Electricity supply crashed across a vast swathe of India for the second time in 36 hours, disrupting lives of over 600 million people and presenting an unflattering picture of an aspiring superpower struggling to provide even basic power.
The outage made headlines around the globe as the world’s biggest blackout turned the spotlight on years of neglect of the power sector that is crying for reform and threatening to choke economic growth. India’s image of an information technology hub and the back office for the world took a beating as jittery clients questioned the ability of companies to provide uninterrupted services.
The northern, eastern and northeastern grids, or networks that connect producers with commercial and domestic consumers, collapsed dramatically after 1 pm, disrupting 300 trains and leaving hundreds of commuters stranded in dark, dingy tunnels of the Delhi Metro. In West Bengal, more than 200 coal miners were stranded underground for hours because of the outage while Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared a holiday from 3 pm.
In the Capital, the government cited “disturbance of general life caused due to failure of power” as a reason for extending the last date for filing income-tax returnsby a month to August 31. The outage led to a spurt in diesel sales as people rushed to buy fuel for standby generation.
NTPC Chairman Arup Roy Choudhury said 62 of the company’s units with a capacity of 14,000 mw tripped due to the collapse, but were expected to resume generation by Wednesday morning. A grid can collapse if the load suddenly shoots up. This reduces the frequency of the current, which triggers automatic shutdown of power stations.
Power regulator threatens to penalise states
This magnifies the demand-supply mismatch and trips other plants and blacks out the entire region. Southern India survived the crisis because its regional grid is not properly synchronised with the rest of the country.
Some states such as Uttar Pradesh drew excessive power, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde said before he was named the new home minister of the country. The power regulator cautioned northern states, including Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Haryana, and threatened to penalise them for drawing excess power from the grid. However, officials in these states firmly denied any violation of grid discipline.
Power Grid Corporation Chairman and Managing Director RN Nayak said the breakdown may have been triggered by tripping of lines at interconnected points. He also said states and utilities were being asked to refrain from drawing excessive power. He said the system, which worked successfully for years, would not trip again.
“We want to assure you that the grid failure will not happen again. We have been operating the grid for several years and this is not something new to us. The country is in safe hands,” Nayak said.
His assurance should calm businessmen and factory owners, particularly small and medium enterprises, which suffer from erratic supplies.
“Our entire sector is shut. The fluctuation in electricity is so frequent that it is not viable to carry out any operations. The economic effect of the power shutdown will be huge and will impact most of the players in our sector. It is a major blow to medium size units,” said HL Bharadwaj, secretary general of the Federation of Industries of India, which represents small and medium enterprises.
Bigger companies across steel, cement, consumer goods and auto sectors said they were not affected much because they already have adequate arrangements for standby generation, given the already erratic supply. However, industry leaders were concerned about the damage to the country’s image.
“The power outage does not reflect well on India. It shows weakness in the country’s physical infrastructure and accentuates the need for reforms in the power sector,” said Sunil Munjal, joint MD, Hero Honda.
Chandrajit Banerjee, director-general, Confederation of Indian Industry, said repeated grid failures had hurt India’s image.
“Repeated occurrences of grid failures carry a very negative image of India, when already sentiments about the country are low on account of the current economic situation and related developments. As one of the emerging economies of the world, which is home to almost a sixth of the world’s population, it is imperative that our basic infrastructure requirements are in keeping with India’s aspirations. The developments of yesterday and today have created a huge dent in the country’s reputation that is most unfortunate,” he said.
However, some experts said the grids have several levels of security and mechanisms to disconnect excessive load, which may suggest that successive breakdowns signal a fault in transmission.
Analysts say state electricity boards often draw excessive power instead of making advance arrangements or spot purchases, which are more costly. Most electricity boards are in a financial mess and take decisions based on political considerations.
Suresh Prabhu, former power minister, said the collapse of the grid reflected the mess in the power sector. “Grid failure is in fact a symptomatic display of deep malaise in power sector governance, policy failure, lack of coordination between various agencies, absence of grid discipline… and a sheer drift of a crucial sector, a heart of our socioeconomic life.”
Anil Razdan, former power secretary, said states need to be more disciplined. “It’s been basically a governance failure; repeated failure of state transmission companies to heed advice. They have violated three advices - the central ministry, load dispatch centers and regulatory commissions. They may be having compulsions at the moment. They cannot be allowed to endanger other states and other parts of the country,” he said.
Gopal Saxena, CEO of BSES Rajdhani Power Ltd, agreed but said grid discipline may not be the only factor. “I believe overdrawal is a major concern, but if that is the only reason I don’t know,” he said.
Power sector experts said reforms in the sector were vital to improve the situation. “You need to ramp up your generation capacity. You need to ramp up fuel production. You need to build up peaking power stations, gas based at major load centres so that you need to meet sudden peaks,” Razdan said.