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TCN, power grid collapses and the blame game

WITHIN the first ten days of May, this year, Nigeria, once again suffered a series of nationwide blackouts due to a collapse of the transmission grid. Nigerians are, unfortunately, becoming accustomed to these highly unpalatable occurrences and each time they happen, they plant a thought in the mind of Nigerians – regular power supply is still a long way from here.

This particular incident was caused by a multiple tripping that resulted in the failure of a substation owned by Transmission Company of Nigeria, TCN, in Onitsha, Anambra State on May 8, at 2:32 p.m. Seemingly, a growing trend of such failed or burnt transmission sub-station incidents – Lagos, Calabar, Abuja, Enugu and Benin.

Grid collapses occur when there are system disturbances along the transmission grid. Such disturbances could include a massive drop of load from a sub-station that would cause the grid to become unstable. And this is more so in the absence of the spinning reserve that will ordinarily prevent such an occurrence. In 2019, to date, there has been a total of eight transmission grid collapses – five times in January, once in April and twice in May. Post-privatisation, there have been in excess of 100 system collapses.

What is interesting is that shortly after this latest incidence of grid failure, TCN launched an attack on the Distribution Companies, DISCOs, accusing them of rejecting load which eventually resulted in TCN requesting that the Generating Companies, GENCOs, ramp down their delivery of energy. TCN, in defence of this failure, stated that the DISCOs needed to be recapitalised. It is instructive to note that a host of factors can lead to disturbance in the system, i.e. drop in power generation due to unavailability of gas, disturbances at different points in the transmission infrastructure such as the recent incident in Onitsha, as well as challenges with TCN/DISCO interfaces. Of these causes, the least likely to result in a ‘massive’ load drop is the latter.

Of significant note, the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of TCN, Mr. Usman Gur Mohammed, on Thursday, February 7, 2019, provided a clear pointer to one of the challenges. He stated: “The grid, as it is, is not run with spinning reserves, and this is how it was even before we took over. But for the first time, we have done competitive procurement of spinning reserves and we have forwarded to NERC 260 megawatts spinning reserves.

“We are expecting NERC will approve it any time from now because we have done all the consultations leading to the approval. Once NERC approves this and we deploy the spinning reserves, I am going to assure you that system collapse will be a thing of the past.”

Another important challenge, which the TCN agrees with, is its present inability to monitor the transmission grid. Speaking after the last collapse, the TCN MD/CEO, stated that: “If we have a functional SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data) system, it will show clearly what happened on the grid, and that is why, to us in TCN, deployment of SCADA is not an option, we have to deploy it. Because for us to have modern grid you need to have a functional SCADA for management of the grid.”

SCADA systems are software packages that are used to control and monitor and analyse real-time data. They are mostly used in critical sectors of an economy such as electricity. With a large, centralised grid as the one we have, it almost begs belief that the entire grid is still managed manually. Presently, instructions to the DISCOs are manually conveyed through a system of ad-hoc communications. The same goes for allocation of available load to generation companies. Such manual operations preclude the efficiency associated with transparency, exactness and consistency of the SCADA.

The SCADA basically, ensures that there is real time exchange of information between remote stations and the National Control Centre. Without this kind of bird’s eye view of the whole network, it is almost impossible to apportion culpability or address service and infrastructure-specific issues like load rejection, damaged lines, etc. As the TCN MD/CEO, himself, said in an interview published on August 28, 2018: “Nigeria has failed attempts to have a functional SCADA three times. The last one was between 2006 and 2007, I was in the Project Management Unit, PMU, of TCN when the World Bank financed it and Nigeria spent about $46 million. But the SCADA that was completed had significant deficiencies that it could not see more than 40 per cent of the network.”

Without the benefit of this sight over the network, how was TCN able to arrive at the conclusions of its present blame game? Most analysts agree that the transmission grid in its present form – riddled with aging and obsolete critical infrastructure – is so massive and too large to manage as a single entity and there have been several recommendations that it should be decentralised. In fact, TCN, consistent with international best practices and efficacy, has been licensed into Independent System Operator, ISO, and Transmission Services Provider, TSP. Unfortunately, in a bid to continue the “empire” syndrome associated with government agencies, TCN continues its failure to implement this critical separation, a fundamental requirement for promoting efficiency in the transmission of energy.

While searching for possible solutions to our national electricity supply situation, this separation may just be one requirement that should be expeditiously implemented. As it is, all plans of TCN, to date, indicate its interest in becoming bigger. But as we all know, bigger does not necessarily mean better.  So, an important question is, “Is TCN, doubling also as System Operator and Market Operator – becoming Federal Government’s biggest enterprise with associated inefficiencies, thereby, constituting the weakest link and holding back the power value chain.”

When you combine the continuous calls by the TCN for DISCOs to “recapitalise”, as well as the recent interest by TCN to venture into power distribution, despite not being an electricity distribution licensee, the cause for concern can only be more urgent.

The distraction associated with TCN clamouring for DISCOs access to additional funding, while germane, ultimately, results in TCN taking its eyes off the critical day-to-day requirements necessary for the successful operation of the transmission grid. Indeed, for an entity that has wheeled no more than 4,557MW (February 7, 2016), in its history, TCN rather than talking about a wheeling computer simulation of 8,100MW needs to step up its game and come into the reality of playing the critical role that is required of it along the value chain.

 

Gabriel Ikesse, a social analyst, wrote from Lagos

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