Light on gridlock

It was a disaster the electricity establishment had feared might happen. And though efforts were made at the top official levels to prevent it, they could not stop the growing avalanche of undisciplined demand that brought North India to a standstill on July 30.
Three days before the electricity grid collapsed, the Northern Regional Load Despatch Centre (NRLDC) made a petition to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), the highest electricity regulatory body in the country, to take urgent actions “ensuring safety and security of the grid and to obviate any possibility of grid disturbance”.
The CERC directed the state electricity boards of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana “to restrict their overdrawl to ensure that there was no violation” and asked why they should “not be held personally liable for the penalty for non-compliance with the directions of the CERC and provisions of the Grid Code” for maintenance of required grid frequency and installation of automatic demand management schemes.
Obviously, the urging of the CERC was not enough for the state electricity boards leading three days later to a grid collapse all over North India affecting about 300 million people, and a day later hitting over half the country’s population spread over the northern and eastern parts of the country. The strange thing was that the first grid collapse happened at 2 am — not a period of heavy demand. But then it was an unusual situation.
The lack of rains till the end of July meant that in northern India the summer heat continued longer than usual, and millions of air-conditioners were humming away much beyond their normal use. More important, the failure of the monsoon in the food bowl of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh had millions of borewells running overtime, drawing water from deeper depths. The scanty rain also meant that reservoir levels were down and hydropower, which normally accounts for 28 per cent of the northern grid, was lower than normal.
The grid system was meant to protect local systems from crashing by diverting electricity from surplus areas, but when the whole system is drawing too much power, the grid did not isolate the deficit areas fast enough and the whole system crashed.
The event brought into sharp focus why the problems of electricity generation and distribution could no longer be ignored. It’s not as if no one knew what these were — heavily subidised power of poor quality, a bankrupt electricity system running ever deeper into debt, heavy theft of power all along the line, states drawing more from the grid than they were entitled to, insufficient investment, lack of coal and land, environmental hurdles and much else — it was just that matters spiralled out of control as the weather took a turn for the worse.
Take subsidies. A report by the Power Finance Corporation reveals the total subsidy booked by utilities selling directly to consumers during 2009-2010 was `34,001 crore, almost a fifth of the total revenue from the sale of power. The loss of the electricity utilities was over `63,500 crore in the same year before getting the subsidies, which often did not come. As a result, the bankrupt state electricity boards have been unable to invest.
Largely because of the poor financial health of state power utilities, power generation capacity just hasn’t kept up with demand. The Planning Commission notes, “In the last three Plans (Eighth to the Tenth Plan), the average capacity addition was around 50.5 per cent of the targeted capacity addition. The target for the 10th Plan was 41,110 MW, and achievement 21,080 MW.” In the 11th Plan, though final figures are not available, even with greater private participation additional capacity has fallen far short of the target of 78,500 MW.
Insufficient capacity is aggravated by high transmission and distribution losses averaging 26 per cent. These losses are mainly on account of theft or by paying a flat rate for use of a pump for a borewell, which can go on all day. But low cost or free power represents one of the largest and most inefficient subsidies to farmers. Transmission and distribution (T&D) losses used to average around 38 per cent a decade ago and were bought down by being more strict in administration. Yet, there is still a long way to go.
A paper, Theft and Loss of Electricity in an Indian state, by two American social scientists — Miriam Golden of Princeton University and Brian Min of the University of Michigan — analysing trends in Uttar Pradesh over a 10-year period (2000-2009), claims: “The extent of theft varies with the electoral cycle of the state. In years when elections to the state Assembly are held, electricity theft is significantly greater than in other years.” If this is so, it would imply that this year after the Assembly elections took place in Uttar Pradesh the new government is more likely to condone electricity theft by farmers.
The unprecedented grid collapse underlines the urgent necessity of improving the health of the power generation and distribution system. It should act as a catalyst for the power sector reforms.
If the massive investments needed are to take place, subsidies have to be reduced. Greater alertness is required to prevent such grid collapses in future, energy efficient electric appliances have to be made mandatory, and a way found to strike a balance between the growing need for power and its limited availability.
There is another crisis brewing because of the highly subsidised power. Depleting groundwater because of excessive pumping is likely to lead to a crunch in agriculture. If this excessive use continues, in another 20 years or so the groundwater in the food bowl of Punjab and Haryana will run out. India’s farmers draw much more water from the aquifers than what flows into them through rainfall and runoff. This is particularly so in Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. Because of the low cost of power the water is not used sparingly.
Climate shocks will be more frequent in the coming decades. The equations between the scarcity of water and power will then become crucial.
How we begin to deal with these now may determine our ability to face future crises.

The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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