Powerless and lost

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

energyThe power blackout in northern India on two days should not be dismissed or misjudged. Analysts are jumping to conclude that the crisis was foretold. They blame delays caused by environment and forest clearance procedures and demand winding down the regulatory framework so that we can re-energise ourselves. Their other favourite whipping horse is ‘free’ electricity to farmers, which is said to be crippling the state electricity boards. These explanations are naïve and mistaken. India’s power sector does need urgent reform, but first we need to know what to fix.

Firstly, data analysed by the Centre for Science and Environment clearly shows environmental clearance is not an obstacle to power infrastructure. In fact, the pace and scale of clearances given to power plants are a jeopardy for the environment. In the five years preceding August 2011, 267 thermal power plants adding a total of 0.21 million megawatt (MW) were cleared—capable of more than doubling the current capacity.

It is also incorrect that green clearances are holding up India’s coal production. Clearances have been readily given. But the problem is that Coal India Limited is a monopoly player and sits on 0.2 million ha of mine lease area, including 55,000 ha of forestland. Its reserves are some 64 billion tonnes, but production lags at only 500 million tonnes per annum. As a result, every power producer wants a private coalmine and forests can be dug and destroyed.

Secondly, the matter of ‘free’ power to farmers needs more enquiry. The recent Report of the High Level Panel on Financial Position of Distribution Utilities, headed by former auditor general V K Shunglu, finds huge anomalies in data used to estimate 20 per cent usage by the agriculture sector. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir, where transmission and distribution losses (T&D) are as high as 70 per cent, estimates that farmers use 28,000 units per pumpset; in Rajasthan too, where losses are high, farmers consume 11,000 units per pumpset. But Tamil Nadu, with lower T&D losses of 15 per cent, shows just 5,300 units used per pumpset. The panel concludes that states hide inexplicable power losses in farmers' accounts. There is, thus, no reliable estimate of power used by farmers.

However, it cannot be argued that agriculture should get ‘free’ power. There is no doubt that farming needs to be energy-efficient, and that ‘free’ power adds to the mindlessness in resource use. But if farmers must pay for power, then the government must account for its price in the cost of food. Currently, India is caught in a double bind. We need to procure large quantities of foodgrains to meet the needs of large numbers of people. The government must keep food production costs as controlled as possible. But input costs—labour and energy—are increasing. The minimum support price—which has seen a much-needed increase in recent years—does not keep up with this cost hike. So, farmers lose out. Free energy to farmers is not the question. The price of growing food in a globalised and subsidy-distorted market is.

So, why the power crisis? The reasons are deeply systemic and extremely worrying, First, there is no doubt that supply is constrained. In the past some years, governments have built power infrastructure at a feverish pace. But without much thought. As a result, today, India produces more electricity than previous years, but all this comes from coal-based thermal plants. Between April 2011 and June 2012, according to the Central Electricity Authority, hydro—needed as peaking power—was down by almost 9 per cent because of poor rainfall and low water flows. Gas-based generation fell by 20 per cent in the same period. Starved of raw material, power plants operated at m 47 per cent efficiency—compared to the projected 90-100 per cent.

So, raw material supply for all kinds of power (not just coal) is an issue. Hydropower needs water as raw material, not concrete structures on rivers. Currently, states have the perverse incentive to call for bids for projects—regardless of whether these will generate energy or not. Arunachal Pradesh has, for instance, tendered out some 54,000 MW of hydel power—every stream in the state has been sold to one company or the other. The situation is not very different on the Ganga or other rivers. There is no assessment of availability of the water needed for energy generation, let alone crucial functions like ecological flows.

Natural gas-based power with advantages over coal— it is environmentally cleaner and quicker to install—is also badly stuck. Reliance Industry, another monopoly, is sitting on reserves and not drilling fast or enough. It wants revision of tariffs and will not play ball till that happens.

Supply is one constraint. The more serious issue is our inability to pay for power. This is not just because power utilities are so inefficient that they cannot recover bills or keep track of their energy supply. It is also because energy cost is already high in India and will get even more expensive, and so even more inaccessible for the poor. In this situation, how will we work through our energy future? Let’s discuss this next fortnight.

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  • The Editorial is fully

    The Editorial is fully justified. We need to understand the actual disease and not he outward symptoms. Only then our problems can be taken care of.
    I have to add one more dimension. It is the rampant corruption in different sectors which is resulting in chaos. Right from the stage a project is envisaged, to the stage it is implemented, there is large scale corruption. Commissions have to be paid to various authorities otherwise nothing moves. That is the reason why more and more of private players are coming into the field. They can bribe any amount as they are not answerable to any one and they have so much slush money that it is not easy to detect the outgo. But all these expenses are added to the consumers at one stage or the other.
    The Electricity Boards are dominated by corrupt persons. One example is that fixed monthly charges are levied and the money goes to the corrupt persons. In return, people are free to use any amount of power without any Bill. Even if the Bill is there, it is only 10to 20% of the actual. Even in Delhi, this system is rampant. So, one can think of the conditions in other places. Most of the time the transmission losses also account for such bungling. That is why it is so high in our country.
    We need to tackle this problem as well.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Ms. Narain: How

    Dear Ms. Narain:

    How seriously do we take power cuts, let alone power blackout? For us, Indians, power cuts are so normal that we get surprised on a day when there is no power cut. It is like certain number of near misses in a factory indicates possibilities of a big accident. If any and every near miss is taken seriously, we can almost eliminate accidents. We have had power cuts so we got a major power blackout. What is wrong in it? It will happen again. Wait and see!! My reasoning for power blackout is deeply based on the way we treat power cuts. Issues raised or analyzed in your article such as environmental clearance for power plants or free power to farmers are far from it, though maybe linked somewhere somehow.

    As long as there is a power cut, it clearly indicates that we produce less than what we want. Whether we are wasting energy or using it abundantly, it is immaterial. In both cases, we need to compensate for it by producing more power. Now what do we do? Shall we go into a debate on who is wasting energy and who is using it lavishly? There is no point in debating, as we will be wasting our time and that is what is happening.

    We need energy infrastructure, be it for producing power or its transmission & distribution or its storage and we need energy efficient devices/appliances. Japan is the most energy efficient country. Does it mean, every Japanese is an energy expert or a highly aware person? No, but they have world class energy facilities and equipment. A Japanese man cannot waste energy even if he wants. Even if an Indian goes and stays in Japan, he will become energy efficient overnight. How? I am not talking about energy conservation here. Japan has one of the highest per capita energy consumption but still it is the most energy efficient country. My only point is energy infrastructure and energy using devices or facilities.

    How do we build modern and advanced energy infrastructure? Is there any technological constraint? I think no, not at all. Best of the best technologies are available in the market. Maybe we cannot afford it. Is it true? Then we go for cheaper ones. But why do we have cheaper and inefficient devices and systems available in the market which in long run are actually more expensive. Why canÔÇÖt we just ban it? If we ban, what will happen to poor sections of society or weak SMEs or small farmers! Looks like it is vicious circle and we have not been able to come out of it. The only and sure two ways to come out are 1) radical approach, 2) gradual and systematic approach. We are lacking in both at every level from national too individual. Both are happening and not happening at the same time. When I explore the reasons, at the root of it I find that, we lack culture whether we are a policy maker, industrialist, citizen or anybody for that matter. We lack nationalism. We lack being a complete human being. We lack discipline. I think this is the cause of power blackout.

    Yours sincerely

    K D Bhardwaj

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • As I wrote elsewhere, a day

    As I wrote elsewhere, a day after the second grid failure, the root causes remain the following three:

    1 - India's spiraling electricity demand
    2 - Coal supply constraints
    3 - A crippling and inefficient grid

    Everything else is only a symptom. States overdrawing power, symptom of #1 & 2. High electricity tariff, symptom of #3. Utilities in deep losses, also a symptom of #3.

    In fact, #3 India's T&D loss* as a percentage of total generation is so humongous that it defies logic why analysts aren't paying attention. It is at least 4 times that of China, if not more.

    Here's another example how big these losses are. In your post you mention shortfall in gas and hydro generation as a contributor to grid failure.

    But T&D loss from total generation for June was more than FIVE times the combined shortfall from gas and hydro.

    9% shortfall in hydro gen. between Apr-Jun = 2.85 BU
    20% shortfall in Gas gen. in Jun = 1.59 BU
    Total = 4.44 BU

    T&D loss (considered @ 30% of total in Jun) = 22.89 BU

    This problem is going to be even bigger as we increase capacity over the next decade. I estimate T&D loss will be 20 times that of total solar generation by 2022.

    See graphs denoting T&D loss
    Supporting calculation.

    Coming back to your post, you mention that agricultural electricity consumption data is unreliable and cite high consumption figures for J&K, Rajasthan and low agricultural consumption for Tamil Nadu to support.

    I find this questionable because J&K and Rajasthan farmers are always going to need greater pumping power than TN farmers as the water table in these states is extremely low. J&K is a hill state and Rajasthan is a desert.

    If you look at Central Ground Water Board figures, you will find deeper wells and lower yields in J&K, RJ while TN enjoys much higher yields and shallow wells. Naturally, you're going to need less pumping power in TN. So I don't think this inference is valid.


    Also, you might want to replace the term "efficiency" with capacity in the following sentence:

    "Starved of raw material, power plants operated at m 47 per cent efficiencyÔÇöcompared to the projected 90-100 per cent."

    * I should use the term AT&C loss instead of T&D but much of AT&C loss is in T&D. Commercial losses are significant but make up a relatively smaller share of total loss. Besides, T&D is a more popular term and is often used to denote commercial losses as well.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Agreed. Additionally, we

    Agreed. Additionally, we cannot continue to pay for the electricity bills of our farmers. They use power recklessly, relentlessly and without abandon. This is simply unacceptable.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I thought it was a very

    I thought it was a very balanced article overall but it still skirted many fundamental issues. Just to mention a few.

    But first some hard data. Sq kms per terawatt-hour of energy per year:

    Wind: 72.1
    Hydro 54.0
    Solar 36.9
    Natural Gas 18.6
    Coal 9.7
    Geothermal 7.5
    Nuclear 2.4

    (source: The Nature Conservancy)

    - On one hard "radical" greens want to protect forests
    - On the other hand, strategically they advocate energy sources that are land grabbing (directly increasing pressures to shrink forest land) and instead they campaign against energy sources that use the least land resources.

    We see the same trend in their choice of agriculture - organic which require 30-50% more land than inorganic (conservative estimate)

    Thirdly, their energy choices is a waste of investment and provides hardly any power, if any, is unreliable, destabilizes the entire grid system.


    My suggestion to you Sunita, is that radical "greens" either have to decide whether they want to conserve forests or so called clean energy. You can't have the cake and eat it too, as it accentuates the country's energy problems.

    To get around it, you need to harmonize between forest conservation and energy choices. Until you do this, you can't shirk off the blame for the country's energy's problems

    Warm rgds

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Media reports say that more

    Media reports say that more than 30% of the power produced in India is lost due to theft and inefficiencies in the state distribution networks. There is 205 gigawatts of generation capacity, mostly coal, hydro and nuclear in large units, plus some wind biogas and solar, but as far as I can see distribution is the weak link, with a loss figure that stood at 38.86%, in 2000-01. Hence, I assume, the regular blackouts. Building more large-scale nuclear capacity, as is currently the plan, is hardly a solution and even the more welcome expansion of wind power (from its current 13GW) will need better grids. Meanwhile local PV solar and biogas projects may make more sense. But grid links are important for balancing: I see that the plan is to have 20GW of grid linked PV/CSP by 2022. www.indiaworldenergy.org/WEC-IMC_publication.php

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Nicely drafted editorial. I

    Nicely drafted editorial. I have a query- Why we are not exploring the possibility of generation of more power from solar and nuclear energy?
    Also, we need to curb the T & D losses which to some extent are unavoidable and acceptable, but majority of these losses are because of power theft and rampant corruption.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • What we need in India today

    What we need in India today more than anything else is a political reform. Management and most importantly equal distribution of resources is the need of the time. As very rightly mentioned in the editorial, raw material is matter of concern today. Be it power, cheaper coal supply and the associated emissions is an issue, for hydel power, water is an issue.With these myriad level of issues associated with the power sector, the only way to put it back on track is political reform for sustainable development of the country.

    On one hand we are creating a buzz amongst the society for the increasing vulnerabilities of the poor ( not forgetting the exponentially increasing Urban Poor), we are completely ignorant of the existing heaps of existing vulnerabilities , which are only going to exacerbate with future. What " Our Common Future" would have is only distressed lives and blur path way towards development.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • a well timed editorial

    a well timed editorial indeed.it is high time we set the priorities and targets in the power sector,it is a known fact that power requirements increase at around 12-18% annually, and unless we are able to control the so called T&D losses,to a reasonable level say 8-12%,the gap between demand and supply is bound to widen.another factor that needs urgent attention is the plant load factor(PLF).why can't we think of and develop a system of pre paid energy meters like what we have in cellphones.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Your article does not mention

    Your article does not mention solar power and the possibilities for power generation independent of the grid. Is solar power simply a non-starter in India? If so, why?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • I enjoyed reading this

    I enjoyed reading this article. It is well researched and informative. As rightly pointed out in the article, unless we know 'what to fix', we can only beat around the bush and suffer more and more failures in the grid.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • As usual Editorial is so

    As usual Editorial is so precise to underline few prominent issues involved.It helped me get insight into power struggle by big houses to control the country's resources. I presume, this is the first part of the editorial. Now, any road map to be powerful and sustainable for next 15 years? Where the policies are going wrong or does it need totally new approach to energy generation and distribution?
    Same approach like water supply and sewege disposal within the given district/region should be taken in case of Power generation and its use by the people of the district / region in each state. (exception can be of large and heavy industries)..so one can spend in proportion one earns, no borrowings, no demandings. Preamble of our each policy framework must be National interests First (which generally relegated to the secondary level!)
    Nothing comes free but conditions applied! It's valid for farming sectors also. Present situation in energy sector compels for Policy review.
    Its good idea to have Pre-paid energy meters? This idea needs application of mind and why not try on small scale..?
    Thank you Sunita ji, for initiating our thoughts on the subject,look forward for next part of the Editorial sometime later. Regards.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The generation target of 930

    The generation target of 930 BUs for the year 2012-13 is about 8.7% higher than last year. The actual generation last year was 855 BUs 2% higher than the target.This year upto 15 Aug, date for which latest data from CEA is available is 343 BUs as comapred to the target for corresponding time of 335 BUs. With this the generation perforamnce of the sector is reasonably good, despite shorfalls in hydro nad gas based generation. Indentally nuclear sector has shown 7% higher generation with with 80% capacity factor as compared to 72% for thermal power. No conslidated information is available regarding generation and nor capacity through wind, solar about which there is such a large stress. The short point is the generation is well on course and about 10% shorfall including the demand that was not generated due to non availability itself, i think we need to live with for along time.The transmission need greater attention to build redundancy and diversity. The recent grid failure, when the grid frequency was above 50HZ, overdrwal and underdrawl being the part of grid management at all times demonstrated choking of the transmision system. The infrastructure that is traditionally build for base load generation also needs to be crtically upgraded for intermittemnt sources and that is decades of effort. But the process needs to start now.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • The Article (16-31st Aug

    The Article (16-31st Aug 2012: Powerless and lost) informative and reflects the POWER reality. This supported with the comments made on this key issue. Understanding the reality and SWOT pf Thermal, Hydro, Gas / Bio Gas and Nuclear based power generation, the need of the hour is to go for SOLAR power which is unlimited, cost effective and eco-friendly. DTE may do the needful in creating better awareness among the stakeholders, so that the present power crises can be minimized with better systems sustainable and acceptable to people as well as to the environment

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • When we say ÔÇÿelectricity for

    When we say ÔÇÿelectricity for farmerÔÇÖ, we see in our imagination a village farmer operating two or three pumps to irrigate his fields, driving a dilapidated tractor, living in a house like a shamble, striving to make both ends of his life meet. Because they produce food for the nation and because they use the much-needed electricity for this food production, we take it that unless power is given to them at state-subsidized rates, they cannot exist and carry on agricultural production which we all need to sustain us. They form the largest body of farmers in India. But there certainly are a few rich farmers who drive around in their Benzes and Cadillacs, live in multi-storied mansions, and operate their own power distribution centres situated inside their own estates and at the same time claim state subsidies for electricity which are meant to be enjoyed by the poor farmers alone. Someone has once written that a rich farmer driving his Mercedes Benz is ridiculous, but a farmer who produces food for the whole nation neednÔÇÖt always remain in dark ages and poverty. He is the person first entitled to modern amenities in a country. All others including the president and prime minister of a nation come only next to him in this regard. Since food is the prime necessity for mankindÔÇÖs existence on the planet, those farmers who are producing food for the nation are the first to be considered when state subsidies like electricity, oil and water are allocated. Once they become rich, their richness in itself becomes the incentive and motivation for producing more food. A farmerÔÇÖs Mercedes Benz and Satellite Phone are actually not something to be ridiculed about but signs of the sure safety and food security of a country. Most people and governments object to free supply of electricity to rich farmers on the grounds that they are rich. Electricity distribution companies charge them higher. Governments place them ÔÇÿAbove Poverty LineÔÇÖ and deny them gas. The more land they cultivate, the more advanced technology they use and the more food they produce, the government levies the more astronomically high agricultural income from them, instead of allowing them more concessions as an incentive, making them finally unwilling to take up more land for cultivation. But, if they abandon farming and go for other professions, then who will produce food for the nation? We call successful farmers ÔÇÿKulakhsÔÇÖ and mark them for squeezing dry when fund-raising campaigns of political parties come. Because Communist parties can no more fight against Fascism, Racism and Imperialism, they turn their ranks against these food-producing farmers, declare them enemies, demand ceiling on the extend of land they hold, organize agricultural trade unions, initiate strikes and paralyze agricultural production ultimately. The finest example was Kerala turning against Lake-Reclaimed Paddy Fields owned by these ÔÇÿKulakhsÔÇÖ and now importing rice from Tamilnadu and Karnataka.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • When the northern power grids

    When the northern power grids of India failed one after the other, the energy minister of India was not willing to accept that there indeed was a problem but he commented instead that North America also has such power failures and black outs. The people of India, especially those who had to undergo the ill effects of this total black out for days, were startled at the arrogance of this union minister who within days had to resign from power ministry but was instead given another covetous position in the cabinet. The Calcutta Electric Supply Company and the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport, two major companies in the field of power distribution in India know better. Like all others, they know well that the incompetence of government headed by ignorant ministers was reason for the poor maintenance, overhauling and upkeep of the distribution system in India. The government accused the states of drawing more power from the system than they were supposed to but tactfully remained silent about a customer who recently draws inconceivably high volumes of power and eventually became the greatest power drawing customer during the past two or three years- the Indian Railways. Since their abandoning cheap coal power and turning to full electrification, power consumption in the states increased many fold, as it is through the states that power is supplied to Railways. This power failure may also have been caused purposefully by a few among authorities who wanted people to cry for new nuclear power plants constructed all over the country. Also they wanted people made to argue that government holding monopoly of distributing power to some 700 million customers is wrong and that it should be distributed through smaller grids owned by competent private companies, thus preparing way for privatization of power distribution, the dream of all Indian politicians. Tomorrow these politicians of India will point out that competition with private companies did good to the Telecom sector and that the same must be applicable to the electrical sector also. By causing massive power failures, they are preparing themselves to announce that government monopoly has been proved a failure, power generation, transmission and retail distribution are to be separated from each other and the whole thing privatized. A new committee appointed by Government is sure to come up with these recommendations, in fact the committee is constituted with this sole objective. When it happens in India, the resulting Electrical Scam would have a few more zeros than the Telecom Scam had. It is their country, it is their secret agendas, it is their discussions and decisions and it is their bank accounts lying there with gaping mouths. The people of India do not have any significant voice in such matters. Look what position the resigned power minister was given as compensation! There is no way to deter them from opening up new fields of looting since the exposure and drying up of the Telecom field.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • Spent fuel is the main waste

    Spent fuel is the main waste of a nuclear reactor which is a cocktail of plutonium, strontium and caesium, all deadly. Exposure to them for 15 minutes at a distance of 30 feet will leave a person dead. Countries like USA store them in the original form of spent nuclear rods in 1 meter concrete-covered, double-walled stainless-steel tanks, immersed in deep water reservoirs, and cooled continuously at very low temperatures for 50 years, which is temporary storing. Someday, when science becomes able and equipped enough to find a permanent solution to store
    them safely for a thousand years, they will remove these deadly canisters from temporary storing to a more permanent kind of storing. In Britain they keep it in the molten form inside concrete-covered steel tanks, water-cooled without stop. In France they mix it with silica and boron and heat to 1500 degrees of centigrade, almost making it glass which is them stored in concrete-surrounded steel containers, cooled down continuously and stored temporarily, always fearing when they would corrode away and leak. What technological advancement has India over the nuclear experiences of Germany, France, England, USA and Japan, even with a collapsing Russian science to back, to argue in an Indian court of law that all arrangements have been made to dispose of the nuclear waste of Koodankulam power plant? Every technically advanced country in the world knows and admits that nuclear waste and residual elements wonÔÇÖt stop radiation till their half-life time is over which in the case of elements used by India are not less than a 1500 years. If any fool claims in an Indian court that India has saved the problem of keeping the waste safely and neutralizing it, he has the obligation to reveal to the world which scientist or technocrat solved the problem for the first time in the world so that we can recommend him for the Nobel Prize for Science. It is clear from the authoritiesÔÇÖ unpreparedness that they never expected this question of answering how and where the nuclear residue is to be stored, which are them, how stored, for how many years and when they expect it to be neutralized. Now that the question has already been raised, we know that never has in this world a country proved that less than 1000 years would be sufficient to get this plutonium cocktail to expire its half life time and get neutralized. This would require at least 5000 times the funds needed to construct, operate and decommission the power plant. Then how is this nuclear plant economically viable, except in the undeciferable jargon of the international power brokers. First let the Indian authorities explain the cost and places of keeping the nuclear residue from Tharapur plant for 1000 years, if everything is planed in advance as they say.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply