Power crisis and grid collapse: Is it time to think

The recent grid collapse that plunged all of north India into darkness and abruptly stopped over 10 states in their tracks have spawned viral debates on what went wrong and what is in store.

The summary of these discussions has been more or less the same: except for Gujarat, the rest of the country has a huge power deficit which is set to widen exponentially given the rising demand; that some “rogue” states do not maintain “grid discipline”; and that our infrastructure is tottering. It can happen again, and again.

All true and are hugely important. But the critical reason that triggers it all, is the shortage of power and inadequate infrastructure. What we saw early this week was the chaos that resulted from the desperate attempts of the have-nots to draw more than what is due to them.

Of course, every state in the country is an electricity have-not, but some are more undisciplined than others. Incidentally, these states also run huge governance deficits, both at the state and local levels.

Shortage of power and the inefficient electricity management at this stage will cripple the country sooner than later. The state of Tamil Nadu, which was a role model till 2002, is now reeling under long powers cut in rural areas, its small and medium industry belts, as well as in cities. The state had surplus power in 2002 and an efficient electricity board. Now its electricity board has a debt of Rs. 10,000 crores, has defaulted in its payment to private power producers and is 30% short of its electricity need.

On the other hand, the electricity board in Gujarat, which was in a shambles in 2002, is a star today. It was debt-ridden, had routine load shedding and also used to lose more than 35 per cent of its power in transmission and distribution. Today, it has a surplus of more than 2000 MW and is an unusually profit making public utility service. In 2002, other states visited Tamil Nadu to learn from its best practice; today perhaps the same Tamil Nadu has to make a trip to Gujarat.

Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa has promised that the state will get out of the crisis and will become a power surplus state soon when a few of its thermal power stations and the Koodankulam nuclear plant start operating at full steam. But, there will be a continuous rise in demand that will require continuous capacity addition along with transmission and distribution facilities.

This is not an isolated case – every state is in a similar situation, while some are worse off.

It’s time that our governments and policy makers thought differently and learned from other states and themselves. There is no national solution to this problem. It is not a grid issue. It is an issue of the development mindset that cries for mega projects and privatisation every time there is a question of efficiency.

The primary answer that our governments and bureaucrats are looking for is still big plants – nuclear, thermal and hydel.

Despite its ridiculously tall claims, the nuclear establishment is notoriously slow in getting things done – its plants take for ever to get built and commissioned. And one never knows what is really in store in terms of safety and disasters.

Thermal, both coal and gas, has limitations and cannot go on for ever and in many places resistance from local population has made it environmentally unviable. New hydel projects are nearly impossible, given the irreversible ecological damage they could cause.

Now the other part of the issue: how to distribute the precious electricity without loss. Even if one is capable of just matching the demand, one needs massive infrastructure to “evacuate” the power generated – not just to the different parts of the states, but also to the other parts of the country.

For instance, Tamil Nadu can buy power from a friendly Gujarat which has a good surplus, but is there sufficient transmission infrastructure to bring it down? Same way, Kerala is planning a coal powered thermal station in Orissa because its people will not allow one in their neighbourhood for environmental reasons. How will Kerala efficiently evacuate the power it will generate in Orissa?

We need power and in fact more and more of it; and efficient infrastructure to handle it.

That is why one should listen to the evangelists of alternative energy and decentralised power management. Not that alternative energy can do anything dramatic overnight and match the scale of conventional energy; but it can definitely begin to contribute, and in due course tip towards a paradigm shift.

It is about thinking small and thinking local that reminds one of Mahatma Gandhi and EF Schumacher. Not any different from our panchayati raj system or decentralised governance.

Two components are worthy of examination. A variety of small and medium capacity solar alternatives and other sources of renewable energy; and “micro grids” that will serve manageably sized locations.

In solar energy, the most common and cost effective method uses photo voltaic cells. Its installation can vary from a handful of panels on a household rooftop to large farms of the sort being rolled out in Gujarat.

On an average, it might still be expensive at the estimated cost of Rs 9 crore plus per MW as against Rs. 4.95 to 5.2 crore that coal-based thermal power plants cost. But after accounting for the environmental damage of the latter, solar energy has no cost-disadvantage. At a time when international development specialists are advocating for adjusting national growth rates against environmental costs and climate change, it is a great resource.

Additionally, widespread use of solar panels will lead to economy of scale and falling prices. Modi’s Gujarat is an emerging good practice on this front as well. The state has set a target of 350 MW from solar energy in near future. He is covering the Narmada canal with solar panels which will both generate electricity and reduce evaporation (of water) losses. The late Kerala CPI leader and parliamentarian CK Chandrappan had in fact proposed a similar plan to cover the state’s water reservoirs with solar panels.

The next is to minimise long distance transmission and distribution losses. One of the ways is to locally generate and distribute. This will not only reduce losses, which is still 20 per cent in an efficient state like Gujarat, but will also minimise the dependance of the states on large grids, which will in turn reduce the possibilities of grid disasters such as the one we witnessed this week.

This is where micro-grids come into play.

“The concept involves small power plants and small grids catering to the needs of the population of 30-50 km radius. There should be provision for exchange of power with other micro-grids so that they can transfer electricity according to surplus and deficit conditions” says Dr. TP Das, Chennai based power consultant and a micro-grid specialist. Maharashtra and West Bengal have in fact established one micro-grid each.

Several small power stations, say of 5-10 MW capacity, can in fact power such grids. Besides solar and wind energy, there are also other avenues of alternative power generation using biomass such as bagass and fast-growing vegetation. Tamil Nadu has such power plants.

Kerala, which has exhausted all possibilities big power plants after the Centre shot down its proposal for a hydel project on environmental grounds, is perhaps a state to look out for the small and beautiful. The chief minister Oomen Chandy on Wednesday said the state will look for solar energy and mini hydel projects to make up for its shortfall. The state will also encourage people to set up solar panels on their roof-tops for generating their own power and also selling to the state electricity board.

The power grid failure was indeed a national horror; but it also offered an opportunity to seize.

Scale doesn’t always mean big and efficiency doesn’t always mean outright privatisation.