As many as eight States in North India suffered their worst power outage in a decade when the electricity grid collapsed in the early hours of Monday. Though essential services were put back on stream in a few hours, it took more than half a day for the authorities to fully restore supply to Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chandigarh. Worse, the northern grid, along with the grids of the east and the northeast, buckled again on Tuesday. Like other parts of the world, India has experienced major power outages before. But unlike elsewhere, where grid collapses are usually caused by freakish acts of nature, the latest darkness at noon in India is the result of poor long-term planning and abysmal lack of grid discipline. Several reasons have been attributed for the sudden collapse, but the most likely seems to be the perennial problem of overdrawing by one or more States. On Monday, the authorities had to requisition power from Bhutan, and draw from the western and eastern grids to maintain essential supplies in Delhi for instance. That it should have failed for the second consecutive day is shameful.
A three-member panel has been set up to get to the bottom of this mess and will report back in two weeks. But the broad reason for the breakdown is not a mystery. The Power Grid Corporation has consistently been complaining about the lack of discipline among States in the northern grid. However, beyond the immediate mechanics of getting States to share the electricity shortfall during peak times lie two problems that can only be solved in the medium to long-term. States have to do a lot more to augment their baseload generating capacity. Some 10,000-20,000 MW of nuclear power may become available by 2020 but conventional thermal will have to bridge the gap in the near-term. At the same time, we need to augment our peak-load generation – the lack of which, at this time of reduced rainfall, contributed to the latest grid collapse. This means accelerating the commissioning of gas-fired thermal stations and ensuring adequate supply of gas, as well as giving a big push to nonconventional energy sources. State governments need to understand that they should either find the funds to invest in power generation, or make it worthwhile for the private sector to set up new plants that can feed into the grid in order to cope with rising demand. Unfortunately, most of the power-deficit States have been delinquent in expanding their generating capacity and in cutting down transmission and distribution losses. These are long-term issues that India ignores at its peril.