Why does power keep fluctuating? It’s because of ageing infrastructureFrom electricity shortages, Nepal has reached a stage of power surplus. But decades-old electric infrastructure is hitting capacity, officials say, and lights are flickering out.
Padma Bashyal likes Saturdays. Not because she gets to laze around, but because her beauty parlour sees an increased number of clients. Saturday is a good business day for Bashyal who runs a salon in Kirtipur. But of late, she is facing a problem—frequent power cuts.
“I have more clients on Saturdays, as they don’t have to go to work,” she said. “But power cuts have become a big challenge for me.”
She cannot afford a generator, she said.
“I need to use beauty salon equipment like hair dryers and steam machines, and I need lights in the parlour, and electricity is essential,” said Bashyal, 28.
Ever since her father lost his job after the pandemic, she has been helping her parents financially. The Covid-19 lockdown also led to the closure of her parlour for months.
“Just as I was seeing an upturn in business, frequent power cuts have added to my woes,” she said.
Between 2007 and 2017, the country suffered a massive electricity shortage that caused up to 18 hours of power outages daily.
This load-shedding had a dire effect on Nepal's economy. According to a World Bank report, regular power supply would have increased the country's annual gross domestic product by almost 7 percent, and annual investment would have been 48 percent higher.
In May 2018, the Nepal Electricity Authority officially announced that the whole country was free from load-shedding.
Uninterrupted electricity supply 24 hours a day led many to dump their inverters, a power storage equipment.
Lately, sudden power cuts have made a comeback. But with no proper mechanism to respond to their queries, people vent their frustrations at frequent power cuts on social media platforms.
No one, however, has been able to figure out the exact reason for the frequent power cuts.
Anu Subedi, public information officer at the Nepal Electricity Authority, said that maintenance work is being done at different areas in Kathmandu Valley such as underground cable laying and other repair work.
“We post notices on our official website providing full details about where and when electricity supply will be interrupted, and state the reason before cutting off the power,” she said.
Bashyal said her parlour remained closed for most of the lockdown, and business remained slow even after the stay-at-home orders were lifted. And just when the pandemic situation is improving and people are coming back to her parlour, she said the power outage problem is preventing her from providing full service and earning a good income.
“I have to pay the rent for the parlour, make payments on bank loans and spend on household expenses, and when service gets interrupted due to electricity, I am extremely stressed,” she told the Post.
Gehendra Timalsena, who works at Logistic Stone Step, an IT solution company, has been doing his office work from home. Frequent power fluctuations cause him stress as they disturb his official work when he has deadlines to meet.
“When the power is cut in the middle of an online meeting or while submitting my work, it impacts performance,” said Timalsena from Pepsicola. “We have to buy expensive mobile data to attend online meetings or submit work files despite paying electricity bills regularly,” he said.
Timalsena does not find it useful to complain about the power cuts to the authority as nobody listens.
Officials say the decades-old electricity infrastructure is reaching capacity and flickering out.
Kulman Ghising, managing director of the authority, said that the problem of frequent power cuts might be due to technical tripping, but the problem is very small. "The power cuts are not caused by lack of electricity," he said.
Until a few years ago, Nepal suffered electricity shortages, and now when supply has reached a surplus state, the problem of tripping has started.
On Monday, the Asian Development Bank approved a $60 million loan as additional support for the ongoing Electricity Grid Modernisation Project that is upgrading power transmission and distribution systems in Nepal.
The ongoing project, approved in November 2020, is automating 34 existing grid substations across Nepal, completing the installation of smart meters in Kathmandu Valley, upgrading 144 km of transmission lines and constructing 113 km of new lines, and establishing an electricity distribution system command and control centre.
According to the bank, the increased funding will help construct 16 km of 132-kilovolt transmission lines from Nepalgunj to Kohalpur and from Chobhar to Lagankhel. It will introduce an additional 477 megavolt-amperes of substation capacity through the construction of substations in Dumkibas, Lagankhel, Mulpani and Nepalgunj.
"Around 400 megawatts of electricity is being wasted for lack of consumption, and there is no reason to implement load-shedding," said Ghising, adding that the current problem was just technical.
The crippling load-shedding which the country endured for years finally ended after Kulman Ghising was named managing director of the Nepal Electricity Authority in September 2016.
During the fiscal year 2016-17, the power utility had earned a net profit of Rs1.50 billion, putting the perennially loss-making organisation on a firm financial footing.
Despite two magical performances as soon as Ghising took charge of the power utility, there was no timely response to upgrading the ageing infrastructure.
“Sometimes, faults in the lines occur, and also when repair work is done to the wires and transformers, service gets interrupted briefly,” Ghising said.
“Supply gets shut down during maintenance work, and I have not heard about this problem much in the valley; but I am hearing that there is a tripping problem outside the valley,” he said. “And we are looking into the power tripping problem outside the valley,” he said.
“We have been adding many substations in the valley at different places, lines are being installed underground and lines are being extended to improve service,” he said.
The valley’s demand is around 300 megawatt during peak time.
According to the annual report of the authority, the total population with access to electricity based on the number of consumers reached 85 percent of total households in the fiscal year 2020-21 which is calculated as 90 percent on the basis of the available electrical infrastructure.
The total energy consumption in the fiscal year 2020-21 was 7,319 GWh, an increase from 6,529 GWh in the fiscal year 2019-20.
The authority's hydropower plants including small power stations generated 2,810.74 GWh of electricity in the fiscal year 2020-21, an increase from 3021.04 GWh in the fiscal year 2019-20, as per the report. The total power purchased from independent power producers within Nepal was 3,241 GWh, an increase by 8.36 percent from 2,991 GWh in the fiscal year 2019-20.
The total energy imported from India was 2,826.21 GWh in fiscal 2020-21, up 63.45 percent from the 1,729 GWh in fiscal 2019-20. The total energy in the system increased by 14.68 percent to 8,877.95 GWh over the corresponding figure of 7,741 GWh in fiscal 2019-20.
Following Nepal's electricity roadmap, the power utility said it was committed to lighting up every household in Nepal by the year 2023 through adequate network expansion plans all over the country.
For the sake of safety, reliability and aesthetics, underground cable laying work to upgrade the distribution system is already underway in different parts of Kathmandu like Ratnapark, Maharajgunj, Kuleshwar, Kirtipur and Baneshwar distribution centres.
The contract was signed in the fiscal year 2020-21, and survey work has started for underground cable laying in Lalitpur and Bhaktapur.
Ghising is largely credited for bringing Nepal out of the dark ages, as under his leadership the country managed to get rid of hours-long load-shedding. He may have been aided by multiple factors, but many say he managed available power to distribute to ensure uninterrupted power supply.
He was appointed to lead the authority only recently by the Sher Bahadur Deuba government, in place of Hitendra Shakya, who has moved the court challenging the decision to remove him.
"Obviously there is a technical problem, but the problem has occurred due to management weakness and also because of peak load," said an official at the power utility who preferred to remain anonymous. "People believed that the problem would be fully solved following the appointment of Kulman Ghising, but it has not happened so far."
Consumer rights activists say it is the authority’s duty to ensure uninterrupted power supply.
"Frequent power cuts are cheating the consumer," said Jyoti Baniya, chairperson of the Forum for Consumers' Rights, Nepal.
“Consumers have to pay their electricity bills without any excuses or face fines if they are late, but when it comes to providing uninterrupted service or quick solutions to problems, there is no response,” he said. “Neither are consumers compensated for disruptions to service,” he said.
“Uninterrupted power supply is an essential part of public service delivery, especially at a time when many people depend on it to do their office work and students need it to study online,” Baniya said. "The authority should ensure that service does not get affected by natural causes or technical glitches; and if that happens, it needs to respond quickly," he added.
Baniya said that the authority should work on infrastructure and human resources so that the service being provided is improved.
Salon owner Bashyal said that she would be in trouble if the power problem continued in the upcoming festival and wedding seasons.
The Nepal Electricity Authority, however, said that such problems cannot be eliminated right away.
“Uninterrupted service is not possible in the country immediately as we do not have a high reliability system. But we have been improving it,” said Ghising. “It will take time to provide uninterrupted supply.”