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Rapid growth triggers massive Indian power cuts

A series of severe blackouts that left 660M of India’s 1.2bn population without power for up to 18 hours last week has exposed major flaws in the country’s energy infrastructure, experts told NCE this week.

Power was knocked out for over 16 hours on 30 July when the Northern Grid failed. The following day there was an 18 hour power cut when two more of India’s five grids suddenly failed, affecting major cities including Delhi and Calcutta (see box).

State operator the Power Grid Corporation of India restored all power by 1 August but has so far failed to explain what triggered the shutdown.

Experts blamed the Indian government’s failure to invest in modernising the country’s infrastructure to keep up with the pace of economic growth.

“It’s a lack of leadership from government,” said the former chairman of India’s electricity regulator the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) Surendra Rao. “It’s not managing energy demands.”

Failure to monitor electricty use

He said each state electricity board - responsible for monitoring distribution - had failed to properly monitor energy use before the blackout.

As a result Rao said they most likely had failed to disconnect users - known as load shedding - when the system was close to overloading. This, he believes, led to catastrophic failure.

“The problem is [CEA] should have watched the grid closely and disconnected large users,” said Rao. “It didn’t happen.”

He called for stronger regulation to compel states to manage the power grids more effectively.

Fines levied on states drawing too much energy are only around 100,000 Rupees (£1,150) per day, giving little incentive to change practices.

Poor power supply management has been brought into focus by the demands of an 8% to 9% year-on-year increase in India’s gross domestic product over the past five years.

“It is a lack of leadership from government”

Surendra Rao, ex-Central Electricity Authority

Consultant Mott MacDonald divisional director and country manager, power Sadiq Dahfiq is based in Dehli. He said that there had been no reduction in India’s overall energy capacity shortfall, despite a 50GW increase in power capacity in the past five years. The shortfall remains at between 12% and 15% - the same as it was five years ago.

“Although capacity is increasing India is still not able to match the pace of demand to electricity,” he said.

He added that, in addition to India’s vast GDP growth, extra strain has been put on the power networks when the nation’s vast steam powered rail network was electrified. Further pressure has come from the installation of air conditioning across an increasingly affluent nation.

Air conditioning, combined with a seasonal hydro power generation shortfall, are both thought could have contributed to the latest blackout. Hydropower provides about 20% of India’s energy needs.

Experts also warned that India is struggling against grid losses of up 40%. Half of this loss was thought to be in transmission with the rest through electricity theft. By contrast, UK transmission losses account for between just 8% and 10%.


Lessons for the developed world

Energy market reform is key to the UK avoiding a similar blackout fate suffered by India, one energy expert told NCE this week.

Mott MacDonald power director Simon Harrison said that, while the UK’s national grid is unlikely to collapse, it is essential that reforms planned for the energy market deliver the investment that is needed to prevent capacity shortfalls in future.

“A more likely concern [for the UK] is if there is a shortage of generation capacity should the energy market reform not deliver investments,” said Harrison.

“If that were to happen then industry would be incentivised to reduce energy demand and that could lead to a shortfall of industrial output.”

He added the UK has a much more “integrated” national grid than the United States, which also suffered a major blackout in 2003.

“The US has a different power system focusing on nodes of generation and demand [around big cities],” added Harrison. “These big cities are weakly connected together.”

He added that since 2003 plans to improve the national grid connectivity in the US had been hampered by planning concerns.

But he said that concern about capacity shortfalls in the face of strong economic growth was not as acute.

“The US system is more advanced than the Indian grid and is not having the growth increases,” said Harrison.

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