the power distributors. At the current state, an additional 1,200 to 1,500 megawatt is required to overcome the generation loss from maintenance, he says.

‘Maintenance is a continuous process which takes place through a rotational policy, but there needs to be additional power units to backup the maintenance process,’ he explains.

Fund crisis has always been a setback for the power sector. But more recently, contracts have been awarded for two projects in Siddhirganj and Fenchuganj that can increase the generation by 330 megawatt. The five power units, two in Siddhirganj with 120 megawatt each and another three in Fenchuganj generating 30 megawatt each are expected to be commissioned by the next year.

The loot and plunder

With the massive anticorruption drives against the former ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen, the power development board realised hundreds of crores of taka from its bill defaulters. In the meantime its revenue shot up to Tk 5,000 crore this year, increasing by 110 per cent from the previous year. Inside sources point out a massive change in the power sector’s tender processing, which until the last year could not be carried out without unhealthy political interference and influence.

‘It has been a significant development for us not to have any political interference in the last tender process for 10 small power plants,’ says a highly placed source with the Power Cell under the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources.

Inside sources at the power ministry reveal the extent of corruption that existed in the power ministry and interest groups. From ministers to the prime minister’s office, almost every individual got a cut when a power company was awarded a tender. In the last five years, a number of tenders have been announced and then called off because it did not provide enough benefits to the officials of the previous government, says ministry officials.

‘Just for the Fenchuganj power station generating 90 megawatt, tenders were called five times, which has been the highest number of calls since the BNP government came to power,’ a highly placed source at the power ministry informed New Age. It has also been reported that a number of companies have been asked to resubmit tenders in order for them to win on the lowest quote. Meanwhile a number of power projects that were initiated during the tenure of Awami League were revoked by the BNP government right after assuming power.

The future

The picturesque beauty of rural Bangladesh makes it appear like a piece of heaven at times. But far beyond the crop fields, in the small mud and wicker huts, the farmers and villagers do not even have a cooling fan or light to give them relief from the heat. The national power grid does not have most of Bangladesh covered under its existing capacity.

According to official statistics, 58 per cent of the nation remains in darkness during night time, dependent upon the natural light of the day. More than 40,000 villages are out of the national power grid, a reason contributing to national poverty.

No distribution system is available in any of those power deprived zones. ‘The PGCB has enough resources for transmission but unless we can find a distributor we cannot supply in these areas,’ says the PGCB source.

The power division has set a timeframe of another 13 years by when it will be able to distribute electricity nationally. And though the installed capacity of power plants as of today is estimated at 6,441 megawatt, according to the government’s assessment, by the year 2020, installed capacity is expected to increase to 17,765 megawatt.

‘As many as seven power units with an expected generation of 1,160 megawatt await construction under definite commitment of installation,’ reveal sources at the power sector, assuring that funds for six of them have been confirmed.

The power plants comprising the seven units are expected to go into operation by 2012. In the meanwhile, the government has agreed to install another six to eight rental power plants generating 300 megawatt for the next three years. However, as soon as the mainstream power plants are completed, the privately run rental power plants will be closed down.

‘It is difficult to say whether the entire nation could be covered under the national power grid by 2020,’ says top official of the power division. The development project depends on the availability of gas, fuel, power generation, demand, efficiency of the power units and the timeframe.

‘Resources have to be developed to meet the 2020 target. The existing gas reserve will cover approximately 50 per cent of the 2020 target,’ says Jalil, the Power Cell’s chief.

Though the government has received much praise in recent times for meeting almost the full demand, the fact remains that only 40 per cent of the entire population is under the national power grid.

The government is taking steps to extend power generation but when the resources are limited, there is not much opportunity, regrets the power development board’s chief, Khizir.

To provide power service to all people by the year 2020, the government has initiated a number of time bound development plan. Investment required for implementation of the plans have been assessed at US $3 billion up to the year 2007 and US $4.5 billion between 2007 and 2012 while another US $7.0 billion during and 2012-2020 timeframe, reveals a power cell statement.

This article was first published in New Age Xtra on September 28, 2007 http://www.newagebd.com/2007/sep/28/sep28/xtra_cover.html

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