NationalVolume 13 Issue # 17

The menace of power sector circular debt

There are reports that the circular debt has reached new heights; almost doubling from the levels back in 2013. The highest figure suggested is Rs 922 billion for total circular debt in the country’s energy chain, including the Rs 450 parked separately with the Power Holding Private Limited (PHPL) that has the purpose of raising funds from commercial banks. Recently, the Ministry of Power Division has reported that circular debt has increased to over Rs 750 billion, which is still a significant jump from 2013 levels.

In 2013, when the PML-N government took charge, it decided to eliminate this menace in just one go. As a result, the government ended up paying Rs 480 billion for the debt retirement. It was well-known that the relief from the move would be temporary, and hence the dragon started lifting its head with alacrity, reaching levels it has not seen before.

In the Asian Development Bank’s recently published assessment of $7 billion loan approved in 2005 for the country’s energy sector to shape its future line of action, circular debt continues to be the top power sector challenge. The report titled, Sector Assistance Programme Evaluation (SAPE) for the Pakistan Power Sector highlights that there has been limited action in addressing the underlying causes of the circular debt, which has kept investments at less than desired levels until 2017. One underlying factor for the rise in circular debt is a lack of focus on the transmission and distribution aspect of power supply amid the country’s increased focus on adding capacities. The losses in the transmission and distribution system have remained there for a long time.

Other causes for the circular debt menace as highlighted by the ADB in its earlier supplementary documents still remain unaddressed at large. These include weak governance, delayed release of Tariff Differential Subsidy by the Finance Ministry, issues in revenue collection by the distribution companies that still remain in some areas, delays in tariff determination by Nepra and liquidity issues due to the fuel-price methodology.

Where the last formula of ad hoc payment to the sector didn’t pan out right, the government has reportedly worked out a new circular debt settlement plan where initially around Rs 80 billion will be cleared by raising funds from commercial banks. Beware, the debt servicing cost is planned to be recovered from the electricity customers.

How far the plan succeeds is what would be interesting especially with the elections around the corner. The ADB has also set alarm bells ringing with its evaluation of the CPEC energy projects in the wake of increasing circular debt levels. It says, “…Given that the circular debt problem has not yet been resolved, it is not clear how the CPEC has induced several private enterprises from Pakistan and PRC in investing in new IPP projects, when they might not get paid”.

A principal reason why circular debt is rising is that the transmission losses in Pakistan’s energy sector are one of the highest in the world. In its recently issued performance assessment of GENCOs, Nepra put the energy loss by these state-run power generation companies at a whopping 15 billion KWh. An equivalent figure in dollars would be close to $1.5 billion in losses for FY15-FY16. According to the Nepra’s determination of 1,263MW R-LNG project at Jhang, the total project cost was roughly $800 million. To quantify the opportunity cost of this $1.5 billion loss, the government could have set up almost two 1,263MW R-LNG power plants inclusive of their CAPEX and financing costs in this amount.

This loss was borne by the taxpayer at the end of the day while GENCOs have paid a paltry fine of Rs15 million imposed by the regulator. It may also be mentioned here that Nepra also imposed a fine of Rs5 million on the National Transmission and Despatch Company Limited (NTDCL) for failing to comply with prescribed limits for voltage and frequency fluctuations. If the quantum of losses is assessed, then these fines are peanuts by comparison. Last year, the Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) put the aggregate financial losses in the power sector due to poor governance and financial mismanagement at a whopping Rs1.3 trillion rupees. That is almost equal to 4 percent of Pakistan’s annual GDP.

As things stand today, fines alone will not bring about  any change in the management of state-run institutions in the power sector. All state enterprises are in bad shape. Over the years that state control has become synonymous with negligence, poor governance and corruption.

When asked by the regulator as to the reasons for remaining on excessive standby mode, GENCOs cited National Power Control Centre (NPCC) and fuel constraints. An investigation should be launched to ascertain the basis for keeping average utilisation criminally low with TPS Guddu at 11 percent and GTPS Faisalabad at 15 percent. This was done when generation cost of furnace oil and gas generation was considerably lower than the previous year. The past years have certainly confirmed that the NTDC has severe limitations when it comes to energy demand forecasting. But it seems its ability to optimize generation according to the merit order is also curtailed in light of these revelations.

There is no doubt about the equipment deterioration, lack of scheduled and preventive timely maintenance and absence of technical expertise in GENCOs as well as NTDC. But the problem is that when all institutions are state-run and Nepra’s role has also been reduced, circular debt will only continue to increase exponentially.

The past decade has seen increasing power tariffs, unmanageable load shedding and accumulation of trillions of rupees in circular debt. Yet, government institutions continue to toss the blame to each other. According to experts, the only long term solution to make the power sector operationally and financially viable is through increased private sector participation.