Power breakdown in Pakistan: Despite passing of deadline, electricity yet to be fully restored

Power restoration works underway; minister says transmission system safe; mobile, internet services disrupted

Jawad Malik
Saif ur Rehman
Web Desk
Vehicle lights cause light streaks on the road along a market, during country-wide power breakdown in Karachi, Pakistan January 23, 2023. — Reuters
Vehicle lights cause light streaks on the road along a market, during country-wide power breakdown in Karachi, Pakistan January 23, 2023. — Reuters

  • "Unprecedented" fluctuation hits the national grid.
  • Restoration of power across nation expected by tonight.
  • PM forms three-member committee to probe power breakdown.

LAHORE/KARACHI/QUETTA/ISLAMABAD: The electricity has still not been fully restored across the country despite the passing of the government’s 10pm deadline, hampering businesses and the daily lives of more than 220 million people.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has ordered an inquiry into the outage, which began at around 7:30am and has so far lasted more than 16 hours during the peak winter season.

The outage occurred on a winter's day when temperatures are forecast to fall to around 4 degrees Celsius (39°F) in Islamabad and 8 degrees Celsius (46°F) in Karachi.

The outage — which Energy Minister Khurram Dastagir had said was due to a voltage surge — is the second major grid failure in three months, and adds to the blackouts that Pakistan's populace suffers on an almost-daily basis.

Analysts and officials blame the power problems on an ageing electricity network, which like much of the national infrastructure, desperately needs an upgrade that the government says it can ill afford.

As evening drew on and homes were without electricity in the dark, the energy minister wrote on Twitter that authorities had started restoring power across the country. Dastgir had told reporters earlier: "We have faced some hurdles but we will overcome these hurdles, and will restore the power."

"Target is to restore power by 22:00 (10pm) local time but trying to restore much before that," the minister had told Reuters, but later in the press conference said that the complete restoration would be done by tonight, without specifying the time.

Soon after the power breakdown was reported earlier in the day, Dastgir, while talking to Geo News, said that the power generation units are temporarily shut down in winter at night as an economic measure to save fuel costs.

“When the systems were turned on at 7:30am this morning one by one, frequency variation was reported in the southern part of the country between Jamshoro and Dadu."

"There was a fluctuation in voltage and power generating units were shut down one by one due to cascading impact. This is not a major crisis,” said the federal minister.

The minister said that his ministry has started restoring some grid stations in Tarbela and Warsak. 

"Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO) and some grids of Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO) have already been restored," claimed the minister.  

In a press conference later, he added that despite the unprecedented voltage fluctuations in the national grid, the transmission system is safe, which will help in the restoration of power.

"Our teams — from across the country — have not reported any adverse effects of the breakdown on the national transmission system. This will help us when we restore power."

He added that a working power plant in Uch is providing energy to Sukkur, Naushahro Feroze, Larkana, Khairpur Nathan Shah, and their surrounding areas.

So, he said, using the same power plant, the power has been restored in some areas of Balochistan and South Punjab, while the Thar Coal facility is providing power to Karachi Electric so that it can restore its functions partially. 

Talking about the breakdown in Karachi earlier, the minister had said that the matter in the port city is complicated as it has a complete electric supply system.

"All the officials are trying their level best to restore the system. We faced some difficulties in restoring the hydel power plants. As I had mentioned earlier that the national transmission system was safe, so we need the power to supply electricity further. "

He added that the National Transmission & Despatch Company has been authorised to "use any power plant — no matter how expensive it might be to operate them — for the restoration of electricity".

PM's committee, NEPRA's notice

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took strict notice of the power outage and ordered the constitution of a high-level three-member committee to probe the reason behind the breakdown.

The prime minister — who was annoyed due to the impact of the breakdown — also sought a report from the energy minister, a statement from the PM's Office said.

The prime minister also directed the officials to immediately restore the electricity supply. 

The National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA), in a statement, also said that it has taken "serious notice" of the power outage and directed the NTDC to submit a "detailed report".

The statement also said that the regulator has previously imposed fines on similar outages in 2021 and 2022. It also shared that NEPRA has consistently issued directives and recommendations on tackling such events in future.

Internet and mobile services

Following the prolonged nationwide power breakdown, reports have also been received regarding mobile and internet services being affected in cities in different pockets.

Telecom companies have run out of stored fuel to temporarily run their towers and ensure a smooth flow of services causing a delay in providing services to consumers.

“Mobile network installations are being run on backup power since morning, which cannot work for a long time,” people in the telecom industry said.

In a statement, the Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) directed the companies to ensure services by refuelling generators at the maximum number of affected sites.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited (PTCL) also informed users that they may face degradation in services due to the electricity outage.

NetBlocks — a global internet monitor — confirmed that their network data showed a significant decline in internet access in Pakistan which was attributed to the power outage across the country.

Karachi, Islamabad power update

In a statement, Karachi Electric — the sole power provider of the metropolis — said the company's system’s protective mechanisms were able to prevent any damage to our infrastructure.

"KE teams are active and directly supervising the restoration efforts across Karachi," the utility said, adding that its teams are also in contact with relevant authorities to reestablish the link between Karachi and the national grid.

Progress across the country and KE is proceeding at a cautious pace, prioritising the stability of the network frequency. Strategic installations such as the airport, Karachi Port, and hospitals are being restored first. Partial restoration of some areas has, according to the KE, been achieved.

KE said it expects that power supply to the majority of the residential and commercial areas to be restored over the next three to four hours.

However, it said, complete restoration to the city and particularly industrial consumers is dependent on the provision of reliable supply from the national grid, which may take a few more hours.

KE is making all efforts to ensure a stable supply to energise the economy at the earliest, it added.

Talking to Geo News, Islamabad Electric Supply Company (IESCO) Chief Executive Officer Dr Muhammad Amjad said that the power distribution company has restored power supply in 90% of areas.

Lahore Electric Supply Company (LESCO) Chief Executive Officer Chaudhry Amin said that 86 grid stations had started providing power while works were underway to restore electricity in 1,390 feeders.

The company's chief executive said at least 70% of the utility's system had been restored and the rest of it was being restored phase-wise. "Shortly, the entire system will be functional."

Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO) Chief Executive Muhammad Jabbar Khan said 53 grid stations had been restored and added that the complete restoration would be done within two hours.

Losses worth '$70m'

The textile sector suffered a massive loss amounting to $70 million so far due to the ongoing countrywide breakdown, said a spokesperson of the All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA).

He maintained that the massive power failure badly affected industries across the country. The textile sector will have to face losses worth billions of dollars if the situation is not controlled soon, he said.

Markazi Tanzeem Tajran Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Secretary General Zahir Shah said that the traders were facing immense difficulties due to the power outage.

Criticising the government for its failure in restoring the electricity despite a span of several hours, he said that industries and petrol pumps in several areas have closed.

In Peshawar, Lahore, and other cities, long queues of vehicles were seen at almost every fuel station due to the shortage of oil amid the countrywide power breakdown.

Petroleum Dealers Association provincial chairman said there was no fuel at 50% of the petrol pumps in Peshawar.

Most of the elective scheduled operations were postponed because of the power outage, however, emergency surgeries were performed at hospitals across the country.

Previous breakdown 

In October of last year, Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Quetta, Multan, and Faisalabad were hit by a power outage.

At that time, the power minister said that nearly 8,000 megawatts of power went offline.

Back then, Dastgir had said that the simultaneous faults in two power lines, which had triggered the breakdown, at the same time was concerning for the government. He had also announced that an in-depth inquiry was ordered and promised action.

Timeline of power outages

The country's generation and distribution network has suffered eight major power breakdowns during the last nine years.

In 2014 and 2017, nationwide blackouts were caused by a fault in Tarbela Power Station while fog, frequency variation and the Guddu Power Plant fault were blamed for breakdowns in 2015, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Every time the party in power announced to conduct a comprehensive probe and vowed to rectify the issues but nothing has happened despite multiple inquiries.

— Additional input from Reuters