Why the power grids failed last week and what can be done about it

Zakaria Siddiqui

The New York Times reported last week’s electricity grid failure in India as the biggest blackout in history, involving almost 600 million people in 21 states. This blackout affected the mammoth Indian Railways network, Metro network in Delhi,many hospitals and people at large in urban areas who enjoy a fair amount of access to electricity in their everyday life, though not reliably.

How it happened

Three of the five regional grid operators(known as Regional Load Dispatch Centres(RLDCs), representing the northern, eastern and north eastern regions)could not maintain stability in the frequency of their transmission systems. One can think of the frequency of transmission systems as a spring. If a spring is pulled from one end,it will extend and the frequency will fall. However, this fall in frequency can be balanced if the spring is pushed from the other end with a similar quantum of force. Similarly,if we draw too much power from the system (i.e., pull the spring from one end) without supporting production of power (i.e., pushing the spring from other end), the frequency of the transmission system will fall. That is exactly what happened last week.

The standard practice is to continuously ensure that pulling (demand for power) as well as pushing (production of power) is at the same level at all times so that frequency of the transmission system remains in the close band of 50 Hertz. This is the responsibility of the RLDCs. They failed in monitoring the balance between production and consumption, and this includes the balance on at the inter-regional level.The frequency can also fluctuate beyond the acceptable band because of extreme weather conditions and during periods of very high wind speed or extreme variation in temperature.

Some newspapers reported that Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan refused to adhere to grid discipline and continued to overdraw power despite repeated warnings by the Northern Regional Load Dispatch Centre (NRLDC) and other state centres, seriously endangering grid safety. Even more shocking is the fact that most of these states have refused to install under frequency relays (UFRs) for automatic demand management schemes, which could have prevented such a massive failure. Similarly, the states overdrew power when the grid frequency was below 49.5 Hz and even 48.8 Hz, in contravention of the orders of the regulatory authority and load despatch centres. Surendra Rao, formerly India’s top electricity regulator, said “the national grid had a sophisticated system of circuit breakers that should have prevented such a blackout” and attributed last week’s problems to the bureaucrats who control the system, saying that civil servants are beholden to elected state leaders who demand that more power be diverted to their regions — even if doing so threatens the stability of the national grid. He also mentioned that “the dispatchers at both the state and the regional level should have cut off the customers who were over-drawing, and they didn’t. That has to be investigated.”

The real issues

Such failures take place because regulatory agencies and state officials at state-owned transmission and distribution utilities cannot act independently even if they have the mandate to do so on paper. Politicians directly appoint and fund them, and can transfer them to other departments and organisations if officials do not act according to their whims and fancies and ignore regulator-set standards, and that is how they exert pressure on regulators and simultaneously avoid accountability for disruptions in the system to ensure their vote banks. While legal amendments may be necessary to restrain politicians from intervening in the day-to-day management and functioning of the electricity industry, it is critical that the media and non-government agencies ensure transparency in its operation.

We must differentiate between political interventions of two kinds—policy interventions and management interventions. While policy-making is the legitimate domain of politicians, management of the utility industry is the domain of regulators and utility companies. Regulators are expected to decide operating standards, prices and ensure compliance by utility companies with the laws and policies laid down by politicians.

A large chunk of the Indian population has no access to electricity and the rest frequently experience blackouts, but many newspapersmissed the opportunity to report this. India is one of the most energy-deprived societies in the world—the numbers for energy-related deprivation in India is mindboggling. The latest NSS survey (2009-10) data reveals that 46 per cent of rural Indians (383.2 million people) live by the dim light of kerosene lampsas they lack access to electricity. Nearly 88 per cent of rural households(733 million rural Indians)are yet to have access to clean cooking facilities (kerosene and liquefied petroleum gas)and save their women and children from the smoke emitted from traditional chullahs. And if you look at the major states that experienced last week’s blackout, the figures are much more alarming. Access to electricity and clean cooking (i.e., LPG or kerosene)among the bottom or poorest 30 per cent of the rural population in the major states of that experienced blackout is extremely poor (see table).

States Access to electricityamong bottom 30% of rural population (in precent) Access to clean cooking (i.e, Kerosene and LPG) among bottom 30% of rural population
Assam 26.8 4.1
Bihar and Jharkhand 16.3 1.3
UP and Uttarakhand 22.3 1.1
West Bengal 36.4 1.4

Source: Computed from NSS unit level data on Consumption Expenditure of 66th round (2009-10)

Such levels of deprivation imply that the rural population of our fast-growing economy lives largely without any touch of modernity in their energy usage, particularly for cooking. But our media and policy makers alike are hardly concerned. Especially,’dirty’ cooking fuel differentially affects the health of women and children, impairing a healthy future for India. Such deprivations are at the heart of India’s unequal growth process and dismal performance on human development even after a prolonged period of growth.

Ensuring access to electricity has been in the political agenda since Independence. Even currently, we have the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, which aims to provide universal access to electricity in rural areas. In 2007, the World Health Organization reported that nearly four lakh premature deaths take place every year in India due to indoor air pollution. Access to clean cooking has never got its due attention from our political class or policy makers, and is strongly associated with the lack of women’s empowerment in our political space.

The recent slowdown in growth rates served as a gentle reminder that our high growth trajectory cannot be sustained unless we address the paucity of human capital in our country and improve our human development score, particularly the non-income component (health and education). This can come only when we have universal access in rural areas to clean energy for cooking and lighting as lack of access to proper illumination (electricity) reduces the economically productive and study hours for households and affects the health of women and girl children.