Power vacuum

Some sectors are heavily subsidised and unless pricing is freed, consumers can’t be made more resp-onsible users of electricity.

A gentle reminder must be put in place. The UPA government, during its first tenure, included power as one of the main components of the infrastructure sector reforms in its national common minimum programme (CMP). As the renewed mandate is almost about to be over, overshadowed by what has been known as the world’s biggest outage ever, alongside our economy blowing off the fuse, it looks like we are far from achieving a modicum of energy security.

Forget the fact that the National Electricity Policy aimed at ‘Power to all by 2012.’ Now without a comprehensive realisation of food and energy security, there is every danger of the bluff of our overblown and overhyped projections being called sooner than later.
Who are the blackguards behind the nation facing a near-national blackout? The feeling that the national grids are so vulnerable and fragile strikes fear. Did not we hear that we are about to deploy ‘smart grids’ – that help utilities detect, isolate and correct problems in milliseconds?

There was no owning up of the calamitous effects on the emergency services being hit, hundreds and thousands of passengers being stranded and harassed, life support systems faltering in hospitals, water services being hit, in short, life going into total disarray on such a colossal scale. What we got instead was self-congratulatory back-patting from Sushil Kumar Shinde, moving recently to the home ministry from the power ministry. Not only did he rate himself as ‘excellent,’ he reminded us that his ministry had electrified 1.86 lakh villages since 2005 and expected us as to ‘appreciate’ how power had been restored within hours while in a case of similar power outage in North America in 2003, there was no power for four days on end.

But despite the strides, and despite an ambitious rural electrification programme in place,  some 400 million Indians regularly lose access to electricity during blackouts. While 80 per cent of Indian villages have an electricity line, just 52.5 per cent of rural households have access to electricity. An estimated 35.5 per cent of the population still lives without access to electricity.

India's demand for electricity is increasing around 12 per cent annually, which, one must concede as natural given that India’s per capita consumption of electricity is a mere 700 units, compared with the world average of 2,600 units. With India’s existing generation capacity, India’s heavy reliance on thermal plants is not going to work, even if one discounts the environmental stakes. Imagine we had to draw power from Bhutan, rich in hydropower, the lone power-surplus country in South Asia, to restart Delhi Metro and the Prime Minister’s office on Day One of the national outage.

Such an arrangement already exists in Europe. A common distribution grid is shared by Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark that enables them to exchange power depending upon their utility. The instance can be replicated through a pact among India Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Pakistan. Nepal and Bhutan can be of help for their hydropower while a gas-powered Myanmar and Bangladesh would be of help in leaner times. The idea should take off as a matter of policy. Through power trading, captive and merchant power producers could sell their power as well.

Overdrawing power

Going by the enormity of the outage on the first day that blacked out seven states to be followed by an even bigger one the next day that kept 19 states in the dark – it looks cavalier to just say that some state overdrew power. The question is: are we past the days of our critical dependence on monsoon? It is understandable that monsoon rains replenish reservoirs and lift ground-water levels, allowing better irrigation and more hydropower output. It is also known that higher rainfall levels can trim demand for subsidised diesel, which is used to pump water from wells for irrigation when rainfall is scant.

The technical challenges of the electricity sector in India include low efficiencies of thermal power plants, continued reliance on coal plants, and inadequate transmission and distribution networks. Only in January this year, prime minister Manmohan Singh set up a committee to look into known pathogens of the electricity sector – coal and gas shortages, issues of environmental clearances, the price at which power is sold in the country. Some of the identified challenges for India’s electricity sector include new project management and execution, ensuring availability of fuel quantities and qualities, lack of initiative to develop large coal and natural gas resources present in India, land acquisition and environmental clearances at state and central government levels.

There are, among other bedevilling factors, network losses and populism. The government-owned distribution monopolies in the states are forced to sell electricity to voters at what has been called as ‘politically correct’ prices. Power supply to agriculture and domestic consumers continue to be heavily subsidised. Unless pricing is freed, consumers cannot be made more responsible users of electricity.The State Electricity Boards (SEBs) bear the brunt of the irrational and unremunerative tariff structure set by the state governments, which render them incapable to replace or even repair substandard distribution equipment, such as transformers, for lack of finances.

According to the ministry of power, India's transmission and distribution losses are among the highest in the world, averaging 24 per cent of total electricity production, in some states as high as 62 per cent. India’s network losses exceeded 32 per cent in 2010 including non-technical losses, compared to world average of less than 15 per cent. South Korea has been able to bring down its power transmission and distribution losses to 4 per cent. Many rightly think if non-technical losses – electricity stolen in industry, commercial establishments, entertainment centres, agricultural establishments, private power generators and homes – can be staved off India will be self-sufficient in electricity. Perhaps, we need politicians who are ready to take unpopular decisions at the expense of their narrow partisan gains. As that is an idle dream, with 2014 drawing close, there is little hope for any systemic reform.

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