Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Daily Times Editorial April 11, 2012

National Energy Conference

After a series of complaints by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in recent days that the province was being discriminated against in the load shedding schedule, the National Energy Conference in Lahore the other day has addressed this complaint by deciding that the load shedding schedule would apply equitably to all the provinces. The idea sounds good, but it is at least questionable whether the fluctuating demand-supply position of power will easily lend itself to such sharing of shortages. Sharing of the shortages is all the conference could come up with, since increase in power generation still has many difficulties and roadblocks in its path. Shahbaz Sharif pointed to this when he underlined the failure to implement the recommendations of the national energy conference two years ago, amongst which the issue of circular debt deserved pride of place. That circular debt has now reached Rs 400 billion, and is arguably the main constraint in bringing power generation up to installed capacity.
Amongst the other measures announced by the high powered participants in a press conference after the conference, amongst whom could be counted the prime minister and other ministers and concerned officials, it has been decided that government offices will have two days off, which could lead to a saving of 700 MW. The provinces are to ensure markets close at 8:00 pm except on weekends. The market bodies have already rejected the suggestion, posing a challenge to the authorities to implement the decision. The strangest part of the recommendations speaks of legislation against power theft. It is argued that notice of theft will be swift and effective. That is a question of implementation of the already existing laws. What, if anything, can new legislation add to what is already listed as a crime? Unless the new legislation enhances the existing punishment for power theft, it baffles one why this has been mooted. In addition, the provinces will be encouraged to generate power, an idea otherwise unexceptionable, but which will probably take some time to come to fruition and therefore will not affect the immediate or medium term power deficit. Daylight saving was rejected on the basis of the past experience of changing the country’s time forward or back by one hour, depending on the season, since not much saving accrued thereby. Instead, the conference wisely chose different timings in winter and summer, which may prove more efficacious. Power to billboards is to be cut and conventional bulbs replaced by energy savers, the latter an idea that has been around for some time but whose practical implementation has proceeded at too tardy a apace to make much impact. Prepaid meters will be installed in all government offices with the hope that this will help cut down energy use and may also help avoid the piling up of dues to the power companies from their client government departments. A reflection of wishful thinking was the proposal to provide additional gas to power companies to permit them to generate more electricity relatively cheaply. Since by now it is obvious that gas too faces a deficit (witness the current supply troubles of the CNG and fertilizer sectors), where is this ‘additional’ supply going to be conjured out of? Some element of relief is on offer to lifeline consumers by raising the limit of free electricity from 50 to 100 units. One hopes though that this is not the harbinger of greater power tariff increases for the rest of the consumers, about which reports and speculations are rife.
Disappointingly, the National Energy Conference has only been able to come up with palliatives for the serious energy crisis rather than anything remotely resembling solutions. This is not to gainsay the need for energy conservation and saving steps. Only that the overall impact may not in itself be the answer to the supply-demand gap. It is the circular debt issue the government/s must come up with a solution to if a real dent in the energy deficit is desired.

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