The blackouts are a reminder that the time for cosmetic changes in the power sector is over. It is time politics gave way to hard reason.

Two black-outs on consecutive days – the first in the northern region and the second, a far more serious one, affecting nearly 600 million people across the northern, eastern and north-eastern regions – are a grim reminder of the rampant indiscipline plaguing the country’s power system. In this case, a couple of States drew more electricity than agreed upon, bringing down in the process, the quality of power available in the grid. The absence of balance between consumption and generation, in turn, forced the power stations to back down as a safety measure, eventually resulting in practically the entire northern region suffering a grid collapse.

The culprits behind all this are known, but, as before, action is unlikely. It is not just a question of tightening the rules or making penalties more stringent for such acts. There is already a grid code in place to ensure integrated operations of the national power system, a permissible frequency range needed to be maintained at all times for its stability, and rules specifying the penalties to be levied on States that overdraw. The problem is the inability to enforce. The regional load despatch centres have no powers to cut off supplies to States violating the grid code, which only encourages them to commit such acts with impunity. In fact, many States have run up huge arrears in their so-called unscheduled interchange penalties, levied for not adhering to grid discipline. All this only reinforces the point that the time for mere cosmetic makeovers, as far as the power sector goes, is over. Right now, the problem may be due to the failure of the monsoon. Had the rains been normal, not only would more hydel generation have been possible, but paddy and sugarcane farmers in the North wouldn’t have had to run their electric motors overtime. The latter is what seems to have kept electricity demand high at this time, even with the peak summer load behind us. Either way, it has led to the States concerned resorting to overdrawal from the grid, instead of seeking to augment their own generation capacities. That, of course, is a more difficult task, when the distribution companies are bankrupt because of politicisation of tariff-setting and have no money to pay the generating firms, which, in turn, cannot expand their capacities. It is a vicious cycle, indeed.

The latest blackout should serve as the trigger for our politicians and planners to realise that the demand for electricity is increasing by the day, and tariffs have to match generation, transmission and distribution costs. Consumers are already paying a high price for poor electricity supply, in the form of inverters or noisy diesel gensets. The country requires an optimal mix of base load and peaking stations, with a small percentage as spinning reserve. It is also time to introduce time-of-day metering, wherein peak hour power is charged higher than in off-peak hours. And lastly, we need grid discipline to be enforced more effectively.

(This article was published on August 1, 2012)
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