Last year India managed to add 3,453 Mw of thermal power capacity, slightly less than the peak summer demand in its capital city. Our planners have set up a hugely ambitious target of adding 90,000 Mw of generating capacity in the five years to 2012. Ambitious by Indian standards: we managed to add a mere 21,080 Mw of the targeted 41,109 Mw in the previous five years. The goal for the 11th Five Year Plan, however, seems puny against China’s efforts — it is adding upwards of 100,000 Mw to its electricity generation capacity every year, despite being in the same boat as energy-deficient India. The 95,000 Mw peaking demand nationwide lends credence to the argument that India’s rapid economic growth is largely ‘powerless’: our consumption of energy per capita is a fourth of the world’s average.
Last year’s dismal performance had as much to do with a shortage of equipment that go into thermal power plants as with fuel constraints. Makers of gear for power plants, including the State-owned Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd, have their order books full. Capacity building would need to begin in this industry for India’s electricity supply to have a hope of keeping up with demand. On fuel, the shortages in gas and coal apart, policy attention needs to be immediately focused on getting whatever supply is available to the power plants. Transport infrastructure, both rail and port, needs to be scaled up to avoid the recurrent theme of most power plants running on less than a week’s fuel stocks. These are the lesser issues in India’s struggle for power, and easier to grasp.
The bigger issues, of course, have remained much the same for all of India’s independent history. Hydroelectricity continues to get passed over because of collateral issues. Policy preference for thermal power has been a leap of faith over successive five-year plans. Renewable energy is living off government handouts. Nuclear power offers a way out, but in the distant future, and there too our targets are modest at 20,000 Mw by 2020. Which is a pity, because power — or the lack of it — has been a deciding factor in election after election.