The collapse of India’s northern power grid on two successive days during the past fortnight exposed the precarious energy situation it faces as it seeks to develop its economy.
The power outage was the subject of discussion across the globe, with commentators in the United States and China deriding the plight of the presumed future superpower. “India wants to be a power on the world stage. But back home it’s having power troubles of a more mundane variety,” wrote one scribe.
All comments were not negative. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology publication suggested that India should go in for a network of microgrids, an intermediate step between individual generators and a fully national grid, to avert frequent interruptions. Some of the microgrids could operate with renewable energy, it added.
The power shutdown, caused by several states drawing more than their entitlement from the common grid, reportedly affected more than half of the country’s population of 1.2 billion, making it the largest blackout in human history. Add to that the one-fourth of the population which has no access to electricity anyway, and you get a full picture.
With an installed capacity of 203,000 megawatts (MW), India’s power sector is the fifth largest in the world. About 66 per cent of the power comes from thermal plants and 19 per cent from hydroelectric projects. Nuclear power and various forms of renewable energy such as wind, solar and biomass account for the rest.
Currently per capita power consumption in the country is put at 778 kilowatt-hours (kwh), which is only a third of the world average. Since power generation is not sufficient to meet peak demands, load shedding is common, especially in the rural areas.
Obviously there is a long way to go on the power front. The International Energy Agency estimates that the country will raise power generation capacity by anything upwards of 600,000MW by 2050. However, there are flaws in the approach of the central and state governments.
Planners at the centre have been unable to reconcile the conflicting demands of official agencies in the states, each of which pushes for schemes of the kind it is familiar with, disregarding drawbacks that have surfaced. Consequently a plan that judiciously integrates different kinds of power sources has not emerged.
To make things worse, bureaucratic delays often slow down power projects, resulting in heavy cost overruns. Lately increasing awareness of environmental problems has led to massive popular resistance to thermal, hydroelectric and nuclear power projects.
The heavy dependence on thermal power is a matter of concern for reasons such as poor quality of coal, its dwindling supplies and endemic corruption in the mining sector. However, the public sector National Thermal Power Corporation, which has raised $800 million overseas since 2006 for various projects, is planning to raise $1 billion more by selling bonds abroad to further expand thermal power production capacity.
In the early years of Independence, a plan was drawn up to set up nuclear plants in the belief that atomic power will be the cheapest. Though the cost calculations have proved wrong the government continues to pursue nuclear projects. Global sanctions imposed in the wake of nuclear tests, which revealed the military dimension of the nuclear plan, stalled progress for a long period. Foreign pressures have now eased somewhat but domestic pressures fuelled by safety concerns have mounted.
The authorities attribute the current power crisis to the failure of the monsoon. Official sources put water levels of 84 big reservoirs across the country at 55 per cent of last year’s levels. Evidently the worst is yet to come.
The country would not have come to this sorry pass but for the criminal neglect of renewal energy sources for long. Blessed with sunlight for most of the year, its solar power potential is put at more than 12 trillion watt-hours per square mile.
Waking up late to the bright future that the sun holds out, plans have been drawn up to add 20,000MW of solar energy to the national grid by 2022.
This is not an overambitious target, considering that Germany, which has decided to cut out nuclear power, installed 4,300MW in just six months this year. However, it will prove elusive unless the authorities draw the right lessons from the blackout and pursue the projects on hand vigorously.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, August 14, 2012.