Nation Plagued by Power Shortages Suddenly Has Too Much Electricity

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After spending decades tackling electricity shortages, Pakistan now faces a new and unfamiliar problem: too much generation capacity.

The South Asian nation’s power supply flipped to a surplus last year after a flurry of coal- and natural gas-fired plants were built, mostly financed by the Belt and Road Initiative launched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013. Pakistan is slated to have as much as 50% too much electricity by 2023, according to Tabish Gauhar, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan for the power sector.

That is problematic because the government is the sole buyer of electricity and pays producers even when they don’t generate. To help tackle the issue, the government has negotiated with producers to end that system, lower their tariffs and asked them to delay the start of new projects, according to Gauhar. It is also trying to convince industries to switch to electricity from gas.

“We have a lot of expensive electricity and that is a burden,” he said.

While the Chinese financing and the surplus is a welcome change after years of shortages that left exporters unable to meet orders and major cities without electricity for much of the day, two main problems remain. The first is a creaking network, and the second is the need to supply cheaper power while keeping emissions in check.

“Pakistan has overcapacity, yet it still has power shortages because of the unreliability of the grid,” said Simon Nicholas, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics & Financial Analysis. “They haven’t invested in the grid the same way they’ve invested in power plants.”

The last nationwide blackout happened just last month after an outage at the country’s largest facility. While the new plants have also boosted coal generation to a record fifth of the power mix, Pakistan plans to increase the share of wind and solar to 30%, while another 30% will be generated from river-run dams.

Pakistan will pay private power producers 450 billion rupees ($2.8 billion) in overdue electricity bills in a deal to reduce future tariffs. The government targets to pay 40% of that bill by the end of February, with the second payment slated before December, according to Gauhar. A third of the payment will be made in cash, with the rest in fixed income instruments, he added.

About 8 gigawatts worth of government-owned power plants will also have tariffs reduced. And Pakistan plans to negotiate lower tariffs for mining and power generation at the Thar coalfield, said Gauhar.

The government aims to delay about 10 gigawatts worth of planned power projects, including coal and wind plants, since there won’t be any need for them next year, said Gauhar.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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