Thursday, August 2, 2012

India's electricity mess

The massive power blackout in 20 states of North, East, and the Northeast of India, for several hours, affecting 670 million people should serve as a rude wake up call on arguably India's biggest infrastructure bottleneck - electricity generation and transmission.

Amidst all the search for explanations, it cannot be denied that the the immediate cause for the blackout is a simple and shocking grid management failure at multiple levels. The load management centers at the utility, state, and regional levels are supposed to monitor the grid drawls and the frequency of transmission. If the drawl exceeds the utility/state's allocation or if the transmission frequency falls below 49.5 Hz, the load managers at each level are supposed to activate circuit breakers and cut off certain outgoing feeders that provide load relief.

There is a system of cascading accountability. If the utility continues to overdraw, the state level managers are supposed to disconnect supply to certain incoming 132 KV feeders to the utility, thereby forcing load reliefs. Similarly, for the state as a whole, if its load managers fail to respond with required load reliefs, the load managers of the Power Grid Corporation of India are supposed to cut off the state's incoming 220KV or 400 KV feeders so as to offset the excess drawl. Instructions to provide load relief gets transmitted down to the utility and state, and if this fails to elicit the desired response, the feeders are forcibly tripped off.  

In simple terms, Blackout Tuesday was triggered off by simultaneous failures in monitoring at three levels. Given the commonplace nature of this monitoring and the widespread instances of forced load reliefs, it strains credulity that it was a case of simple monitoring failure. The NYT quoted a  previous regulator who captured this failure appropriately,
He attributed this week’s problems to the bureaucrats who control the system, saying that civil servants are beholden to elected state leaders who demand that more power be diverted to their regions — even if doing so threatens the stability of the national grid.
This failure should not be glossed over. The simple management failure should not be confused with the larger policy failings. Without getting into the reasons for overdrawls nor that for inadequate generation, those responsible for this failure should be held accountable in the interest of ensuring future grid discipline. The over-drawing states of UP, Rajasthan, Haryana, and Punjab should be suitably penalized so as to deter others from persistent overdrawls. India's wildly overstretched electricity sector - hobbled with problems in generation, transmission, and distribution - will collapse if basic grid discipline breaks down.

All talk about the need to have excess capacity of stand-by peaking power plants to meet such contingencies of excess drawls is largely superfluous. Leave alone adequate level of generation and transmission redundancies, we are some way off from even having adequate off-peak time capacity. In the circumstances, the least that can be done to prevent things worsening further is to do everything possible to maintain grid discipline.

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