India's electricity woes: The heat’s on, the power’s off

A man applies water to his face to cool himself on a hot summer afternoon. (AP Photo)


The blistering heat wave that is currently sweeping large parts of India has again put the spotlight on India’s power infrastructure. Already, there are complaints of outages lasting up to four hours per day in the northern region, including in some areas of the national capital region.

Part of this could be because of the prevailing financial situation of the power distribution companies, the firms responsible for carrying energy to individual households, which makes procuring power expensive, given that they have to sell these at regulated tariffs.

Delayed monsoon rains can potentially dry out reservoirs, prompting hydro-stations to cut energy generation. India has countered situations in the past when many power stations have had just about a week’s coal left to keep their furnaces burning to produce electricity, critical to keep the growth engine chugging in Asia’s third-largest economy. Three years ago, north and east India faced the dubious distinction of waking up 680 million people in the middle of a harrowing mid-summer nightmare as the northern grid collapsed.

It took more than two days for the grid to start wheeling out power normally. Electricity, like water, flows from high-voltage areas to a lower one unless, of course, a grid calibrates the surge. The situation is analogous to a river that flows through many regions where states keep on diverting water to their parched regions. This eventually will dry out the river’s stretches in the lower riparian states. Each state has a quota of power that it can draw from the grid.

The rules of the game, as it were, define that each state cannot draw more power than its quota of central power allocation. States are expected to stick to the drawn schedule and maintain what is called ‘grid discipline’. Many states, as witnessed in July 2012, overdrew power from the grids, leading to their collapse.

That said, India, at least on available parameters, appears better-equipped to deal with such an eventuality now. The ‘frequency’ has been altered to prevent states from overdrawing power from the grids. The Northern Regional Load Dispatch Centre — an agency that monitors energy pullout by states from the grid — has been sending regular alerts to states, asking them to stick to the ceiling to maintain grid safety.

More important, the coal supply situation in most of the thermal power stations is not ‘critical’ or ‘super-critical’ as was the case three years ago. In fact, in many instances, the fuel supplies have stocks that will last more than 30 days. In the final analysis, however, India has to find a way out to quickly become a power-surplus country. A 24x7 power supply situation should be a given for an aspiring economic superpower.

 

 

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