Last week, three grids in the country — the northern grid, the eastern and the north-eastern — collapsed in quick succession, affecting at least 600 million people. While the government has set up an expert committee to investigate the unprecedented blackout that affected 19 states out of the country’s 28, it is more or less clear now that the outage happened because of massive overdrawing of power by the states from their respective grids. Other potential vulnerabilities like faults arising due to the poor quality of technical infrastructure as well as cyber attacks have been ruled out, at least at this stage of the investigation.
The outage proved that not only did the states fail to adhere to the well-laid out grid discipline but they also did not comply with an earlier directive of the Central Electricity Regulatory Authority (CERC): the authority had asked the states to install automatic demand management schemes, including under frequency relays (UFRs) that would have automatically stopped excess drawing power below the decided frequency of transmission.
An electricity grid is a high-voltage backbone system of inter-connected transmission lines, sub-stations and generating plants. Typically, grid management involves addressing the availability, reliability, security and efficiency of the power eco-system. In India, the Electricity Act, 2003, determines the functioning of the power sector and the management of grids is done according to the Grid Standards Regulations, which was last amended in 2010.
Operationally, grids are managed on a regional basis and the country is divided into five grids: northern, eastern, western, north- eastern and southern. While the first four are automatically connected, the southern grid is connected manually to the others. Each of these regions is managed by the Regional Load Despatch Centres (RLDC), which are responsible for optimum scheduling and despatch of electricity within the region, monitoring grid operations, keeping accounts of the quantity of electricity transmitted through the regional grid and exercising supervision and control over the inter-state transmission system. They are also responsible for carrying out real time operations for grid control and despatch of electricity within the region in accordance with the Grid Standards and the Grid Code. The key grid parameters — frequency, voltages and transmission line loading — are set by the RLDCs for the state LDCs (SLDC) and they need to be complied with. The Grid Code decides the operating band (the frequency at which transmission happens and the mark at which it should operate). At present, it is 49.5 Hz.
In the current situation, a few states in the northern region have been drawing power much beyond their allocated limits and despite the frequency limit coming below the operating band and warnings sent out by the RLDCs, they still continued to draw extra power. The northern RLDC brought this to the notice of the CERC and the latter issued show cause notices to the chiefs of the SLDCs and warned that they would have to pay a heavy penalty if they flout the norms. However, no one listened because SLDCs feel that overdrawing of electricity from the grid is not that risky since the RLDCs order doesn’t hold much threat and the penalty cannot exceed Rs. 15 lakh.
So the challenge now is to force the states to follow grid discipline and the RLDCs’ strictures. As penalties offer no fear, electricity should be shut off to the erring states as soon as it crosses its set limit. Unfortunately, this becomes a political issue and thus preventing the power ministry from acting with a firm hand. Hopefully, the expert committee, apart from finding the causes of the failure of the grid, will also look into the optimal way to enforce grid discipline. Needless to say, power generation capabilities have to be significantly improved to stop this regular overdrawing by the states.
Subimal Bhattacharjee heads a multinational corporation in India and writes on issues of technology and security
The views expressed by the author are personal