Sitting in a corner of Tongi town, the 80 Megawatt power plant is supposed to produce electricity. Instead it is now guzzling power from the national grid – every year more than a thousand megawatt, and the plant's turbines remain silent.
The Tongi power plant built in 2005 during the BNP regime at a cost of Tk360 crore (at current price that would come to Tk480 crore) epitomizes corruption, bad planning and sheer waste of public money.
At its best performance year which is 2007-08, it has the dubious record of running only at half its expected capacity.
And the rest of the years it ran at a dismal 12 to 30 percent capacity. In 2017 and 2018 it sat completely idle – not a single megawatt was generated.
In 2019, it produced a mere 21,535 MW electricity.
It could never reach anywhere near its expected efficiency measured by how much of the gas it consumes is transformed into electricity.
From the beginning, it ran at about half the efficiency, meaning it had wasted double the gas to produce the same quantity of power.
And now, although the plant mostly sits idle and holds little or no hope for future, 90 people are employed there whose only job is to sign the attendance sheet.
Every month, the government pays them Tk 2.,5 crore in salary and allowances as well as electricity and other bills.
So the natural question that comes to head is what went wrong with the plan.
In the first place, the choice of the plant site was wrong.
It was set up at a location where hardly any gas would flow after meeting the huge demands of the garment industries in Tongi and Gazipur. And so, the plant was there, only the gas was not.
The second problem was with the equipment that was supplied by a Chinese company, Harbin Engineering Company.
Much later since its commissioning and after a military-backed caretaker government took power, an inquiry was held that found that the company supplied sub-standard equipment including gas and air compressors, gas booster compressors (GBC) that increases gas pressure.
One of its two GBCs broke down in 2017 and was sent to Kolkata for repairing. It was returned in late 2019 before it went out of order again.
"We found some issues with the repaired gas booster, therefore we handed it over to the contractor for further modification," said Md Imrul Hossen, current manager of the plant.
It is inexplicable why the GBC had to be repaired with public money when the plant itself is in complete loss.
A bad investment at a bad site
Bangladesh Power Development Board officials identified gas crisis as the key factor behind the failure of the plant and explained why the plant site was not ideal.
"Gas crisis is the main problem. Whenever we get the required volume of gas, we generate power from this station, especially during Eid vacations," former Board Chairman Engineer Khaled Mahmood said.
Former Plant Manager Fariduzzaman explained that the plant is located at the 'marginal point' of the distributing system, meaning far from the gas distribution line.
"Most of the consumers in the distribution area are factories and they need gas at a time. Therefore, as a marginal consumer we don't get sufficient gas to operate the plant," said the Fariduzzaman, who was the plant manager till June last year.
"Usually power plants are set up near gas transmission lines, so that they receive uninterrupted gas supply. Whereas this plant has been located in between a distribution line," said Prof M Tamim, pro-vice chancellor of BRAC University. "So, the plant will never receive sufficient supply of gas."
But why was the awkward site selected? There could only be one answer – the plant was meant to be money siphoning project and never to generate power. That is why the equipment were delivered substandard. And if the blame could be laid on gas crisis, nobody would pay heed to the equipment quality and so the corruption would go unnoticed.
The only problem was there was an adverse caretaker government that took an interest at the power plant and dug out the truth.
It now buys power instead of producing
In last financial year (2018-2019) after replacement of the repaired gas booster the average power load of the plant was two percent only when the average power load of all gas-fired plants was 40 percent.
The Board's data shows Tongi power plant did not produce any electricity in 2017-18, rather it consumed 1,811MW from the national grid to keep its machineries active and office lit throughout the year.
In the same year, the Board spent over Tk 39.66 crore on the plant - Tk 16.45 crore for maintenance and Tk 23.21 crore on salary and allowances.
The previous year (Fy17), the plant remained inoperative as well and consumed 1,653MW from the national grid.
That year, the government spent Tk 33.98 crore – Tk 8.35 crore on maintenance and Tk 25.43 crore on the payment of salary and allowances.
An embarrassing breakdown that kept happening
The plants journey began with embarrassing breakdowns.
The then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia inaugurated Tongi Power Plant on September 3, 2005. But within a few hours of the inauguration, it tripped.
In the next nine months, the plant closed down 80 times. Due to frequent tripping and closure, the plant had to incur a loss of Tk 43 crore in that year.
"It was very embarrassing. Later we came to know that all the main machineries were of poor quality," said engineer BD Rahmatullah, who was then director general of Power Cell - responsible for policy research for the Power Division.
Uninterrupted power supply from the plant is never possible, he said.
Usually, a power plant takes an annual break for maintenance during the lean season of winter. The only break from this tradition is the Tongi plant.
Repair work at the plant continues throughout the year, so it cannot go into uninterrupted production.
Usually, the cost of generating per unit power from gas-based plants is less than Tk 3.50. but because the plant has one of its Gas Booster Compressors out of order, its production cost of each unit of power comes to more than Tk 20, that too if the plant's turbines every turns.
Corruption and irregularities
Usually, the life span of a gas-fired power plant is a minimum of 25 years. During this time, a power plant has 80-90% annual plant factor - a term that refers to the utilization of a plant, in a given period.
However, plant factor decreases when a plant gets older.
But the plant factor at Tongi Power Plant never went beyond 55%.
According to the power station's data, since installation total quantity of the gross generation is 3,246 million kWh – which is less than one-third of the standard generation of 9,565 million kWh
On the other hand, it is expected that a new power plant has to have 40-45 percent efficiency - a ratio of the power generated from the use of a certain quantity of gas.
But before becoming an inoperative station, the Tongi 80MW had only 26 percent efficiency, which also caused the poor plant factor.
The company allegedly managed the job by bribing some PDB officials, the power ministry and Khaleda Zia's elder son Tarique Rahman's alternative power house - known as Hawa Bhaban - during the BNP-Jamaat alliance government.
"The plant was handed over to BPDB 13 years back. The present setup of the company is totally different," Md Rashidul Islam, an executive of Harbin, told The Business Standard without mentioning anything about the failure of the plant.
Experts say the main gas booster compressor was supposed to be taken from General Electric (GE). But instead, Harbin itself built a duplicate of the GE's one and set it up at the plant. As a result, the plant has been problem-ridden from the beginning.
At the time BNP leader Iqbal Hassan Mahmood was the state minister for power and energy. He and the then power secretary Nazrul Islam allegedly took a huge amount of money from Harbin for the boss of Hawa Bhaban.