The distribution system has not grown in synchronisation with growth in demand
Even though Bangladesh today can generate electricity twice as much as demand for it, the power distribution system is lagging behind the ever-growing customer base, resulting in daily load shedding across the country.
The Bangladesh Power Development Board (PDB), the sole transmission company in the country, however, has no official record of power cuts and neither do such power distribution companies as Dhaka Electric Supply Company (Desco) and Dhaka Power Distribution Company (DPDC).
The PDB currently can supply more than 20,000 megawatts of electricity against a maximum demand of 12,000 MW, thanks to the government's heavy emphasis on power generation in the last decade.
And yet for residents of areas stretching from Uttara to Gulshan or Mohammadpur to Shahjahanpur in the capital, one to two hours of daily load shedding is a reality.
Official data show the distribution system has not grown in synchronisation with growth in demand.
Since 2009, the government has invested around $30 billion in the power sector. Of this, $24 billion was spent on power generation, while the rest was spent on the improvement of electricity transmission from power plants and distribution lines at the customer level.
An observation of the distribution system of Dhaka will show that there has not been adequate investment in the sector.
The number of customers in northern Dhaka under Desco has grown by 139 percent in the last decade (Desco had 4.15 lakh customers in 2009, which figure has now expanded to almost one million).
But during the same period, the number of power distribution transformers registered a growth of only 55 percent.
This is reflected in daily load shedding in Desco areas, although the company has more than 40 percent unutilised power supply available.
Kausar Ameer Ali, Managing Director of Desco, however, cited the intrusion of other utility services as the main reason behind the interruptions in electricity supply.
Defending Desco's distribution system, he said external particles disrupting the distribution lines were a major area of concern.
Bricks, cement bags, logs and iron rods often collapsed on the lines and caused short circuits, resulting in supply disruption, he added.
The power supply scene is even worse in areas under the Dhaka Power Distribution Company (DPDC), especially in Moghbazar, Rampura, Eskatan, Mugda, Mohammadpur and Farmgate.
Residents of these areas have become accustomed to daily exploding sounds of transformers, which is followed by load shedding lasting one to two hours.
Meanwhile, the DPDC customer base has grown from 7 lakh in 2009 to 13.5 lakh today.
But its substation capacity has not increased proportionately. The number of its 33/11 kV substations has increased by 67 percent and 132/33 kV substations by one fourth in the last one decade. However, the number of transformers of the DPDC has increased by 113 percent.
Bikash Dewan, Managing Director Engineer of DPDC, denied that his system was overloaded. However, he pointed out three technical reasons behind load shedding in this distribution area. These are: old breaker in some substations, old lines and feeder change after a fuse is burnt in the transformer.
"We are working to solve this short-time trip problem by setting up underground distribution lines and replacing the old lines," he added.
The Bangladesh Rural Electrification Board (BREB) is the largest distribution company with 2.64 crore consumers out of a total of 3.70 crore electricity subscribers in the country.
In the last decade, the utility has seen a 256.75 percent growth in its customer base. However, rural customers still face three to four hours of load shedding every day.
The BREB does not admit to having any load shedding issues. Instead, it faults local problems for the interruptions in supply.
BREB Chairman Major General Moin Uddin (retd) said, "As our system goes through remote areas, very often it sustains damage when there is a storm, cyclone and even falling of trees on the line."
For their part, energy experts blame the poor quality of the distribution lines for the frequent power cuts.
Professor Dr Shamsul Alam, energy advisor to the Consumers Association of Bangladesh, said, "We did not maintain standards while building distribution lines and could not set up a quality supply system."
There are also questions regarding the quality of the equipment, including transformers, cables and barrels used in the lines, he added.
Load shedding has also been affecting industrial customers like cement, rerolling, textiles or spinning mills connected to the national grid.
Shahid Alam, vice chairman of Shah Fatehullah Textile Mills Limited, the first textile industry in the private sector, said he was still frustrated with the quality of power supply.
"The duration of uninterrupted power supply may have increased now when compared to the past, but we still experience frequent load shedding," he noted.
He said the government had achieved massive growth in power generation, but the distribution and transmission sub-sectors had remained largely unaddressed.
What are the solutions?
Nasrul Hamid, minister of state for power, energy and mineral resources, admitted that there were problems with the distribution system and said the authorities were working on resolving them.
"Underground cable system and smart grid are the ultimate solutions. Installation of quality equipment is also a precondition for a better supply. We have emphasised these issues in this year's budget," he told The Business Standard.
Currently, the DPDC is running two pilot projects to take overhead lines under the ground in Dhanmondi and Jahangir Gate to Ganabhaban area in Dhaka.
Nasrul Hamid said the underground distribution system could help supply uninterrupted electricity.
At present, the country can generate 20,279 megawatts of electricity against an average daily demand of 9,500-10,000 megawatts.
That means power plants having an overall capacity to generate 12,500 megawatts electricity remain idle.
However, the government is paying a capacity charge to these power plants for keeping them on board. As per Power Division data, a whopping Tk62,000 crore was spent to pay capacity charges in the last six years.