India in the World – Part II: Power

We, the citizens of India do enjoy punishment. As if life was not tough enough with 40 degree winds blasting through the cities we have taken the suffering to a whole new level. In this post I will put some bones on the problems that we Indians face which makes life (to quote a friend) ‘hell’.

There are three main areas where small (but significant) improvements will lead to a big change in the quality of life of the population in general:

1) Power
2) Water
3) Transport

The key to everything is Power. That is why it is number one on my list. Both Electric Power and Political Power.

The common man suffers from the lack of both Political as well as Electric Power. Clearly voting once in 4 years is not good enough. The same way getting Electricity once a day is not good enough.

Let us deal with the easier problem of Electic Power first.

Why do we have a power shortage in India? Is it because we do not have enough money to generate power? Is it because we do not have the infrastructure? What is the reason then?
There are several reasons for this particular problem. So lets start at the source (power plant) and take it down the chain to the house of the common man.

A. The Power Plant
There is clearly a shortfall in generation capacity and demand. Check out the Power Grid Corporation’s Northern Regional Load Dispatch Center (http://www.nrldc.org/ – check their daily reports as well) for the proof. At the time of writing this post peak demand shortfall in North India was about 2000MW and off-peak about 1000MW. So that doesn’t look all that bad isnt it. I mean off peak shortage of 1000MW and peak of 2000MW… well then why not build a power plant to get rid of that?

It appears that the people at the Power Ministry (powermin.nic.in) have been working on doing just that. Also check out the ‘Power Scenario at a Glance’ section on their website. The funny bit is the gap between demand and supply of power has been steadily widening. From single digit percentages to double digits in certain regions. Overall since 2002-2003 the gap has increased from 12.2% to 17% (as of March 2008). So it is safe to assume that our Government has been caught napping on this one (what a surprise).

So what is the solution? Well naturally the Government says there is a shortfall lets get rid of this entirely! The magic solution is called ‘Ultra-mega Power Projects’. These are defined as power plants which generate 4000MW or above. All the projects taken together aim to create additional 100,000MW of generation capacity by 2012. So after ignoring the problem for years the Government now decides to throw everything including the kitchen sink at the problem hoping it is solved somehow.

All this sounds good to us sitting in the cities far away from these UMPPs but what we don’t realise is all of the UMPPs are going to be thermal plants based on coal. In other words god only knows how much pollution a 4000MW coal-based power plant creates. Anyone want to give me any number on this one?

Clearly the government is looking at economics of scale. Bigger power plant means lower cost per unit of power. But what about the long term impact? What about smaller projects which are sustainable? How about creating compact power plants which can be deployed in areas which suffer acute power shortages. Especially if these power plants are based on renewable sources of energy?

B. The Transmission Network
These are the long haul power lines which carry electricity from the power plants to distribution centers near major cities. The funny bit is these transmission cables are still using old technology. The problem is that just generating loads of extra electricity is not enough. You must be able to reach it to where it is needed, efficiently. This is what the Power Ministry website also talks about (taking an ‘integrated approach’).

The use of ‘new technology’ means using High Voltage Direct Current links for long haul transmission (would be used with UMPPs to deliver power directly to heavy demand areas such as NCR) . Currently there is only one HVDC link between Rihand (in UP where there is a thermal power plant) and Dadri (near Delhi).

C. The Distribution Network
This is where the problems get serious and the negative effect of ‘politics’ is the most. The distribution networks take up the power transmission from the long haul links. Here the voltage is reduced and bought closer to what is used for domestic and industrial applications. The problem is in a populated and not-so-well managed city like Delhi the distribution network is both old and severly stressed out. It is like asking an old man to do something that even a young man won’t be able to do. The challenge facing power discoms (distribution companies) is two-fold. Expanding and upgrading the network while maintaining (or improving) efficiency and ensuring power supply. This of course rarely happens.
A typical example (from my personal experience):

– There is a colony where the only transformer keeps overloading (and in the process sometimes catches fire). This results in long power cuts. Why? Because the discom doesn’t realise that due to the increased load the single transformer is doing the work of two transformers. Well eventually this fact does sink into their brains so they put a second transformer. But by now the power generated is not enough to meet the demand. So the power cuts continue!

Then of course there is a problem of power theft. It is not just the poor people who do that. It is mostly done by people like you and me! People carrying on commercial work on a domestic power supply. Overdrawing power by using multiple air-conditioners on the AC line. The poor people don’t have air-conditioners in every room or factories operating from their basements.
So in this case it is the civic attitude of the public. The prevailing attitude is: do whatever is required to survive and don’t care about other people. This needs to change.

Due to these factors the Transmission and Distribution losses at one time, in the not too distant past, were a whopping 50% (2002 before privatization of distribution)! As of 2006 October these have been reduced to about 35%.

This when coupled with the failures of the longhaul transmission system and the gap between demand and supply results in headlines like:

Gurgaon Power Crisis May Worsen Over Next Year As Shortages Reach Nearly 2500 Mega Watts

(February, 2008)

Apex court asks Delhi Govt. to file status report on power crisis

(Janurary, 2008)

 

My solution is a five pronged attack on the problem:

– Encourage greater private sector involvement and R&D (especially in renewable sources) effort in power generaton/transmission/distribution.

– Have a local as well as global plan to tackle shortfalls (this includes both short term and long term shortfalls).

– Use energy saving devices and encourage their use by the common man.

– Concentrate on renewable sources of electricity and implement Micro-Scale Power Projects especially for urban areas.

– Work towards community-based power production/transmission/distribution. Make people responsible for the power they use.

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