Even a year ago, it would be pretty foolish to suggest the Awami League government would come under pressure heading into elections on the basis of its mismanagement of the country's vital energy and power sector. Since the beginning of July 2022 however, the return of loadshedding has put the planning, performance and general direction of the power sector of Bangladesh under severe scrutiny. The sudden deterioration, after a decade of quite spectacular success post-2012, has perplexed observers and experts alike.
Now there can be no denying that the AL government that took office in 2009 inherited a dreadful situation in the power sector, with generation capacity itself able to meet only 50 percent of the demand at the time. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is quite fond of quoting the fact that when she was returned to power for the second time in 2009, eight years after leaving at the end of her first term in 2001, to her surprise she found the country's power generation capacity was stuck at the same number that she had left it the first time - just around 3500MW. Two successive administrations -the first BNP-Jamaat coalition government followed by the last caretaker government (as things stand), that enjoyed an extended spell in power, had failed to add a single megawatt to the national grid, and that obviously lay at the heart of the chronic loadshedding that had become almost a daily fixture in people's lives by then.
Achieving a turnaround in this sector became one of the government's highest priorities. The quite obvious route chosen to do so was to increase capacity against projections of anticipated demand. Using a combination of expensive barge-mounted 'quick-rental' generators and commissioning a slew of plants from independent power producers, the AL was indeed able to achieve a quite stunning turnaround in the sector within its first term back in office. The progress the government achieved was of course frequently covered in these pages. We have raised issues before about the over-reliance on the expensive rental plants, especially the seeming inability to cut them off once their job was done. And the public would have to start getting used to paying through its nose for electricity, but by and large, they have remained agreeable to fulfilling their end of the bargain, and supportive of the government's policies. When the government's ministers or lackeys claimed to have 'sent loadshedding to the museum', they were happy to believe it and cheer them on. This was one sector in which the government would seem to have earned its plaudits.
Alas, the dreaded method managed to escape the museum, and is now very much routine in our lives. This time the problem presents itself in an entirely new light. Installed or generation capacity is no longer the issue. Rather a shortage of primary fuels used in the sector is acting to hold us back. We are confronted with an alarming new reality where the country becomes more and more dependent on the international energy markets as domestic natural gas reserves start to dwindle. Any new discoveries will take substantive time to be added to the national grid. And so for the moment, digging into our reserves of foreign exchange to purchase expensive LNG and even coal remains the only way forward. The pitfalls in that approach became apparent this week, as a dollar/fund crisis led to the shutdown of the 1320MW Payra power plants, and loadshedding hit record levels amid an oppressive heatwave. The next coal shipment for the plant isn't dues till the third week of June, which already sounds like an eternity. The government has been imploring the public to show patience. Will they have it?
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