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Worst India Outage Highlights 60 Years of Missed Targets

August 01, 2012

Worst India Outage Highlights 60 Years of Missed Targets

Indian passengers wait on the platform of Sealdah train station for the resumption of services during a power failure in Kolkata on July 31, 2012. Photographer: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

India’s worst-ever power crisis is the legacy of 60 years of missed investment targets and on current projections fixing the nation’s electricity supply is still decades away.

The network in Asia’s third-largest economy loses 27 percent of the power it carries through dissipation from wires and theft, while peak supply falls short of demand by an average of 9 percent, according to India’s Central Electricity Authority. Some 300 million people, or one in every four, remain without links to the grid and the number will still be about 150 million by 2030, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

Power was restored in all areas after a blackout yesterday across the north and east of the country, the second in two days, left more than 640 million people without electricity. It forced homes and businesses to switch to back-up supplies, halted trains and public transport and caused traffic jams. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in response will probably speed approvals for coal mining and power plants, Planning Commission energy adviser I.A. Khan said in a phone interview, developments that will take years to build.

“The proximate cause of a power outage on this scale almost always seems trivial,” said Michael Parker, an analyst in Hong Kong with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “The blackout highlights the big underlying issue India faces in terms of infrastructure quality. To keep the lights on, India needs to add power capacity, build robust transmission and distribution systems, ensure fuel supply and transport and reform power pricing. Most of that is expensive.”

Missed Targets

Power Grid Corp. of India, the nation’s largest transmission company, was little changed at 119 rupees at the close in Mumbai. The stock has gained 11 percent in the past year, compared with 5.8 percent drop in the benchmark Sensitive Index. (SENSEX)

India has missed every capacity addition target since 1951, underscoring the urgency behind Singh’s effort to make $400 billion in investments, or 40 percent of the total spend planned on infrastructure, over the next five years, according to Power Secretary P. Uma Shankar, the top bureaucrat in India’s power ministry.

The world’s second-most populous nation suffers from frequent power outages that can last as long as 10 hours, amid summer temperatures of as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the capital, New Delhi. Power supply shortages shave about 1.2 percentage points off the nation’s annual growth, according to the Planning Commission.

Excessive Draw Downs

States usually contract power purchases a day in advance, according to Jayant Deo, managing director of the Indian Energy Exchange Ltd. Some end up drawing more power than contracted, and are charged a penalty for the additional purchases. When a buyer draws more than is due, the frequency at which the grid operates drops, causing the system to collapse and forcing power plants connected to it to shut down.

It was excessive draw downs by states in north India which caused the grid to collapse this week, said R.N. Nayak, chairman of state-run Power Grid (PWGR), which carries half of the electricity India generates.

Ten north Indian power transmission companies and eight electricity dispatch centers had already been censured for drawing more power than their due between Jan. 1 and March 25 and on July 10 the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana were ordered by the Planning Commission to cease overdrawals from the grid to maintain its safety. As of July 30, the overdrawals were continuing, the Commission said.

Price Controls

Coal and natural gas supply shortages and the lowest monsoon rains in three years have cut electricity generation in India, even as demand continues to grow, putting additional stress on the grid. Power stations, including those operated by NTPC Ltd. (NTPC) and billionaire Anil Ambani-controlled Reliance Power Ltd. (RPWR), in north India feed electricity into the grid.

India’s government controls the price of electricity and the coal used to produce it as it seeks to reduce costs in the country where about 800 million people live on less than $2 a day. That crimps utilities’ profitability and investment. The nation also needs to improve its coal output and transportation, Bernstein’s Parker said. Prime Minister Singh is seeking $1 trillion in investment in the five years to 2017 to build out an infrastructure that is currently ranked below Kazakhstan and Guatemala by the World Economic Forum.

Extra Demand

Power Grid, established in 1989, is setting up a nationwide grid to integrate the country’s five electrical regions. It plans to spend 1 trillion rupees ($18 billion) in the next five years to double capacity, said I.S. Jha, director for projects.

Four states in northern India - Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Uttarakhand - together drew an average 47.4 million units of extra power a day from the grid in the week starting July 10, according to the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission. That’s equivalent to 6 percent of the electricity generated in the northern region on July 27, according to Central Electricity Authority data.

“For long-term solution to such grid indiscipline, it’s important all utilities bridge their demand-supply gap and that’s only possible when their financial health allows them to contract adequate power purchases and pay for it,” said Debasish Mishra, senior director at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

Permits for coal mines and land for power plants will probably now be allocated at a swifter pace, the Planning Commission’s Khan said, helping at least $33 billion of stalled projects get off the ground.

Generation Capacity

“The concern is more about our generation capacity,” Khan said. “If states had enough power, they would not overdraw and bring us to this crisis situation.”

India added about 55,000 megawatts of capacity in the five years ended March 31, 30 percent less than targeted. The country has set itself a goal of adding 76,000 megawatts of capacity in the five years to March 2017.

The nation depends on coal to generate more than half of its electricity. Supply from Coal India Ltd. (COAL), the world’s biggest producer, lags behind demand, causing power stations to operate below capacity. Some plants are unable to afford more expensive imported coal because of India’s domestic price controls on electricity.

Eighteen of 89 coal-fired power stations in India had “super-critical” stockpiles, or less than four days of supply, and 33 had less than seven days, according to Central Electricity Authority data for July 29. That compares with 14 plants with super-critical stockpiles on July 1.

Hydroelectricity Supply

The shortage of coal has become more acute because the country’s worst monsoon in three years has hit India’s hydroelectricity generation. Hydroelectricity supply in June shrank 5.5 percent from a year earlier, the first year-on-year decline since 2009, according to the Central Electricity Authority.

“There is a need to ramp up power capacity on a war footing,” said Raju V. Kanoria, president of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Coal and gas is a prerequisite for spurring investments in the power sector and reforms that will help make these fuels available must no longer be held back.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Rajesh Kumar Singh in New Delhi at rsingh133@bloomberg.net; Rakteem Katakey in New Delhi at rkatakey@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jason Rogers at jrogers73@bloomberg.net


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