Power shutdowns return

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The government must do something for the short term

After a brief spell of relief from power outages after the swearing in of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the electricity situation has returned to its suboptimal normal. The illusion that the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) offered to win itself a grace period after outages reached their peak during the caretaker government has now ended and whatever temporary funds were channeled into the power sector have run out, outages are back at their peak. The solution on offer are again long-term with the short-term set to be filled with misery for consumers in terms of both outages of 10-12 hours and spiked electricity rates as the domestic consumer subsidy is set to be removed.

The result is that protests have erupted in various localities of Lahore, Gujranwala, Pakpattan and Peshawar. The trouble appears to have exacerbated by technical failures in the two power generation units at Chashma which have crippled the system once again. The response of the government has been to hold a meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council (ECNEC) and announce plans to inject 3500 MW into the national grid. The projects included the K-I and K-II Nuclear Projects in Karachi with generation capacity of 2200 MW, Nandipur in Punjab with generation capacity of 425 MW and Neelum-Jhelum hydro electric project in AJK with generation capacity of 969 MW. With the total investment amounting to Rs1.3 trillion, the gloss is taken out for those aware that work on some of these projects had started during the previous government. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s announcement that Rs322 billion of the Rs503 billion in circular debt has been paid to private power producers has not changed much in terms of the crisis besetting the national grid.

With the IPPs told to use coal instead of oil within the next 18 months to bring the average cost of power production down, the government appears to be taking the right direction in the long-term. Dar has pointed to the need to change the energy mix from the current 25 per cent based on cheap fuel and 75 per cent on furnace oil. Unfortunately, long-term measures will not do as both domestic and commercial consumers are facing the brunt of 10-18 hours of outages. With the Met Office predicting hot and humid weather in the coming days, the government will need to make it a priority to sort out the power sector in the short term. If not, the public protests are sure to get much more violent and the popularity of the federal government shall go down like a spiral.