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3 billion man hours without electricity, and counting

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The Indian power grids failed twice in two successive days! About the first incident, Reuters had a short and crisp report which not only puts out the news, but also puts it in perspective:

A massive grid failure in Delhi and much of northern India left more than 300 million people without electricity on Monday in one of the worst blackouts to hit the country in more than a decade.

The lights in Delhi and seven states went out about 2 a.m and had not been restored by the morning rush-hour, leaving the capital’s workers sweltering overnight, then stranded at metro stations in the morning as trains were cancelled.

Authorities made restoring services to hospitals and transport systems a priority. By mid-morning electricity had returned to parts of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh, a state with more people than Brazil. Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir were also hit.

India has a peak-hour power deficit of about 12 percent, slowing the economy. Delhi’s private power company, BSES (RLIN.NS), said northern India last suffered such a major outage in 2001.

About 40 percent of Indians, or 500 million people, lack electricity. Delays in opening new power plants and coal mines, among other things, have held back capacity.

The news coverage of Indian news agencies has been completely Delhi-centric, quite possibly a reflection of the fact that north India’s economy does not extend far from Delhi. ET reported:

He said about a third of power supply to northern states has been restored. The thermal power generating stations should also re-start operations in 2-3 hours, [Power Secretary P. Uma Shankar] said.

An NTPC official said the company’s projects in north stopped working at around 2.30 am on Monday after the northern grid failed due to a suspected technical snag.

Shankar said detailed investigations on cause of grid failure will be conducted after restoration work is complete.

The power ministry said essential services like public transportation are being given priority in power supply restoration.

The Hindu Business Line toed the same line; reportage, like the government’s emergency response restricted to Delhi:

Top Delhi Power Department officials said the technical failure near Agra resulted in the collapse of the Northern Grid, which supplies electricity to Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Rajashtan, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh.

Sources said that though the failure in the Northern Grid is expected to be rectified only in the evening, Delhi Metro was getting hydel power from Bhutan on priority basis along with power from AIIMS and Prime Minister’s House to run the services.

NDTV has a bulleted list of 10 important points about this news story; five of them are about how consumers are affected; all five points deal with Delhi.

31 July, 2012

Bloomberg follows up:

Seven states that are home to more than 360 million people were plunged into darkness early yesterday as power networks collapsed, possibly after too many provinces simultaneously purchased electricity beyond their scheduled allowance, Power Grid Corp. (PWGR) of India Chairman R.N. Nayak told reporters. It took about 15 hours for 80 percent of services to be resumed.

The cause of the failure is still not known. The same report quotes an analyst who rules out a demand and supply problem because it is exactly the sort of problem that a grid is designed to prevent:

The blackout “was a fairly large breakdown that exposed major technical faults in India’s grid system,” Subhranshu Patnaik, a Gurgaon-based senior director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India Pvt., said yesterday. “If this were a simple demand-supply problem, the grid operator would have intervened to strike a balance. Something went terribly wrong which caused the backup safety systems to fail.”

However, later in the report, an official gives the opposite view, leading us to believe that the power grid is either technically flawed, or manned by people who are unable to do what they are supposed to do:

“We need to find out exactly what happened so that we can make India’s grid safer and more secure,” Gopal Saxena, chief executive officer at BSES Rajdhani Power Ltd., a unit of Reliance Infrastructure Ltd. (RELI) that supplies western and southern parts of the capital with electricity, said in an interview.

“When one or two states draw too much power at the same time, the grid breaches its transaction frequency, which is what may have happened,” said Power Grid’s Nayak.

Bloomberg also reminds us about the badly mismanaged state of power generation in the country:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seeking to secure $400 billion of investment in the power industry in the next five years as he targets an additional 76,000 megawatts in generation by 2017. India has missed every annual target to add electricity production capacity since 1951.

The pink papers are on their job the day after the crisis. FT wrote:

While power-generation capacity has increased through private investment in recent years, much of the new capacity is in India’s coal-rich but comparatively poorer eastern region, where energy demand is more subdued. The antiquated state-run power grid, operated by the Power Grid Corporation of India, is struggling to transmit surplus electricity generated in the east to the heavily industrialised and more affluent northern and western regions.

“India’s generation capacity has outstripped its transmission capacity,” says Arvind Mahajan, head of energy at KPMG India. “This is placing an ever increasing load on the system, because of new generation capacity now coming online.”

An unusually large increase in capacity this year is placing additional pressure on the grid. According to Mumbai brokerage Kotak, more than 26,000 megawatts of power will be added during 2012, nearly double the previous year.

The drought is likely to exacerbate India’s energy woes in the coming months. Hydropower accounts for about one-fifth of India’s installed power capacity and reservoir levels have dropped to only 24 per cent of their capacity, or about half what they held this time last year.

One of the best pieces of journalism in this affair is a background piece by Sanjay Dutta which appeared today in TOI; it is well-researched, well-written and the kind of journalism that one has almost forgotten:

Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are notorious among load despatchers for their wanton disregard of planned drawal. All are agricultural states and also house major industries. But successive state governments have done precious little to ramp up generation capacity. This has created a wide demand-supply mismatch. The current dry spell has worsened the situation, sparking a rush for power from the farming sector. Overdrawal, or sucking more than the scheduled quantity, is quite common in the northern grid. Drawing more or less power changes the frequency, which can change the voltage and trip the network.

In spite of a penalty imposed on each unit of overdrawn power, it still works out cheaper for states than buying electricity from the open market. And even if a state buys from the spot market in a contingency, wheeling the power could pose a problem since there’s no guarantee the grid would have spare capacity at that point. But what explains the insufficient generation capacity in the first place? One major reason, though not the only one, is that state electricity boards are almost without exception cash-starved. Governments that insist on free power to the farm sector and other such populist measures clearly have contributed to that situation.

Given the demand-supply mismatch and the consequent temptation to draw more than their share, a 2002 official report had warned that stripping the national transmission utility of powers to regulate electricity flow in the network would increase the threat of major blackouts. The prophecy appears to have come true on Monday.

The report, prepared by a team of officials after studying power reforms in China, stressed the need to keep control over electricity flow with PowerGrid Corporation, which operates the grid. But the Centre carved out a separate entity, Power System Operation Corporation, to manage power despatch. “The grid collapse is an administrative failure. It shows the fallacy of separating grid and load despatch operations. PowerGrid’s powers to enforce grid discipline has been diluted by creation of a separate entity for managing despatch,” R P Singh, who served as PowerGrid chairman for almost a decade, told ToI.


Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

July 30, 2012 at 6:28 am

One Response

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  1. […] day after the massive power outage across India, an even bigger one, possibly the largest ever in the world. HT reports: Triggering a major power […]

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