Darkness at noon: What ails the power sector?

Dr. E A S Sarma


Former Union Power Secretary, Govt of India

Know more about Dr. Sarma HERE.

The two successive blackouts on July 30th and 31st, each lasting more than ten hours, caused a havoc in throughout northern India. Whatever be the excuses put forward by the government, years of neglect of power sector reform and misplaced investment priorities are at the root of the crisis.

On the first blackout day, confronted with a volley of questions from the tormented electricity users, the Union Power Minister nonchalantly tried to explain away on the TV channels, saying how his Ministry was planning huge generation capacity additions and how the situation would improve in the “coming years”. He tried to place the blame on power overdrawals by some ‘errant’ States. He even tried to take cover behind a blackout that occurred in New York some years ago, saying that we should not view the latest blackout in our country so seriously when even developed countries in the west faced such problems. He was so anxious to prove the point that he proudly informed the impatient questioners that some of the developed countries had sought advice from the Indian power sector experts on solving the blackout problems in the west. What he however forgot to say conveniently was that we rarely heeded to the advice of the very same experts, who provided excellent advice to the others!

The problems faced by the residents of Delhi and the other places were of immediate urgency. They wanted to know why such a debilitating grid collapse was allowed to occur in the first instance and why it had taken such a long time for the authorities to restore power supplies. There was visible anger in their voice. They wanted immediate solution to the problem, not verbose generalisations. As if to call the bluff, there was a multiple grid collapse the next day, a sequence of crises that cannot easily be forgotten for a long, long time.

There are eight State grids interconnected through high-voltage alternate-current (HVAC) links in the northern region. There are a few crucial high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) links also that transfer bulk power among the States according to an established formula. There are several high-voltage transformers that step up and step down voltages in the system. There are both State and Regional Load Dispatch Centres, with state-of-art technology, that keep a minute-to-minute tab on the power system health and trigger preventive and corrective action. When there is failure in anyone of these protective systems, grid collapses occur. Responses to crisis situations should be automatic, not manual. They should be based on highly sensitive, quickly responding, automated under-frequency relays that isolate the troubled portions of the grid before the contagion spreads and cascades into a serious crisis. A failure in any of these can cascade into a grid collapse, unless the troubled segment is isolated fast from the rest of the grid.

The power drawals in each State should match power availability. If the demand exceeds the availability, the frequency drops dangerously causing the tripping of the system. Before that happens, the demand needs to be managed prudently. Also, when the power availability exceeds the demand, the frequency can shoot up dangerously. Then, it becomes necessary to back down some generation. Both high and low frequencies, beyond certain reasonable limits, damage the power equipment and cause power plants to trip, which in turn can cascade into blackouts of the kind witnessed on 30th and 31st.

Apart from automated under-frequency relays and other protective means required to safeguard the grid stability, electricity tariff linked to the system frequency with inbuilt incentives and penalties for maintaining discipline in load management can facilitate system equilibrium. The “availability” tariff introduced by the Union Power Ministry years ago was aimed at this.

One disturbing aspect of India’s power planning is that there is greater emphasis on adding new generation capacity than directing investment towards improving the operation of the existing power plants and strengthening the transmission and distribution (T&D) system. There is inadequacy in investment on T&D, especially on reliable high voltage transformers and their proper maintenance, as well as on protective equipment that responds automatically to the crises. The excuse put forward by the Union Power Ministry that “warnings” had not been heeded to by some States to cut down their electricity drawals reflects the fragility of system management procedures. The Ministry should take the States on board and evolve a lasting institutional arrangement, backed up by modern technology, to prevent such crises to recur.

The government should immediately review the extent to which the lessons drawn from the earlier blackouts were followed up and whether the investments in the transmission segment, recommended by the expert committees, were actually made.

We need to look at every failure as an opportunity to learn, not an inconvenient episode to be quickly forgotten. Instead of addressing the real problems, technical, commercial and institutional, the Centre and the States are trying to divert public attention from it to a mutual blame game that leads us nowhere. The crisis has catapulted the man at the helm of affairs to the Home Ministry. The Power Ministry has now slipped down the ladder of importance with the Law Minister asked to “look after” it as a second charge! Such flippant, unprofessional responses to major disasters are not going to provide solutions.




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