Powerless power in the age of nuclear renaissance

The great Indian electricity grid failure hailed as the worst blackout in history, has brought several issues to light, which could have and should have been confronted earlier. 

Jayita Sarkar
18 August 2012

On July 31, 2012 for the second consecutive day, three of India’s five power grids collapsed, depriving 50% of the world’s second most populated country of electricity. The failure of the northern, eastern and north-eastern grids caused a blackout for 700 million consumers. Around 500 trains were stranded, water treatment plants were shut down and hospitals failed to operate. Airports however kept operating by swiftly switching over to alternative sources of power.

Power blackouts are certainly not new in India. The country even has its own pet term for power outages – “load shedding”, i.e., when the demand for electricity is higher than the available supply, the circuit sheds the load by rationing power for a while. For a country trying to meet its energy needs by wooing the nuclear industry without attending to its own shaky infrastructure, the July 2012 blackout is indeed a slap on the face. However, as is the case with every debacle in India, the government has not wasted much time in turning thick-skinned and commencing a blame game, apparently its favourite sport after cricket.

The three states accused of overdrawing power from the northern grid, namely, Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, had been drawing power in excess of their allotted quota well throughout June in order to meet the high power needs for sowing during the low-monsoon paddy season. According to the Economic Times report, both the grid operator and the regulator were well-aware of this but did nothing substantial to prevent it. On July 30, 2012 when the northern grid failed the first time, 385 million consumers were deprived of power for 12 hours. Sushil Shinde, the Minister of Power, boasted of how effectively power was restored within six hours. The next day when the northern grid collapsed again, the power ministry permitted the withdrawing of power from the eastern and the north-eastern grids, thereby collapsing the latter two as well. The Central Government in New Delhi accused the State Electricity Boards of responsibility for the crisis without addressing the inaction of the centrally-owned Power Grid Corporation when overdrawals of power were initially detected.

According to the World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2012 released last month, notwithstanding the Fukushima incident, one-third of nuclear countries generated their “historic maximum” of nuclear power in 2011, which included India, South Korea, China, Russia and Brazil amongst others. Three-quarters of nuclear plants currently under construction are concentrated only in three countries – China, Russia and India - and these along with South Korea are the only ones in the world where multi-plant construction is going on at present.

India’s self-proclaimed nuclear renaissance foresees itself meeting 25% of its own energy needs through nuclear energy by 2050. This Indian nuclear renaissance certainly has its own problems. However, what must be noted is that even if the Department of Atomic Energy accomplishes the miracle of meeting its own target of electricity production (which it so far has never done), the absence of a regulatory authority or an Automatic Demand Management System in the power grid can still plunge the nation into darkness and literally blackout India’s energy future.

This great Indian grid failure hailed as the worst blackout in history, has brought several issues to light, which could have and should have been confronted earlier. First, while subsidizing electricity for the agricultural sector is necessary, especially in a low monsoon season, tangible steps ought to be undertaken to prevent overdrawals by some at the expense of many. As is well known, connections are not metered leading to enormous power thefts going undetected and unpunished. Second, the Power Grid Corporation and the State Electricity Boards must enforce uniform grid compliance throughout the country, instead of giving in to the demands of the strong agricultural lobby in the north. Third, the Ministry of Power ought not to have given orders to draw from the eastern and north-eastern grids, leading to the second and larger grid failures on July 31. The choice was political and the decision impetuous. Instead of tracking down and preventing the overdrawing parties, the ministry chose a quickfix, which clearly backfired. Instead of restoring power in the national capital territory of New Delhi, it plunged half the country into darkness.

Interestingly, the CESC Ltd. which is India’s oldest privately owned electricity operator managed to save Calcutta from the crisis. It succeeded in pulling out of the eastern grid just moments before the grid collapsed, thus allowing the city to escape the fate that befell much of the country. The sensors at the synchronizing point, where the CESC system is connected to the West Bengal state grid, detected problems from the outside grid and acted just in time. Timely action saved Calcutta while inaction became the bane for the rest.

A former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in a personal interview once described the Indian strategic culture as characterized by jugaad, which is the colloquial Hindi for stop-gap solutions. A comical example that he drew upon was that of an Indian wedding  - done on a grand scale with not everything planned out and yet where things eventually “fall into place”. The Indian atomic energy programme however, although operating on a grand scale, has till now fallen short of falling into place, and the AEC has not yet succeeded in meeting its own estimates of electricity production. The inaction of the grid operators and the state electricity boards has a canny resemblance to this practice. They apparently believed that they could manage operating on the brink, without removing the overdrawing units. Jugaad depicts not merely a practice of over-reliance on stop-gap solutions but also the stark absence of an operational strategy to deal with crises and managing risks. Sadly this pervades all aspects of Indian political, economic and social life.

In all this commotion and blame game, the unremarkable story of the usually powerless went untold. On any given day, about 63% of India’s rural population does not have access to electricity. The great Indian grid failure thus not only pronounced the last rites on India’s great power dreams but also accomplished the rare feat of uniting urban middle-class India with its poor countryside cousin Bharat. After all, helplessness is human when powerlessness is national.

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