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To tide over the energy crisis, look to the sun

Barely 12% of India’s power generating capacity is from renewable sources. With the adoption of modern technology for generation, storage and distribution, this can be greatly increased, writes HT editor-in-chief Sanjoy Narayan.

columns Updated: Sep 14, 2014 10:41 IST
Sanjoy Narayan

In the excellent documentary film Katiyabaaz, Loha Singh of Kanpur is a thief who steals electricity by tapping overhead cables and sells it to those who don’t have legal power connections. In the 80-minute film, Singh appears as a modern Robin Hood, a saviour of the people in a town ravaged by power shortages and blackouts and, although the directors — Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa — have tried to focus on the conflict between Singh and the CEO of the local discom, highlighting the often ephemeral line that divides what is lawful and what is not. Katiyabaaz is a microcosmic example of what is wrong with the power situation in large swaths of India, be they in urban, rural or semi-rural areas.

Kanpur happens to be in Uttar Pradesh, which is particularly crippled by shortage of power. In the past three months, outages in the state’s urban areas ranged from eight to 12 hours a day; villages got power (if they’re lucky) for just four to five hours a day; and, Kanpur itself, where Katiyabaaz was made, was without electricity sometimes for 18 hours a day. Other badly affected states are Bihar, Rajasthan and the southern states, while those in the West, East and the North-East are better off. It is estimated that one out of four Indians (or 25%) does not have any access to electricity.

India’s installed capacity runs at 250,000 megawatts (of which more than 60% is from coal-based power plants) but only about 140,000 mw of that capacity is available, either because of fuel shortages or, more importantly, pilferage and transmission & distribution (T&D) losses. T&D is under the purview of the states, whose utterly mismanaged discoms are groaning under the burden of debt (Rs 3.04 lakh crore) and losses (`2.52 lakh crore), leaving them with little room to upgrade their T&D set-ups. Power theft of the kind Loha Singh is an exponent of is endemic: the national average of transmission losses because of theft is 25% of what is generated; in J&K, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh it is over 60%; in Bihar and Sikkim, it is 50-60%; and in UP, Jharkhand and Odisha 40-50%.

Against such a scenario, the Modi government’s promise of providing 24x7 power to all homes during its term of five years can seem unrealistic. But then again, it might not. Power minister Piyush Goyal has been co-opting the states to work out how to achieve uninterrupted power supply in each of them. This includes revamping the existing T&D networks; laying new ones; and minimising pilferage. But the key could be elsewhere. The bulk of India’s power generation is fuelled by natural resources that are not renewable — coal, gas and diesel. Besides their finite availability, as we have recently seen, particularly in the case of coal, erratic supplies can play havoc with power generation. The solution lies in aggressively exploiting renewable sources of energy — solar and wind.

Barely 12% of India’s power generating capacity is from renewable sources. With the adoption of modern technology for generation, storage and distribution, this can be greatly increased. To be fair, the Modi government is pursuing a drive to get there. By 2022, it wants to increase solar power capacity from 1,700 mw to 20,000 mw and is pushing proposals for technology tie-ups with the US and other markets where knowhow has leapfrogged. The beginnings could be small: across urban India, factories, businesses and homes use diesel gensets to meet their power needs, forking out a price that is often thrice that of grid-based power. It is here that a switch to solar power can make a difference. For solar power, installation charges are high but once low long-term operating costs are factored in, the price of power drops sharply.

In Dayalbagh village near Agra, in Katiyabaaz Loha Singh’s own state of UP, a solar hybrid system powers 171 houses and several educational institutions, all of which get electricity 24x7. That, I think, is the way to go.