At sundown on Tuesday, October 4, Bangladesh was plunged into darkness. For those out in the streets at the time, it was a surreal experience, with only the lights from vehicles and some shopping centres to guide them. As you travelled from Gulshan to Malibagh in the capital, its income disparities also became apparent amid this national emergency. While some of the hotels and shopping malls on Gulshan Avenue were still lit up, no doubt able to afford a longer run on backup generators powered by diesel, from Hatirjheel onwards it was nearly pitch dark. Entering Moghbazar, visibility would have been no more than a few feet.

By then of course, the lights had already been out for over four hours. It happened just after 2PM, so you could be forgiven for thinking it was a bout of loadshedding - the usual hour, on the hour, that people have gotten used to since its escape from the museum it was largely confined to for a good 5-7 years. Nothing you can't handle.

But then 3PM came and went. You would have heard of some places suffering 2 hrs of loadshedding, even though you hadn't experienced it yourself, so maybe today it was your turn. But then 4PM came and went, and still no sign of the power returning. That's when you would have started running some checks here and there. Sure enough, on almost every news site worth its salt, the lead news item was a variation on the same theme: a massive grid failure had left almost the entire country without electricity.

It harked back to the day in May, 2017 when a similar failure left half the country without electricity for 8-10 hours. Before that, there was the 12-hour blackout parts of the country experienced in November 2014.

This time, it was triggered by a substation at Ghorashal tripping when the demand for electricity suddenly dropped, causing a power surge that tripped power stations one after another. A power station trips when too much electricity flows through it or when it cannot handle the excess current load. This means that the flow of electricity is cut off to prevent overheating or before it causes more damage.

Officials however, were unable to come up with the exact reason behind the malfunction, promising to deliver answers "very soon". More than 48 hours later though, we were still left with more committees than answers in that regard.

State Minister for Power, Energy and Mineral Resources Nasrul Hamid said that it would take some more days to find out the exact reasons behind the failure of the national power grid, sending much of the country into a blackout for about seven hours.

"Initially it was found that when there was a deficit of power created in the east side and surplus in the west side of the county, the transmission system tripped, leading to the grid failure," he told reporters while briefing at his ministry on Thursday.

He mentioned that the first power plant in Ghorasal station failed following the grid collapse, resulting in a colossal closure of power plants in a domino effect. All power plants tripped one after another and the electricity supply went off in Dhaka, Chittagong, Sylhet, Barisal and Mymensingh divisions. But the state minister said no physical damage had been inflicted on the grid.

Blame it on BNP and Covid

He said a probe committee of the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh (PGCB) was working on it while another committee from Power Division would also be formed soon, hoping that the report by the PGCB committee will come in 7 days. Earlier however, the PGCB had formed a five-member committee to find out what caused the failure and asked it to come up with its findings in 72 hours.

Responding to a question, he referred to remarks by BNP leader Iqbal Hasan Mahmud, a BNP leader and former state minister for power, and said it would be investigated if the grid failure was caused by sabotage. He wondered how Iqbal Mahmud "knows" that such incidents of grid failure would take place in the future too.

A day earlier, Iqbal Hasan Mahmud had said that the number of blackouts would increase in the country 'if the Awami League's misrule continues'.

"Such disasters will happen again due to the government's looting and mismanagement. The government's efforts to fool the people have been revealed. The people have seen that the government does not work, but lies," he stated.

The BNP leader said that the country's people would have to pay further in future due to the lack of planning and mismanagement of the government. On the other hand, he said the BNP has a master plan, adding that if it comes to power, importance will be given to electrification.

Nasrul Hamid, however, admitted that the development of the PGCB had not taken place as expected due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

"We could not implement many PGCB projects due to the Covid-19 situation. We have been two years behind the schedule of the implementation", he said, adding that a project for automation of the PGCB has been undertaken.

"We hope, within the next two years we will be able to complete the automation project and then chances of such grid failure will be reduced," he added.

The Power Division formed a separate committee to identify the reasons behind the national grid failure and submit recommendations to avert recurrence of such incidents in future. Earlier, the Power Grid Company of Bangladesh formed an investigation committee headed by its executive director.

According to a notification issued by the Ministry of Power, Energy and Mineral Resources on Thursday, an additional secretary (admin) of the Power Division will lead the new 7-member probe body, reported our sister newsagency UNB.

Former chairman of Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB) Syed Abdul Mayeed, managing director of Electricity Generation Company of Bangladesh, representatives from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET), Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) each, former executive director of PGCB Md Amir Khasru are members of the committee and Mohammad Hossain, director general of Power Cell, will act as its member secretary.

The committee will identify and analyse the reasons of the grid failure and draw up specific recommendations to avoid its repetition in the future. The committee can co-opt any person required for the investigation work and submit its report within 15 days, said the notification.

The devil you know

The incident paralysed large swathes of the country and once again thrust into spotlight the vulnerability of the grid due to the lack of investment, threatening national security, according to power experts. Such great threat to national security given that many emergency services cannot properly function without electricity, experts said. During the latest blackout, industrial production, water supplies and telecommunication services were affected in more than half the country.

Just a day earlier, Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Abdul Jalil had said it would soon announce a fresh hike in the bulk power price.

"We are at the final stage. The announcement will come in due time," he said while announcing the LPG price for October.

On May 18, BERC held a public hearing over an application of the Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDB). During the hearing, the technical committee of BERC recommended around 58 percent hike in bulk electricity price. According to Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission Act 2003, the authorities must announce the revised price within 90 working days from the date of the hearing.

The bulk power price is the price at which BPDB supplies electricity to the supplier companies, who sell it on to the consumers. In the recommendation of BERC's technical committee, it was mentioned that the implementation of the bulk power price would not be possible unless the price was increased at the consumer level.

Consumers will be justified in asking though, if the state agencies are spending the money in the right way - even more so after the repeat occurrence of the blackouts from 2014 and 2017. Although no specific reason for those incidents has ever been put forward (despite more committees, which tells you what to expect this time as well), one thing that experts can surmise even observing from the outside, is that not enough investment has been made in the power transmission infrastructure of the country, as opposed to power generation. As is well-known by now, the country's generation capacity at present well exceeds the maximum demand.

One of the reasons experts believe would make it hard to pinpoint any specific reason for the failure is the manual operation of the national grid. Officials at the National Load Dispatch Centre, from where power supply around the whole country is moderated and regulated, operate the grid on the basis of phone calls, rather than having an automated system in place to carry out the work. An automated system would allow the NLDC technicians to monitor voltage and frequency all over the grid in real time.

The Indian power system is one of the largest Power System Networks in the world. It has installed capacity of about 245 GW, with a complex transmission network and many cross border connections. It is monitored by a multilevel integrated SCADA/EMS installed at many load dispatch centres dispersed all over India.

In 2017, the PGCB began a project to integrate power stations all over Bangladesh to a SCADA-EMS system at the NLDC in Rampura. The project is expected to be completed by 2024.

Lights out

On the day, power supply was eventually restored across most places in Bangladesh after seven hours of blackout following the grid failure. Electricity was back in all the areas of Dhaka and other districts by 9pm, Badruddoza Sumon, public relations officer of Power Grid Company of Bangladesh (PGCB), told UNB.

Power supply was restored in some parts of Dhaka city under Maniknagar and Hasnabad grid substations and also a good number of districts under Sylhet, Chattagram and Mymensingh by 7pm, he added. The districts where power supply was fully restored by 7pm include Tangail, Kishoreganj, Mymensingh, Jamalpur, Manikganj, and all districts in Chattagram and Sylhet divisions.

Following the failure, power was first restored in some Dhaka areas, including the president and prime minister's official residences, around 5pm. Seen by the number of hours, it may not seem like much. But as the country develops, the people's aspirations are understandably elevated. And sudden, daylong blackouts no longer sit well with their perceptions of themselves. In that sense, when they vent their anger at the policymakers, this Awami League government may well feel like a victim of its own success.

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