‘Separate power feeders can greatly improve rural electrification’

Over 65 years after Independence, nearly half of the 800 million people living in rural India are yet to get access to electricity. A major reason for this is gaps in planning. For one, single power feeder is being used for both household and agricultural connections. In order to understand if separate feeder connections for domestic and agricultural use would help, the Union Ministry of Power asked the World Bank to carry out a study. The World Bank studied eight states and has released the report titled “Lighting Rural India: Study on Rural Load Segregation Schemes”. Ashish Khanna, lead energy specialist with World Bank who headed the study, spoke to Ankur Paliwal about the importance of feeder segregation for improving rural electrification. Excerpts

By Ankur Paliwal
Published: Monday 07 October 2013

Ashish KhannaWhat is rural feeder segregation and how is it important for rural electrification?

Rural feeder segregation is the separation of technical infrastructure of agriculture consumers from non-agriculture consumers. In a water-constrained scenario where oversupply of power to agricultural farmers may aggravate the already grave groundwater situation and also aggravate financial distress of power utilities (already at 1.5 per cent of GDP), power supply to agriculture sector needs to be controlled. In any case, agriculture power needs could be fulfilled through a daily six to eight hour reliable supply, depending on the season.

If all rural consumers are connected on the same feeder (wires that emerge from sub-stations and carry electricity to transformers for distribution to consumers), power supply to non-agriculture consumers, including households, schools and dispensaries also get switched off when agriculture supply is not needed. It is because switching off is done from the sub-station from where the feeder is supplied. Some utilities have, therefore, segregated agriculture and non-agriculture feeders and have thus attempted to provide 24x7 power supply to the non-agriculture consumers. This has generated increased ability to generate livelihoods, and resulted in significant socio-economic benefits in rural areas.

What are the key findings of the study?

There are eight states which are at various stages of implementing feeder segregation schemes. These are Rajasthan, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Results show that prior to feeder segregation more than 80 per cent consumers in both Gujarat and Rajasthan complained of low voltage problems which came down to just 6 per cent post segregation. More than 80 per cent domestic and over 50 per cent agriculture consumers complained of frequent power outages which reduced by half in both these states.
Other key findings are: a) One-size-fits-all approach will not work. Though feeder segregation has produced good results in terms of improving power supply for both agriculture and non-agriculture consumers, it may not be the appropriate solution for all states; b) where feeder segregation is determined as the right approach, the system should be IT-enabled to allow the measurement of electricity flowing into the system and being consumed by the agriculture consumer. Having clear data on agricultural power consumption, subsidies can also be better targeted; c) a national level framework should be laid out by the Union Ministry of Power to guide the utilities in their approach to rural power supply improvement.

What are the major challenges in implementing feeder segregation?

The first challenge is that there is no agreed framework for computing cost benefit analysis of feeder segregation programme for any state. While cost estimates are largely known, benefits to utilities in terms of revenue augmentation and cost reduction of peak power purchase have not been undertaken in most states. Another is missing investments in software part of metering and data processing while we invest in lines and transformers.

A major challenge is to keep feeders segregated in the medium and long run. An energy audit system is needed because it has been seen that consumers can change the connected loads (tube wells) without the utility knowing it. Also, unauthorized loads in peak agriculture season cannot be detected. Most importantly, sometimes rural habitations are near the agriculture feeder and then they ask for electricity connection from the same feeder. A utility cannot deny this. But this leads to the duplication of feeder. 

What is the cost estimation if a state is to take up feeder segregation? Explain with an example.

The cost will vary from state to state depending on various factors including the present condition of rural infrastructure and the type of network architecture planned. For example, it would cost around Rs 2.29 lakh per km of 11 kv line if feeder segregation is planned in Gujarat.

Given the poor financial health of the most state utilities, would it be right for them to take up additional cost of implementing feeder segregation?

Each state will have to identify its priorities depending upon its rural development model. As an illustration, for a state with low level of metered sales, feeder segregation would in fact allow greater revenue potential for discoms as it will remove theft and technical losses which are frequent in unmetered agricultural consumptions.

Similarly, feeder segregation, if implemented well, could reduce the peak power purchase cost by better distribution of agricultural load, leading to crucial cost savings for the utility. If the benefits of feeder segregation in the state are largely socio-economic rather than to the utility, then seeking equity or budgetary support for the programme may be more prudent than borrowing through loans from financial institutions.

Why will a standard approach to feeder segregation not work for all states?

States are different from one another in various aspects including their geographical spread, status of power infrastructure, level of aggregate technical and commercial (AT&C) losses and financial condition. Each state, therefore, needs to develop its own customised model for rural power supply rather than go in for a feeder segregation approach.

It is not the only solution. Haryana and Punjab have agricultural consumption greater than 30 per cent of total units sold in the state, for which feeder segregation was needed to arrive at more credible estimates of otherwise unmetered agricultural consumption which is separate from AT&C losses. Gujarat, on the other hand, implemented feeder segregation because it strove to provide 24X7 power supply to rural households once it had surplus power. Uttar Pradesh has targets for providing 24X7 power to tehsil towns initially before embarking on 24X7 rural supply. In that case, feeder segregation is not an immediate requirement for them.

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