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Outages highlight chronic power problem in India

Even as the world's fourth-largest consumer of electricity after the United States, China and Russia, India has struggled to bridge the supply-demand gap.

A Kashmiri Muslim family eats dinner by torchlight after breaking their Ramadan fast. Millions were left without power during India's worst blackout in history.
A Kashmiri Muslim family eats dinner by torchlight after breaking their Ramadan fast. Millions were left without power during India's worst blackout in history.

NEW DELHI // For many in India, being left in the dark for hours is part of life. But last week's blackout, which affected more than half a billion people, underscored the country's chronic power problems.

For two successive days last week, electricity cuts shut down New Delhi's vital metro system, created traffic chaos and left hundreds of millions of Indians sweltering in the humid summer

At its worst, the blackout extended across 20 of the country's 28 states, including the country's capital.

Investigators have yet to pinpoint the cause but, in addition to suggestions that states were using rolling outages to compensate for deficiencies in supply and and overdrawing their quota of power, scanty rainfall has forced farmers to switch on electric pumps for irrigation, which has crimped hydroelectric supply.

The new Indian power minister Veerappa Moily, who was appointed last week at around the time of the blackouts, attempted to calm fears of further cuts.

"I can reassure the entire nation that what has happened all these two-three days will not recur," he said during his inaugural news conference on Tuesday.

Others disagree."The blackout may happen again, many times over," said Harry Dhaul the director general of the Independent Power Producers Association of India, an organisation that advocates for better power systems.

"India is exploding. The demand for power is increasing by the minute. Whether it is six or eight per cent growth, that is the sign of a vibrant market and the infrastructure is trying to keep pace at the moment. This sort of demand is unparalleled in the world. Demand is not going away and policymakers are slow on the uptake."

"There are gaps in transmission, generation, efficiency, fuel," Mr Dhaul said.

Mr Moily is to meet the leaders of the eight Indian states in the northern grid tommorrow about the cause of the blackout. While he has refrained from blaming the states, the government-owned Power Grid Corporation has called for "grid discipline" on the part of the northern states, which include Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. These states were singled out as the worst offenders in terms of overburdening the power grid.

Even as the world's fourth-largest consumer of electricity - after the United States, China and Russia - India has struggled to bridge the supply-demand gap.

Coal-fired plants make up 56 per cent of India's installed power capacity. Hydroelectric power makes up 19 per cent of the power generated, natural gas about 9 per cent and other renewable sources make up 12 per cent of the electricity generated.

But it is not enough to meet the demand.

"The country has been facing problems with overall power supply generation for years now," said Peeyush Mohit, a management consultant at KPMG.

The gap fluctuates with seasonal demand, but it rose to a high of eight per cent in past months, according to the Central Electricity Authority, which that governs the Indian power sector.

According to Mr Mohit, India's inability to generate enough electricity is chronic. The country has failed to meet every power generation target set since 1951.

"Every time they create a five-year financial plan, they planned to meet 70 to 80 per cent of the demand," he said. "They have yet to meet more than 40 per cent of the target."

Even though Indians use very little energy - per capita consumption is a third of the world average - there is not enough juice to go around.

While the collapse of India's power grid has drawn attention to its ageing transmission system and its lack of power generation, the long-term problems lie in India's inability to produce enough fuel for power plants. "They have not been able to ramp up generation of power, for example from coal, as much as expected," said Mr Mohit. "Fuel supply issues have been the major bottleneck."

More than half of India's power plants run on coal but many were idled as the price of coal rose internationally, even though power tariffs remained stagnant.

Efforts to force Coal India - an inefficient government behemoth with a near monopoly on coal mining - to ramp up supply have foundered. Fights over land acquisition and stalled environmental clearances have made it difficult to open new mines, forcing power companies to look overseas for coal.

In the last four years, the cost to utilities of buying power rose 21 per cent - faster than ever before, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers - but they have been unable to pass that on to consumers because of price regulations.

India needs investment to boost its power infrastructure, from funding in alternate technology to more "sophisticated mining technology", said Mr Dhaul.

This year, the prime minister, Manmohan Singh announced a five-year plan that called for the addition of 76,000 megawatts. Those behind the plan estimate that the bill for these upgrades to cost around US$400 billion (Dh1.46bn).

"There are gaps in transmission, generation, efficiency, fuel ... We need investments and a couple of trillion dollars to fix the problem and speedy policy clearances, said Mr Dhaul. "The problem is not dire but it is symptomatic of the malice".



* Additional reporting from Associated Press