Policy and pitfalls

Print edition : August 24, 2012

The massive power outage in the Northern Grid since July 31 has brought much of northern India to a standstill.

in New Delhi

WITH 21 States being plunged into darkness as a result of an unprecedented blackout on two consecutive days in late July, it is high time a thorough scrutiny of the power policy is made. The catastrophic collapse three grids have collapsed including the northern, north-eastern and eastern has led to increased demands for more deregulation and large-scale privatisation of the power sector. Also, industry representatives blame delay in environmental clearances for being responsible for limiting the number of power plants and thereby curbing the production of power.

The Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd has put the blame for the blackout squarely on States, charging them with overdrawing power and leading to the collapse of the grid. However, the contention that a crisis of this proportion could have happened merely because States overdrew power, a practice that has existed for the past 10 years, is difficult to believe. Also, the easy correlation being made between privatisation and production of power and availability of cheap power leaves out the utter neglect in the past 10 years to the problems in distribution and transmission while the government gave a free run to private players to set up power distribution units. The mounting losses of the State Electricity Boards and power distribution companies, which have been compelled to buy power at higher rates as a result of large-scale privatisation of power generation, also needs to be factored in for an understanding of the present crisis. The lack of investment in transmission network and ailing distribution companies has led to the present crisis in the power sector.

The present blackout

A power blackout started in north India on July 30 at 2-30 a.m. as the Northern Grid collapsed. Seven States including Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and all of Delhi were plunged into darkness. About 370 million people were affected. The next day at about 1-00 p.m., three major transmission grids failed which brought the northern, eastern, and north-eastern parts of the country coming to a standstill. The Delhi Metro came to a standstill at about 1-00 p.m. on July 31. A Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) spokesperson informed that six trains were stuck inside tunnels during the blackout, and passengers had to be evacuated.

Normal services were restored in about two hours on July 31. About 300 trains of northern and eastern India were delayed on account of the power crisis. A Northern Railway spokesperson informed that about 40 freight trains and 40 passenger trains from Delhi were delayed between half an hour and three hours. Even the following day, about 15 trains had to be rescheduled because of the chaos caused by the power crisis. The spokesperson informed: There are other zones which are much worse affected, including the Eastern, North-Central, East-Central, and West-Central Railways.

Power Grid's version

The Power Grid Corporation has officially cited the overdrawing of power by some States as a possible reason for the straining of the grid or power transmission network, which led to the massive blackout. Speaking to the media, Power Grid Corporation Chairman and Managing Director R. N. Nayak said that an internal committee comprising officials from the companys operations division will come out with a report in two months.

However, experts question the logic forwarded by Power Grid about the overdrawing of power by the States leading to a failure of the grid. Especially, when the grid snapped on July 31, the frequency of transmission of power was high at 50.4 Hz which indicates that there was supply in excess of demand. In a situation of overdrawing by the States, this would not be the case.

Prabir Purkayastha, a power expert and a member of the Delhi Science Forum, questioned the logic of the reasons cited by Power Grid and the Ministry of Power for the total power failure.

He said: The first blackout happened at 2-30 a.m. at night when the peak load is low, as there isnt a lot of electricity consumption happening at that time. Also, the rains had started and it was not peak summer. When the grid failed on Tuesday, the frequency was high at 50.4 Hz. This shows that there was oversupply rather than under-supply, so the logic of overdrawing by States leading to a crisis does not hold. This is a question of failure on the part of the regional load despatch centres (RLDC) under the Ministry of Power, which should have detected the problem in the grid. We need to look at this as a problem of the grid. It is being said that the Northern Grid collapsed on Monday as a result of the tripping of the Agra-Bareilly transmission line. A grid should ideally be able to withstand the tripping of one transmission line.

Rishi Raj, a spokesperson for Delhi Transco Limited, a State transmission utility in the National Capital Region, however, felt that grid indiscipline and overdrawing were the reasons for the outage. The way forward is to ensure that grid discipline is strictly enforced, and there is greater synchronisation between internal generating stations. We did not get any indication about the possibility of a blackout of this proportion. Weakness of transmission and distribution

The larger policy malaise being overlooked in this crisis is the utter apathy of the government towards the transmission and distribution sector while private players and promoters have been given considerable leeway in the generation of power. This has led to existing transmission lines being overloaded, leading to an unstable grid.

Purkayastha said, The problem might actually lie in a weak grid being used to wheel a large amount of power. From 1991 onwards, private players have been encouraged to take part in power generation by withdrawing state investments in the power sector, removing import duty on finished goods while the transmission and distribution sector was starved of funds.

The issue of overdrawing of power by the States needs to be seen in the context of the Central government being involved only in the generation of power and the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) being allowed to act as an independent power producer but without a vision for the sector as a whole. On the other hand, the States are burdened with the task of distribution and transmission. The total losses of power distribution companies reached Rs. 2 lakh crore in March this year.

Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), also echoed this argument, highlighting the dire stress faced by SEBs. With private players selling power at a very high premium, SEBs are running huge losses. There has to be political will to bring about reforms in the power sector. Simply building more power plants is not the solution. The grid or the transmission line should be designed in a way that it bridges the gap between demand and supply.

The Electricity Employees Federation of India, in a statement, put the blame for the crisis on the National Electricity Policy and the conversion of power into a market commodity. Under the newly enacted disastrous statute of Electricity Act 2003, power has been solely converted into a market commodity from being an important resource for the socio-economic development of the nation. The role of the government in providing affordable power to people has been dismantled, the statement said.

Power plants and the environment

The massive power outage has also given rise to the view in the industry that the delay in environmental clearances limiting the number of power plants and thereby curbing power production was behind the crisi. A study carried out by the CSE in 2011 refutes this logic. The study states that in the past five years, the Ministry of Environment and Forests granted environmental clearance for projects to generate 210,000 MW of power while the total projection of power requirement in the 12th Five Year Plan is 100,000 MW of power. This clearly shows that the granting of environmental clearances is not blocking power projects.

Chandra Bhushan pointed out to a more systemic problem in the generation of power and the nature of power plants. Speaking to Frontline, he said: In India, about 90 per cent of the power plants operate as base load power plants, while only 10-15 per cemt are peak-load power plants. Coal, lignite and nuclear power plants are base-load power plants, which means that they can produce only a certain constant amount of electricity every hour. They cannot immediately increase the electricity production based on demand. Gas-based power plants and hydro-power plants are peak-load power plants and can increase or decrease production based on demand. Only 10 - 15 per cent of the power plants in India are peak-load power plants. As a result when electricity demand surges, States start withdrawing more power putting pressure on the grid. We are presently constructing only coal-based power plants which are base-load plants. As gas is expensive, very few gas-based power plants are being installed. Also, there are huge conflicts over the hydropower plants in the Himalayas (Ganga basin and in the north-eastern region).

More deregulation?

The present crisis has led to calls for large-scale privatisation and more deregulation in the power sector. However, the crisis needs to be looked at in the context of the large-scale privatisation, which has not provided a level-playing field to the various players engaged in the business of ensuring that electricity reaches the common man. The crisis is a part of the larger story of the gradual abandoning of planning to leave essential services to the brutal control of market forces. This is borne out by the adverse impact of privatisation on SEBs and the hasty manner in which licences for power generation were granted without proper assessment of the related functions of transmission and distribution. It is also important to look at the problem in terms of the limitations in non-renewable energy production and the future of energy security in a situation where the supply is primarily driven by non-renewable energy sources.

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