The ongoing load shedding caused by the gas crisis was not supposed to happen now as Bangladesh's two coal-fired power plants have enough capacity to plug generating shortfalls.
But the plants, beset with primary fuel shortages and a lack of transmission lines, failed to live up to their potential when the country was badly in need of their power.
The 1,320-megawatt Payra and the 525MW Barapukuria plants are now combinedly generating 896MW of electricity – less than half their capacity.
Load shedding hit as high as 1,400MW earlier this week and as low as 450MW on Wednesday owing to inadequate gas supplies to the gas-based power plants. Roughly, half of the country's electricity supply comes from gas-based plants.
But all of it could have been handled well had the coal plants functioned properly.
The coal plants apart, the 230MW hydropower plant in Kaptai, the cheapest source of electricity, is also generating less than half its capacity, which is around 118MW. There is plenty of water in the Kaptai dam, but the hydropower plant units have not been re-energised the way they deserve.
Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury, energy adviser to the prime minister, said, "We use this power plant [hydropower plant] for ensuring the grid stability. As well as, we cannot run it at full capacity considering the water availability in the dam over the year."
In December this year, the government will open yet another coal-fired power plant in Rampal with a 1,320MW capacity. But whether this will be able to supply power to the national grid will depend on the supply of imported coal and completion of a primary transmission line crossing the Padma.
The government could have covered the power load shedding by increasing oil-based power production, but this option is too costly to sustain as per-unit power generation at furnace oil- and diesel-based plants costs Tk16 and Tk36 respectively.
On the other hand, electricity produced by coal and hydropower plants – both cost Tk6-Tk8 per kWh and Tk3 per kWh respectively – is way cheaper than many other plants.
Located in the southwestern region, the Payra plant launched fully last year has not yet utilised its full capacity owing to a lack of a major power transmission line across the Padma.
Without this transmission line, the plant's power cannot be connected to the national grid, while the power demand in the southwestern region is not enough to justify its production at full capacity.
The Payra plant depends on imported coal. Sources said the ongoing dollar crisis had affected coal imports for the power plant, which is already running at half capacity owing to a lack of transmission line, further pushing it to run at even lower capacity.
Bangladesh Coal Power Company Limited, the owner of the Payra 1.3GW Thermal Power Plant, needs to open 12 to 13 LCs each month worth $70 to $80 million to import coal from Indonesia, according to sources who know about the matter.
But the plant owner has been facing trouble in opening LCs as banks are reluctant to proceed with the process at the official exchange rate of the dollar.
At present, the country's largest coal plant requires around 10,000 tonnes of coal each day for producing nearly 1GW of electricity.
On the other hand, three units of Barapukuria coal power plant are producing half their capacity using coal produced in Barapukuria.
These units cannot go into full production because the coal mine is not producing enough coal.
Tawfiq-e-Elahi Chowdhury said the full capacity of the Barapukuria power plant cannot be used as coal production at the nearby coal mine has remained suspended for development of the next phase of the mine.
"The next phase will be ready for production after one month," he added.
"On the other hand, the Payra power plant's capacity also has remained underutilised as a substation required for power evacuation is being repaired for backfeeding electricity to the Rampal power plant," he further added.
Based on the forecast that the country would gradually run out of its natural gas reserves by the early 2030s, the government went for diversifying primary sources of energy. This was why the government over the last decade pushed for large power projects that would use nuclear, coal, Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and power imports from neighbouring countries.
Bangladesh has not made any significant gas discovery since finding the Bibiyana field in Sylhet back in 1998. After that, there were many small-sized gas discoveries when the country's hunger for gas increased manifolds.
There was little effort to explore the deep sea to find new gas, and new explorations in new parts of the country were shelved.
The idea of using LNG as a backup for the country's depleting gas supplies came at a time when it was priced at only $10 per million British thermal units (mmBtu) about five-six years back. This price shot up to $38 in the spot market.
Bangladesh had signed two government-to-government contracts with Qatar and Oman to buy gas from there on a long-term basis at a relatively lower price. The imports started three years back.
Then over time, the government opted out of the direct purchase from Qatar and gave the job of sourcing LNG to Dutch energy trader Vitol which buys LNG from the spot market. This market has become saturated with buyers from Europe and Asia due to the global gas crisis triggered by the Ukraine war.
As the LNG has become too costly, Petrobangla has stopped injecting LNG gas into the national gas grid, leading to the gas supply crunch.
"We do not have any plan to boost the gas supplies by importing LNG from the spot market until the price comes down," said Petrobangla Chairman Nazmul Ahsan.
He said Petrobangla is now focussing on keeping local gas production and supplies uninterrupted.
"I do not think gas supply is solely responsible for the load shedding. We are almost supplying a similar quantity of gas to the power plants as we have supplied there before," he further added.