Smart grid will help India avoid future blackouts

Surupa Mahto OvumThe two recent blackouts in India were mainly caused by the failure of India’s electricity infrastructure to meet increasing demand for power. Poor policy frameworks, aging transmission infrastructure, and ailing distribution companies have all contributed to this increasing gap between supply and demand. In order to avoid these types of large-scale blackouts in the future, India needs to upgrade its transmission and distribution network, and invest heavily in smart grid technology.

The first blackout occurred on July 30, 2012, affecting nearly 350 million people in the northern region of the country. In an effort to restore electricity, power was drawn from the eastern and north-eastern grids. This measure proved to be only temporary as the northern grid collapsed again on July 31, 2012, this time bringing down the eastern and the north-eastern grids with it.

The second blackout affected more than 600 million people and interrupted rail, metro, road traffic, and hospital services. The blackout was the largest in history, bringing around half of the country to a standstill.

There is a strong need to reform India’s power sector

The blackouts raise many questions regarding India’s existing grid infrastructure. Rapid population growth, economic development, industrialization, and urbanization in India have caused an inexorable rise in the demand for electricity. Although India has increased its power-generation capacity, it still lacks the strong policies and robust transmission and distribution infrastructure required to support this growing demand.

In 1991, the government opened the power-generation market to private companies as part of electricity reforms, but the power sector is still largely run by government-controlled entities. Private companies such as Tata Power and Reliance Power are now increasing their share of the power-generation market, but these companies are still struggling to establish power plants quickly, due to issues related to acquiring land and fuel shortage. While generation reforms have been passed, transmission and distribution networks suffer from chronic underinvestment and a blatant disregard for regulatory orders, fuelled by states’ self-interest.

At the time of blackout, the states of Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Punjab were overdrawing power from the northern grid. This was not the first instance of these states drawing excessive power from the grid. The Northern Regional Load Dispatch Centre (NRLDC) has issued several warnings to state transmission companies and filed a petition with the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC), alleging that state transmission companies in Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu, Kashmir, and other state authorities were drawing excessive power. The commission heard the petition on May 31, 2012, and ordered the state transmission companies to reduce their power consumption on July 10, 2012. However, many state transmission companies continued to draw excessive power, violating the order.

Investment in smart grid is a key to avoiding future blackouts

While the huge blackouts of July 2012 made the headlines, business-as-usual issues in the Indian power sector include huge losses in transmission and distribution, rampant electricity theft, grid infrastructure that is not fit for purpose, power supply shortfalls, low metering penetration, hugely subsidized tariffs, and the gifting of free power to politically important sectors of the population. The inefficiencies of the power value chain are seen as posing a huge risk to industrial growth in India, yet reform seems impossible. Now, the question is whether these huge blackouts will spur radical regulatory reform of the power sector.

As there is very little possibility that government will charge citizens more to save the drowning power sector, investment in smart grid technologies could be a solution to address transmission losses, load management issues, and malfunction of distribution and transmission substations. The smart grid system will help to automate the demand management system, reduce energy usage during peak hours, and improve fault detection processes.

The author, Surupa Mahto, is an Analyst on Energy & Sustainability Technology at Ovum