Power cuts are back in Nepal

A combination of low river flow, high winter power demand and old-fashioned mismanagement have meant that Nepalis are once more suffering from power cuts. 

Forced to bring out the candles once more, Nepalis have taken to social media to pour their outrage at the government for not renewing the tenure of Kulman Ghising, the head of the Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) who was credited with ending ‘load shedding’ after he was appointed in 2016.

The return to power cuts follows Ghising stepping down in September, and the current political crisis. Energy Minister Barsha Man Pun, who is a Pushpa Kamal Dahal loyalist, was among seven Cabinet ministers who resigned to protest Prime Minister K P Oli’s dissolution of the House on 20 December.

Nepalis used to suffer up to 16 hours of power cuts a day during some of the worst periods between 2006-2016. An investigation by this newspaper had shown that it was largely because of NEA officials and the head of the load distribution centre being paid off by industries to provide them dedicated 24-hour electricity feed. 

Kulman Ghising was credited with ending the loadshedding after being appionted NEA head in 2016.

As a result, electricity was rationed for households across the country and the remaining supply could not keep up with demand. Things got worse in winter when Nepal’s run-of-the-river schemes could not generate their optimum power. 

After Ghising took over the NEA, he cut off the dedicated feeds and redistributed the saved power to the public. He also slapped a bill to the industries for a backlog of payments, and it is thought that these powerful individuals then pressured the Oli government not to renew Ghising for four more years.

Ghising was also lucky because his tenure coincided with new private power producers generating hydroelectricity, and an import agreement with India. But he also launched an aggressive campaign to upgrade the grid, reduce system loss and pilferage from 26% to 15% during his tenure, and manage the grid more efficiently.  

However, NEA spokesman Madan Timsina said electricity supply has been interrupted because of poorly maintained transmission lines. “This is not load shedding, yes generation capacity cannot keep up with peak demand in the mornings and evenings sometimes, but the situation has not got to a point where we have to ration power,” he told Nepali Times

However, an official at the NEA load centre told us that on Monday, the demand for electricity reached 1,434MW which is about 500MW more than the dry season generation capacity. Usually, this deficit is being met by imports of thermal power from India. 

Every evening this week, the load centre has been struggling to provide uninterrupted electricity supply but has not always succeeded. The NEA official said: “When there is just no other alternative, we cut off the supply for between 15-20 minutes in each locality just to manage the load. This is not a new thing.”

This week, Kathmandu Valley’s peak demand hit 377MW, which is actually 50MW less than last year. The reason is the economic slowdown due to the pandemic. Yet, the NEA is finding it difficult to meet even that lessened demand.   

“Our transmission lines, distribution network and transformers and are old and they cannot meet high demand, that is why there are sometimes problems on those lines and we have to cut power,” Timsina added.

The peak hours in winter for power demand at between 6-7pm, when people are using electricity for cooking and heating, or plug in television and other appliances. It has not rained since September, and the rivers receded,  lowering the electricity available. 

Since Nepal has only one reservoir-based power plant at Kulekhani, there is no backup when supply does not meet peak demand. Although private power producers in Nepal have an installed capacity of 725MW, these weeks they have not been able to generate even half of that. NEA’s own plants like Kulekhani, Kali Gandaki and others are producing 500MW.

The NEA has been importing 600MW of electricity from India to meet the shortfall in the evenings this week. The utility expects the situation will to improve only in February after the winter rains arrive, and the snow starts melting with warmer weather. 

The irony is that NEA and private hydropower plants can generate up to 1,400MW during the monsoon, which this year has exceeded demand reduced during the pandemic. In fact, this monsoon Nepal actually exported some power to India in July-August, and lot of electricity was wasted as ‘spill’ during the night time.

The NEA’s head of Customer Service said the reason for power cuts this week was because of a weak distribution system, and not undersupply. He said: “Sometimes there is an overload in some neighbourhoods, and sometimes in others, and the system cannot handle it, leading to breakdowns in supply.”

The other reason is the delay in bringing a crucial 132kVA transmission line in the southern edge of the Valley from Thankot to Chapagaon and Bhaktapur because of local opposition. This means it is difficult to keep the system stable – especially through lines feeding parts of Patan and Baneswor.  

This contradicts the statement to us by the official at the NEA’s own load centre who has blamed a shortfall in supply.

Whatever the truth, the Nepali public seems to have made up its mind that the ‘power mafia’ working in cahoots with the government kicked out Kulman Ghising because he was becoming too popular. And without him the country has gone back to 'the dark ages'.

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