Karela Fry

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Missing energy

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The world is fighting over energy, whether it is in the South China Sea or in Iraq. And it seems that India is losing the battle, and, with it, any dreams of future plenty.

A good part of the energy supplies need to be distributed as electrical power. As Anil Kakodkar had pointed out, if India’s Millennium Development Goals are to be fulfilled, we need to generate about 10 Kilowatts of power per capita. This means a total capacity of 12 Terawatts (12,000 Gigawatts, or 12 million Megawatts) today. It turns out that the total installed capacity (including captive plants) today is 234 Gigawatts. Which means that if every bit of the capacity were used, we would get only half a kilowatt each. Any attempt to draw a little more than that would send the power grid crashing.

This is the reason for two successive grid crashes, and the reason why overdrawing of power has continued. It is not politics, it is just people’s natural need for power. Manmohan Singh’s personal opinion, not shared by all his governments, is that large amounts of nuclear power generation is the key. He was willing to stake his first government on this developmental issue. One wishes that his singular developmental vision was coupled with political acumen. Depressingly, most other ministers in this and all central and state governments since the Dabhol-Enron fiasco are guilty of mis-governance by neglecting the development of the energy industry.

These facts are just now being appreciated by the media. The Hindu Business Line opines:

India set a dubious record on Tuesday, by sending a record number of people into darkness. The failure of the Northern, Eastern and North-Eastern grids meant that more than 600 million people went without electricity for hours – the largest population to be impacted by a power outage in the world.

This, despite having the world’s fifth largest power generating capacity. India has more than 234 gigawatts of generating capacity. Of this, 31.5 gigawatts is in the form of captive generation capacity, feeding specific industrial units. The rest is in the public space, and is supposed to feed everyone else.

According to Power Ministry data, in 2011-12, the average requirement was 9,37,199 million units (MU. 1 MU equals 1 gigawatt hour), while the availability was 8,57,886 MU, or a deficit of 8.5 per cent. This rises to 10.6 per cent in peak hours. As with all government data, this needs to be taken with a slight pinch of salt. Peaking demand has been consistently outstripping estimates, and the peaks are getting closer to each other. Independent estimates put the peaking demand shortage at as high as 20-22 per cent.

Availability is another issue. India may have the fifth largest generating capacity in the world, but it is the world’s fourth largest power consumer. And just because capacity is installed does not mean that power is available. The overall Plant Load Factor or the percentage of capacity that generating stations actually put out, was a little over 73.3 per cent in 2011-12 (Power Ministry data). That was last financial year.

Currently, thermal energy-based plants are idling more than a quarter of their capacity due to coal shortages or non-availability of natural gas. Hydroelectric capacity has been hit because of an exceptionally deficient monsoon. And nearly a third of the power generated is lost in transmission and distribution. These facts, shocking as they are, are nothing new. They have been well known to the government, industry and even the consumer at large for years.

The day before the first of the blackouts, S. Ankaleshwara Iyer wrote in TOI about the “drought-proofing”of India:

How then did the spectre of starvation vanish? Largely because of better distribution. Employment schemes in rain-deficit areas injected purchasing power where it was most needed. The slow but steady expansion of the road network helped grain to flow to scarcity areas.

Second, the spread of irrigation stemmed crop losses. The share of the irrigated area expanded from roughly one-third to 55% of total acreage. Earlier, most irrigation was through canals, which themselves suffered when droughts dried up reservoirs. But after the 1960s, tubewell irrigation rose exponentially, and now accounts for four-fifths of all irrigation. Tubewells are not affected by drought.

More important, tubewells facilitated rabi production in areas with little winter rain. Once, the rabi crop was just one-third the size of the kharif crop. Today both are equal. This explains why in 2009, which witnessed one of the worst monsoon failures for a century, agricultural production actually rose 1%: good rabi production offset the slump in kharif production.

It cannot escape anyone’s attention that this so-called drought-proofing needs huge amounts of energy: to drive the motors which pump water, and to drive the trucks which distribute grain. Losing the energy battle could mean going back to starvation.


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