Blackout a wake-up call for India

02 August 2012

India's power supply has been restored after two enormous outages that caused government to appoint a new power minister and industry to call for infrastructure fitting India's ambitions.

Across a two-day period the country's northern grid failed twice while parts of other large regional grids were also affected. Hundreds of millions of people were deprived of power, but communication of the incident was poor with little or no timely information from government departments or Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCI).

Director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry Chandrajit Banerjee said: "This is a telling commentary on the situation of the power sector in the country. Losses to businesses have been in thousands of crores [hundreds of millions of US dollars], which pales into insignificance when compared to the difficulty that the people of the country have had to face."

"As one of the emerging economies of the world, which is home to almost a sixth of the world population, it is imperative that our basic infrastructure requirements are in keeping with India's aspirations," said Banerjee.

Reaction from the government of India yesterday was to install Veerappa Moily as minister of power in addition to his current role as minister for corporate affairs. On his first day in the job, Moily said the ministry had already appointed an expert committee to investigate the grid collapses.

The outages

The first failure saw the almost total collapse of the country's northern grid at 2.35am on 30 July, affecting nine regions with a total population of over 390 million. PGCI said that it tackled the issue "immediately on a war-footing" but only managed to restore power supply to essential infrastructure such as airports, railways and underground rail after 5 hours. Full restoration of power supply came some 16 hours and 30 minutes after power first went down.

As if this were not enough, the country was hit again the next day. From 1.00pm on 31 July power supply was disrupted across an even wider region, with the the northern grid this time joined by parts of the eastern and north-eastern grids. PGCI said that "small pockets" of Kolkata, Naora and the capital Delhi avoided blackout.

The company began issuing regular announcements: Essential supply was back after 2 hours and 30 minutes while supply to the 16.7 million people of Delhi was back after 8 hours and 30 minutes. The whole system was reported normal only on 1 August at 9.30am - some 32 hours and 30 minutes after the outage began.

Incredible Indian challenges

India faces the extraordinary challenges of a huge and growing population, a rapidly developing economy and sprawling outdated infrastructure. Each state is responsible for the power it takes from the various grids, which PGCI is working to interconnect in order to gain generation efficiencies. At the same time distribution companies are struggling with debt and losses in the system are on average about 27%.

Moily said he wanted to restructure the distributors' debt to enable them to make the investments needed to tackle stolen power and general losses across the system. In some regions, losses are an incredible 70%, while in others officials have brought the level down to "single digits" said Moily. He noted that maintaining the "grid discipline" of state governments was "of vital importance to us," implying that part of the blame for blackouts could lie with the local governments.

A government scheme called Energy for All has seen 105,000 villages connected to the grid in recent years and 19.7 million households below the poverty line given free power supply. Not counting nuclear power, government plans saw 22,500 MWe of new generation capacity added in the last year and foresee another 55,000 MWe added by 2017.

Nuclear power plays a small but highly strategic role in power supply. The technology accounts for only 3.7% of power at present but extensive new build plans aim to raise this to 25% by 2050. The country has stuck with small reactors that fit the size of grid connections and has so far deployed twenty units with total generation capacity of 4385 MWe. A break from this strategy is coming with the operation of two Russian-supplied VVER-1000 units at Kudankulam and preparation to import more of these as well as units from other vendors - Areva EPRs, Westinghouse AP1000s and GE-Hitachi ABWRs.

Researched and written
by World Nuclear News