Power outages are very common in South Asia, particularly in small cities and rural areas. It is caused due to insufficient power generation capacity, poorly managed infrastructure and underfunded electricity generation capacity.
The inconsistency and the lack of a serious government action plan also compounded the situation. Some countries do not have clear long-term policies to boost the electricity sector, and neither have funds to tackle the issue on a sustainable basis.
Drilling down further, a certain part of electricity is lost during production and transmission due to inefficient transmission infrastructure and improper maintenance. These technical losses are on average about 8-10% in some developed regions, though in South Asia it is more than 15%.
The use of Uninterruptable Power Supply System (UPS) has emerged a robust alternative power option to cover electricity shortage in the residential sector. The efficiency of UPS varies significantly, depending on battery storage, inversion and charging /discharging losses. The most common UPS used in households in South Asia are highly inefficient. A growing number of these devices are usually manufactured locally, and does not comply with international standards. So, the energy losses are much more as it could be by using efficient and better quality UPS. It is estimated that that up to 3% of total power provided by the gird is lost during charging and discharging of UPS, or it can be more in case of improper maintenance of UPS, as there is energy dissipation for converting alternate current to direct current, and vice versa.
However, technical losses are not a major issue compared to the non-technical losses (NTL) which occur during the distribution of electricity. Some of the prominent NTL in South Asia include meter tampering, bypassing meters, arranged false meter readings, un-metered supply, and errors in meter readings, data processing and billing. In some parts of South Asian countries, NTL accounts for up to 45% of the total electricity distributed. Although governments are now trying to digitalise the meter reading system to reduce the error in meter reading but it will take time to deploy the technology.
Poor administration is the key issue which results in stealing power. This practice is common in most countries in the region on both residential and commercial scales. In industries, a significant amount of electricity is consumed without billing properly due to illicit practices including bribery. To recover such losses, the governments are compelled to increase electricity prices. This exacerbates the situation further, and consumers pay more bills, provoking residents to steal electricity or entice to pay less through illegal ways. With a huge loss of revenue and lack of funds, governments have no alternatives but to increase rolling blackouts. In summer times, where demand reaches the peak and so power theft, the blackouts in some parts also become worst, affecting residential and commercial sectors.
To reduce power theft, authorities are also started laying distribution power cables underground. The progress of switching from overground to underground is going at a slow pace as it requires massive investment. The new underground distribution lines are also helpful in reducing technical losses.
One of the hurdles for up-gradation and transformation of transmission lines faces is the political motive. For instance, Pakistan has more capacity to produce electricity than its demand, but the poor transmission lines cannot bear the loads in peak hours. So, rather emphasising more on replacing transmission lines, for decades the government is promoting power plants projects in their strongholds areas to get voters appreciations. These projects are usually good for publicity and create jobs but commercially unviable and less helpful for solving the energy outage issue.
Some countries are now diversifying their energy sources and encouraging the use of wind and solar power, which is helping reducing pressure on national grids. In 2017, about 66% electricity was generated through coal in South Asia. India produced around 75% of its power from coal. Coal power is being discouraged internationally, due to its emission. This puts more pressure on India to move towards renewables or hydropower. Pakistan, on the other side accounted 40% of electricity from oil, which makes it heavily reliant on imported oil and so vulnerable to oil price fluctuations. However, under the OBOR initiatives, China plans to develop some coal fired power plants in Pakistan. The operations of these plants would depend on access to high quality of coal which means that Pakistan either needs to develop its own coal mining sector from scratch or rely on imported coal. Currently, coal-based energy accounts for less than 1% of the total energy generated in Pakistan.
Obaid Shah understands that the power outage issue would continue in short to medium terms. In some countries, it will hamper industrial development if it remains persistent. Supply is to match with growing demand through investment in new power generation projects as well as improving the administration and infrastructure monitoring system to keep the power loss minimum.
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