Complete Blackout: Overdrawn Power Grids Fail in India
The last two days of July brought the entire northern and eastern India to a halt when their power grids collapsed. India’s plunge into darkness, impacting more than 1.2 billion people, embarrassed the central government and brought spotlight on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s lofty promises of big-ticket reforms and speedy remedy of power woes, writes Priyanka Bhardwaj.
(Above): Heavy traffic along a busy road as it rains during a power-cut at the toll-gates at Gurgaon on the outskirts of New Delhi, July 31. Grid failure hit India for a second day, cutting power to hundreds of millions of people in the populous northern and eastern states including the capital Delhi and major cities such as Kolkata. [Photo: REUTERS]
The last two days of July 2012 brought the entire northern and eastern India to a halt when their power grids collapsed.
India’s plunge into darkness, impacting more than 1.2 billion people, embarrassed the central government and brought spotlight on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s lofty promises of big-ticket reforms and speedy remedy of power woes.
R.N. Nayak, chairman of the state-run Power Gird Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL), recalls how authorities were at tenterhooks just to ascertain why a series of grids failed one after another.
While the then Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde (who was immediately replaced by M. Veerappa Moily) attributed the reasons to overdrawing of power from an over-burdened grid by certain states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan, the latter on their part found faults with an outdated transmission network.
Simultaneously as this blame-game was being played out by states and central agencies, miners lay trapped in dangerous mines, and every imaginable public and private building from hospitals to schools, colleges, transport systems including intra-city Metro transport, office-complexes and residences languished in complete blackout.
To tide over this crisis, the southern and western grids were sought as was neighboring Bhuatn’s hydro-electricity.
But human suffering wrought on by the power-less situation continued unabated for a couple of days and public scorn and anger spilled on to public spaces, social networking sites, joined in by opposition political parties.
“Why cannot the center manage India well and why couldn’t Gujarat’s surplus power be aptly used to bail out the affected regions?” was how some Facebook updates read.
Poor infrastructure and power deficits have always accompanied and marred India’s economic growth and it is not unusual to find small and big private firms and manufacturing units resorting to diesel generators and captive power plants for uninterrupted power supply.
This excessive dependence on diesel by farmers and businesses has led to an ever-widening fiscal deficit as it carries a subsidy for reasons of vote bank politics.
During the recent power crisis people faced another crisis, that of shortage of diesel.
Another point that cannot be missed is this year’s less than average monsoon that compounded problems.
Agrarian baskets of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab drew more power from the national grids so that their farmers could use electric pumps to irrigate their crops.
Ever since assuming office the new minister, Moily, has been going all out reminding of tough decisions to be made as all chinks of the power system delivery need to be resolved.
But his achievements will mean reigning in all erring agencies like PGCIL and states to adhere to grid protocol.
It was for everyone to see how state chief ministers ignored his meeting scheduled for first week of August.
Sources in the Ministry of Power also inform of the responsibility of PGCIL’s subsidiary, Power System Corporation (POSOCO) to efficiently run electricity dispatch centers.
Though investigations are still underway, sources mention that there could well be a case of POSOCO having blundered in directing states to under-draw power or in asking generating plants to reduce supply.
In addition to above, states might have also disregarded POSOCO’s directives and non-payment of dues, to the tune of Rs. 2,000 billion, by states to State Electricity Boards (SEBs) facing bankruptcy is so widely known.
Investigations have firmly established that states had blatantly breached Central Electricity Regulatory Commission’s March warning against overdrawing of power.
To prevent a recurrence Moily said, “We need to enable provisions in the Electricity Act to imprison state authorities that include officers of the rank of chief secretaries for disobeying orders from grid operators.”
While dealing with this issue one cannot ignore problems affecting supply and demand sides.
India’s chief power generation mix consists of coal, hydro, and nuclear and then some solar, wind and other renewable energy making for a fraction of the total output.
But with more than 66 percent of power capacity fired by coal and prevailing deficits in supply due to stringent environmental rules and fall in production, power plants are operating at 70-80 percent of maximum capacity.
In context of SEBs, revival through conversion of debt into tradable bonds and restructuring, as state government guarantees, form part of recommendations of Planning Commission to Finance Ministry, but they have yet to be implemented.
Similarly there are only talks of need to lower transmission and distribution losses, pegged to 20 to 30 percent, to a more manageable 10 to 15 percent.
As R.K. Bhardwaj, ex-chief advisor to Ministry of Power states, “Given the country’s power potential and best grid codes, it is more of political will that is able to extract discipline from states and power agencies to prevent another power imbroglio.”