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With monsoon rains weak and coal supplies unreliable, vast swathes of northern India could be staring at long spells without power this summer as demand for electricity spikes amid soaring record temperatures.
Pressure appeared to be building on the Northern Grid on Wednesday after Uttar Pradesh, now in the grips of a full blown power crisis, began drawing above its quota, ignoring repeated requests from the Northern Regional Load Dispatch Centre (NRLDC) not to do so.
In 2012, India’s two worst blackouts in history cascaded across much of the country’s north and east, cutting supplies to more the half the country’s population after the Northern Grid collapsed because several states took power beyond their limits.
Although since then systems have been put in place to cut off supplies to an overdrawing state so that the Grid does not crash, fuel shortages – both water and coal – could still lead to long periods of outages.
After the Northern Grid collapse, NRLDC fixed the upper limit for all the states. For UP, it was pegged at 6400 megawatts (MW). But the UP Power Corporation Ltd (UPPCL) has been drawing 300-500 MW in excess every day.
“We have no option in view of the demand that we had not even imagined,” a senior UPPLC official told HT on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
With the country’s transmission and distribution resources stretched to the limit, many of the northern states, including Delhi, appeared to be struggling to cope with demand and outages ranged anywhere between 10-18 hours in some states.
In Delhi, a political row has erupted over the cuts, with power minister Piyush Goyal blaming the city's previous Congress government for outdated infrastructure.
Worsening the situation, thunderstorms and heavy rain hit Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Uttarakhand last week, causing a sudden reduction in demand. As voltage and frequency surged, 69 high-voltage transmission lines disconnected themselves to protect equipment.
Around 8,000 megawatts of load was dumped in half an hour, equivalent to 6 percent of India’s power supply, including 3,500 megawatts in Delhi, a report prepared by the Central Electricity Authority said.
In response, the Delhi government announced emergency-power saving measures, including cutting electricity at the city's shopping malls, turning off street lights and ordering government offices to switch off air conditioners at certain times.
As temperatures soared beyond 45 degree Celsius, frustration mounted over long outages, triggering protests in Uttar Pradesh as well as in parts of Delhi where residents took to the streets at around midnight on Tuesday, attacking vehicles.
India’s weather office has forecast a below average monsoon, raising fears that reservoir levels could fall, hurting generation from hydro power plants. And although the country has the world’s fourth largest coal reserve, it usually fails to mine enough and fast to feed its thermal generators.
Across UP, Punjab, Haryana and Uttarakhand, power outages have gone up, leaving people sweltering under record temperatures.
“The power situation in Haryana has as usual been poor in all sectors – be it urban, rural or industrial – as people have since the onset of summers been suffering because of long unscheduled power cuts,” said Anil Vij, a BJP lawmaker from the state, which is officially power surplus.
“The officials are making false claims about being power-surplus while the reality is that they have wasted public money on plants most of which are not even functioning.”