Power blackout 2021: inquiry report

On 9th January 2021, 23:40hrs, a major power blackout occurred which engulfed almost entire Pakistan, including Karachi, Lahore, Multan and Islamabad. It took 22 hours to bring electricity back into the grid. Power regulator Nepra (National Electric Power Regulatory Authority) has held NTDC (National Transmission and Despatch Company) responsible and has fined Rs 50 million on it.

NTDC has failed to submit a satisfactory response to the investigation carried out by Nepra. It may be unfair to isolate NTDC only on the part of Nepra to fine it. Fines do not help. Three parties have been identified; Guddu power plant, KE and NTDC.

Nepra organised an Inquiry Commission (IC) consisting of relevant experts, which submitted its findings. There were several causes of the blackout, but simply speaking for the lay reader, it was a wrong operation of a circuit breaker. IC report says, “The causes of blackout are persistent bolted fault at Guddu switchyard and resultant Unstable Power Swing in the power system.” The report also points out the non-implementation of many studies and investigations on the performance issue of Guddu Switch Yard.

To top it, the restart of the system took inordinately long. A common issue identified by the report is lack of SOPs and contingency plan topped by ineffective management system. One of the recommendations of the IC report would indicate the lack of even simple procedures and tools; to have a single line diagram of its 220kV control room be updated and made available at site and as well as at NTDC. Even such simple things are lacking.

One of the reasons for the inordinate delay in system restart has been assigned to the lack of Black Start (BS) facilities, which the IC determined was NTDC’s responsibility to ensure that BS was available at the required power plants.BS facilities are smaller independent power generation plants which are turned on to provide (excitation and other auxiliary) power to start the main power plant.

Is NTDC alone responsible for this? Aren’t project approving bodies like PPIB (Private Power and Infrastructure Board) and Nepra itself responsible for lack of due diligence? We will examine the issue and the IC report in this space.

Blackouts have occurred in many countries in the past, including the US, Brazil, Indonesia, Malaysia and India.

The latest blackout in India was in 2012. There were two blackouts on successive days — 30th and 31st July, affecting 300 and 700 million people, respectively. Overdrawing of electricity by certain Indian states and weak interregional transmission were cited to be the major reasons. There are many reasons for such blackouts to which there are solutions and safeguards, depending on how much economic and technical resources and manpower are applied.

The Inquiry Commission Report (ICR)

ICR on 9th January, 2021 blackout event was prepared dated February 8th, 2022. More than a year after the incident which in itself is a serious comment on the state of affairs. NTDC was given several chances by Nepra to explain its position on the subject of Blackout, according to Nepra.

NTDC, however, failed to provide a satisfactory answer and NTDC was fined Rs 50 million, a paltry sum if compared with the private and public losses that occurred. Was NTDC alone responsible? Who else was responsible itself? The answer would be clear with the discussion on the report and its recommendation.

There are two main issues that have been identified by the report;

  1. Fault causes and responsibility of the blackout: The three phases to each earth bolted fault was caused by Gross Negligence of Guddu Power Plant staff that operated the 230 kV circuit breaker, without opening the earth switch of the 220 kV isolator and that too without the permission of NPCC. Unfortunately, not that only the CB failed to trip but CBF scheme also did not operate. As a result cascade tripping occurred due to bolted fault which divided the power system into North and South. Why can’t there be automation in this respect to avoid such mistakes, which can always occur? Murphy’s Law: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong.

2: In ordinate delay in system start up: The system operator/NTDC together with the power plants took too long (around 20hrs) while KE took 22 hours for complete restoration of the power supply in their respective jurisdictions. Lack of Black Start facilities at power plants is one of the main reasons. BSF are small independent generators and auxiliary systems that provide start up power.

There are a variety of reasons including nonexistence of SOPs and Contingency Plans).Other recommendations are as follows:

  1. A centralized event recorder must be installed which is essential for a proper analysis of events;
  2. No operation of power houses or grids be done without the knowledge of NPCC (National Power Construction Company) (it appears that it happens);
  3. Availability of an islanding generator (at power plants of 200MW or more) must be there for dealing with under-frequency situations;
  4. Installation of Black Start facilities at power plants as advised by NTDC.
  5. It appears that some IPP (Independent Power Producers) plants are not available for synchronization while these are reportedly charging capacity charges and declaring themselves available. (Non-transparency issues and leakages appear to be there, although report does not quite say that. Inference can be made by the readers);
  6. Feeder control and tripping issues to be improved;
  7. Indiscriminate tripping of GT 14 shall be checked and set right;
  8. To have a single line diagram of its 220 kV control room be updated and made available at site and as well as at NTDC;
  9. Management reforms are needed at Guddu TPS and SOP and contingency plans are to be developed (apparently, these are not there. And if there are not adequate and are not implemented).

Is imposing a fine on NTDC enough? How about the other actors including the lack of attention by the regulator itself? It appears that the penalty has been applied to be only due to insubordination or lack of response by NTDC and not based on technical calculations of losses. What is more damaging and dangerous is the apparent lack of follow-up and monitoring of the implementation of the Inquiry Commission Report by the relevant and competent authorities. Equally, one is not impressed by the constituents of the Inquiry Commission itself. Foreign experts should have been involved for a third-party review, time for which is still not gone away.

The issue has not been taken seriously enough? Blackout may occur again with more ferocity (God forbid, but God helps those who help themselves) and even more frequently, if the system is not improved, most important of which appears to be diligent management. Action is required against individuals in the management hierarchy who are supposed to organise and manage these issues. Finally, Nepra needs to have some soul searching as to its role and responsibilities; mere imposing a fine is not enough.

(The writer is former Member Energy, Planning Commission .He has authored a number of books on the energy sector. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the newspaper)

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