Outraged by power outage

Outraged by power outage

People in Panbang call for measures to address outage issues

Residents of Panbang are fuming over the town’s frequent power outages, which they say are not only affecting them economically but also making it difficult for them to lead a normal life during summer when temperatures can soar to 34 degrees Celsius or more. The people complain that they have been facing power cuts five to six times a day, with the power breaks sometimes lasting the entire day.

Meanwhile, Bhutan Power Corporation Limited (BPCL) has said that measures are being taken to address outage issues faced by the people. 

Panbang residents say power outage is the biggest challenge that the town faces and that the issue has been lingering for a very long time, with policymakers, energy authorities, and government agencies showing docility in addressing the issue. They also say that the increasing human population and technological innovations are evidence that the more the problem lingers, the more it becomes insurmountable.

Residents underline that people suffer in the scorching heat. “Without a stable power supply, IT classes are rarely conducted in schools; meat shop and dairy product shop owners bear huge losses, while banking and other online services are deprived. Fuel deport remains shut most of the time,” a corporate employee at Panbang said. 

The owner of the milk processing unit (MPU), Leki, said that the inconsistency of power supply in Panbang is hampering the dairy business. With no pre-information on power cuts, buying and storing milk for dairy production has cost Leki heavily.

Leki said that the MPU procures about 250 liters of milk in a week amounting to about Nu 7,000- 10,000. The milk has to be stored in cold storage for dairy production. “Milk gets spoiled and I cannot deliver dairy products to the community,” he said. 

The owner of Khenda Enterprise said that Panbang is a hot place and people need a reliable power supply. “The same problem has been here for the last ten years and there is no solution,” he said, adding that the residents of Panbang are told by the Bhutan Power Corporation Limited (BPCL) that the problem can be solved only if Panbang has a separate substation. According to him, the government has canceled this, saying there is no budget.

“It is very difficult to live in the heat and the community is really struggling. We do not know where to and whom to approach,” he said.

One of the furniture house owners, Sangay Jamtsho said that working with machinery in the firm has become risky with unstable and altering power supply. Electricity in Panbang is supplied from Nanglam, which is about 60 km away, and Tingtibi, about 150 km away. Sangay Jamtsho says that his machines turn clockwise initially, but suddenly go anti-clockwise when the power supply is switched over.

The founder of Panbang Youth Cooperative, Leki Chedup, said that Panbang now is a growing town seeing the establishment of agro-industries, furniture houses, other small industries, and new offices. “Panbang needs a separate substation,” he added.

According to Ngangla Gup, Rinchen Tshering, the construction of a substation, which would benefit four gewogs in lower Kheng, would significantly reduce Panbang’s power outages. All of the Dzongkhag Tshogdu members agreed with Nagngla Gewog’s proposal, but the Gup asserted that BPC cannot build a substation since there aren’t enough industries nearby, meaning that there would be fewer users.

The Gup said, “I am closely collaborating with the Panbang BPC team to minimize the issue and seeking assistance from other higher authorities.”

Meanwhile, the Member of Parliament (MP) of Zhemgang in the National Council (NC), Tshering Tshomo, said it is understood how difficult, frustrating, and inconvenient it must be when there is a power outage during the extreme summer and its impact on the lives of the people.

The MP said that for addressing the issue, it is important to know what measures are already there in the pipeline, which the Gewog and Dzongkhag administrations with Panbang BPC, would have developed. She also said that improving projects that are in place and the proposal of strategic technical plans from Panbang BPC to ensure reliable electricity supply, should also be studied.

“This issue requires a thorough background of the problem, the initiative taken by the local government since the initial start till today and we have to understand the reasons why the power outage still continues. Also, to seriously note why the relevant stakeholders have failed to render immediate and necessary support to the establishment of substation and technical support,” the MP said. 

Zhemgang Dzongdag, Kesang Jigme said that Panbang is located in the sub-tropical area and has thick forest coverage. Maintenance of transmission lines in forest areas is a challenge during the monsoon.

Meanwhile, Ngangla Gewog had proposed line realignment but did not get clearance from the Department of Forest and Park Services from the Nganglam site.

The Dzongdag said that constructing a substation is not a permanent solution but to do realignment and that the Dzongkhag is following up for clearance from the Department of Forests and Park Services.

Meanwhile, the BPCL said specific reliability improvement plans for Panbang to improve the reliability issues, have been drawn. It includes plans for Feeder Automation which would cost Nu 3.5 mn and a plan for realignment of around 20 km of 33 kV along the Panbang-Nganglam Highway at a cost of Nu. 22.36 million.

The Electricity Services Sub Division (ESSD) office in Pangbang processed for forestry clearance, but work could not be carried out as the forestry clearance was rejected citing that the proposed line has to go through 99% forest coverage with a canopy cover of 70%.

Meanwhile, work for clearing the Right of Way along the entire feeder is going on, and around 92 km of the 152 Km line length has been completed, according to the BPC.  BPC also has a long-term solution proposed, which is to construct a 132/33 kV substation at Panbang at a cost of Nu. 350 million.

BPCL is currently improving the reliability of supply and working on Right Of Way (RoW), feeder automation Programs, re-alignment of lines, lightning arrestors, and shield wires.  These are not without challenges. For instance, RoW clearing is difficult in areas where fruit and commercial trees need to be cut.   

For easier fault locations and to reduce the restoration time, distribution automation (DA) equipment like Auto Reclosing Circuit Breakers, Sectionalizer, and Fault Passage Indicators (FPI) are being installed in strategic locations. 

Meanwhile, sections of the lines which pass through rugged terrains/ without motorable roads have been realigned and some are in the process of being realigned nearer to the roads for easier access for maintenance and restoration.  In lightning-prone areas, lightning arrestors and shield wires are being installed.

Meanwhile, Bhutan has made significant achievements in the electrification of the country. The electrification of the country was carried out through the vision of “Electricity for all” by 2020 and achieved through an accelerated Rural Electrification (RE) program in 2013. The RE program was largely funded through soft loans from ADB and JICA funds. The RE program considered the remoteness of rural areas and the load requirement prevalent at the time of the RE program and power consumptions were largely limited to meet the basic household necessity such as lighting, cooking, and for other household appliances. The backbone network of the existing distribution system has all these factors considered. Over the years, BPC has expanded the system where there is load growth.

While reliability has improved greatly in many parts of the country, power supply to some gewogs and communities is faced with serious challenges, hindering the provision of reliable power supply.

Power supply to most rural places is through the extension of long grid lines through dense forests and rugged terrains.  These long lines are more susceptible to momentary transient faults due to lightning, faults due to falling trees/branches/ bamboo, storms/winds, and other natural calamities especially during the monsoon.

Further, most of the lines are single radial lines with lots of tapping resulting in prolonged disruptions due to a lack of redundant lines or alternate pathways of power supply.

BPC over the years has put in tremendous effort to improve power supply reliability. The first step is monitoring. BPC monitors the outages through the Power Outage Interruption Dashboard. The dashboard gives the number of outages, customers interrupted for the overall system, and Dzongkhag wise for the selected period. The outages are categorized by causes and root causes are analyzed and monitored. 

To address these outages, a Comprehensive Assessment has been made for each Dzongkhag, and a plan drawn up to improve the reliability of the power supply. The action plans include those that need to be taken up immediately within the year, those measures that need to be taken up within the next two years, and those measures that need to be taken up after three years as long-term reliability improvement plans.

The office of the BPCL said it is upgrading a system, making new investments, replacing old systems, and bringing in a lot of technological intervention into the network system. With maturity, these works would definitely bring in improved reliability and minimize outages.

Sangay Rabten from Thimphu