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LET THERE BE LIGHT
- India can expect its power system to improve slowly but steadily

All Indians must have been mightily amused by the front-page headlines and the continuous talk of an “emerging crisis”, when the electricity failed in much of the United States of America. Blackouts are a daily occurrence outside metropolitan towns. Even in these privileged places, the electricity fails for a while almost every day. India must be the largest market in the world for stabilizers, inverters and other devices to give backup power and protect delicate equipment from being harmed by sudden power voltage surge or complete power failure. Also for a variety of stand-by generators, varying from those suitable for apartments to factories of different sizes. While no one knows for sure, the “captive” generation capacity in India is estimated at an additional 25 per cent or so of the 105,000 megawatts of generation capacity in the country. This is not counting the smaller generators used in small factories, shops and residences.

Despite this, a team of three from the federal energy regulatory commission of the US is to visit India for studying how we manage our grid. A member of FERC who was visiting the central energy regulatory commission (of India) in 2000 commented that our interconnected grid and the national electricity grid code, that we were then preparing to approve, were what was needed in the US. Federal constitutions as in the US and in India make protection of states’ rights almost nationalistic in fervour. People and politicians forget that electricity follows the laws of physics. It does not care about political boundaries. It will flow along any line that is available.

When your coal is largely in the North and in the East, as are your hydropower stations, as in India, power has to flow over long distances to the consuming areas. Many of the transmission lines on which it flows are state-owned. If those lines are not maintained well and if there is not adequate capacity in them, the power will not flow and be wasted. During times of the year, power in the East and Northeast is wasted because there is still inadequate transmission capacity. But things are getting better as the Central government is investing heavily in inter-state transmission. But state governments are bankrupt, and in many states the intra-state lines are badly maintained, with little investment in new lines.

But in India there has been considerable centralization, with states becoming less vigorous in electricity. In the US however, states’ rights are carried so far that many states have blocked inter-state transmission lines from being built so that they can sell their power at high rates to a contiguous state. This does not happen in India.

The single greatest weakness of electricity in India has been that it is a concurrent subject under the Constitution. States have not bothered about commercial viability or with good management. As a result every state has a bankrupt and inefficient electricity system that cannot ensure that electricity is available and at affordable rates. But because we are able to move electricity over long distances, a lot more power has been made available to deficit states. This capability is improving. We also regulate our inter-state movement of electricity very well, better than states do within their boundaries. The US can learn from how we do it. But they can do so only if they resolve their political problem of states’ rights as they apply to electricity.

Electricity quality is measured by two main parameters — frequency and voltage. If frequency varies beyond a very small margin from the norm, large moving equipment like turbines in power stations, equipment in steel plants, textile mills, and so on, suffer expensive damage. In India, there is no measurement of this damage whose cost must be enormous. There is no possibility that power companies and regulators that allow such frequency variation to happen can be penalized for their negligence.

Frequency has been brought under better control in most of India by an order issued by the CERC called the “availability-based tariff”. This is a commercial mechanism to introduce discipline among electricity generating stations and load distributors. It has worked very well, although state electricity boards and most Central government electricity companies bitterly resisted its introduction and tied it up in the courts for many years.

To understand it, we can use the analogy of road traffic. Two cars or any two objects cannot occupy the same space on the road. So there are rules and signals. Roads and other equipment must be properly maintained. There must be monitoring and policing of traffic. Electricity is far more complicated because it must have transmission lines. ABT punished electricity generators and distribution companies for indiscipline on the electricity grid. They are fined heavily for exceeding or falling short of their forecasts. This enables others in the system to make extra profit by supplying when electricity is short and buying when it is in surplus. The fines, charged to those who forecasted wrongly, are available to give better or lower prices to the ones who came to the rescue of the system by supplying or using the power.

The other measure of quality is voltage that also fluctuates widely and damages delicate electronic and other electrical equipment. Voltage is also improving in India due to similar actions by the regulators. Neither frequency nor voltage has been a problem in the US. However, in the recent blackout, frequency must have gone out of the desirable limits. The system must then have begun shutting down to protect itself.

India has also had widespread system collapses or “blackouts” like the one recently in the US. Blackouts occur because the generating and distributing equipment are designed to shut down when the supply or demand goes beyond equilibrium and consequently the frequency goes beyond limits that the equipment can tolerate. When this happened in January 2001 in the North, the CERC called an emergency hearing to establish who the culprit was. This had never been done before. CERC came out with its findings within two days. The culprits were Central-government-owned generating companies and the Uttar Pradesh state electricity board. One had continued to push electricity into the system when they should have reduced it to safeguard the system because the demand was less and hence the frequency was rising. The other had not maintained the lines within the state and that caused less power to flow on those lines. The result was an unacceptable rise in frequency. The regional load despatch centre (that is the traffic policeman of the grid) kept issuing warnings. Both parties did not heed them. The despatch centre’s overseer, the central transmission utility, also did not give the load despatch centre enough support against the violators.

By the next grid collapse in the West, the lessons had been learnt. The system worked well. The culprit was Madhya Pradesh that kept drawing more power than it had been given despite many warnings. The state was fined. Others in the system saved the system. The engineers were alert and ensured that they were not leaving it only to their computers, but they were monitoring the system in person. They were able to bring the system back into operation quickly.

The Indian regulatory environment is working. Our system may creak and not have enough electricity for all at affordable prices but yet it is better able to avoid blackouts than it was some years ago. We are also able to use our surpluses in one part of India to meet the deficits in another. As transmission improves and electricity trading takes off, this will get better. We can expect our power situation to improve slowly but steadily. However, we need to learn a great deal from the US. We are certainly no model electricity system who can invite other countries to copy us.

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