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Why Indian engineers are warning of prolonged blackouts amidst heatwave

By Shankar Sharma* 

A news article in "The Guardian" has raised a critical issue for the satisfactory operation of the national power grid in India. It says among other things:
"Engineers in India have warned of the possibility of prolonged power outages in the north, where a heatwave has brought misery for millions of people. Demand for electricity has soared due to fans, air coolers and air conditioners being run constantly, placing a strain on the grid in Delhi and elsewhere in the north. Manufacturers of air conditioners and air coolers report sales rising by 40-50% compared with last summer. Power consumption in the northern state of Punjab has increased by 43% so far this month compared with the same period last year.
"The All India Power Engineers Federation has written to the state government saying the situation is becoming more serious by the day and that a grid outage in Punjab could have a domino effect on the rest of the country. 'If the situation continues, there are fair chances of a grid disturbance,' the federation said."
Whereas, there is nothing new and earth shaking information in this article, what is important to note is that such serious power sector concerns are being increasingly discussed in overseas media houses too. Many of our own people and energy entities have been highlighting many of the associated concerns during the last many years, but no credence has been given to such warnings by our authorities, which is truly unfortunate for the overall welfare of the country.
Since the associated larger issues of potential grid collapses, along with enormous economic and social costs to our people, can also have ramifications on overseas investments, and to the larger national economy itself, can the people of this country hope to see some effective actions by our authorities, before it becomes too costly and too late? Can we also hope that such troubling media glare by the international press on our power sector management will now push the much wider domestic concerns to the fore?
The continuing increase in demand for air conditioners and air coolers from all over the country, because of the increasing atmospheric temperatures and the incidence of heat wave conditions, will add massively to the increasing electricity/ energy demand, which can be attributed to the growing aspirations of our people. It will be an unmitigated disaster, for the country as a whole, to continue to hope/ act to avert such grid failures through the BAU scenario of ever expanding the capacity and coverage area of the grid. What is needed urgently, is an adequate focus to minimise the very demand for appliances such as grid connected air conditioners and air coolers through effective action plans to arrest the run-away local atmospheric temperatures.
I have been writing to the concerned authorities during the last 20 years urging them to provide a much higher focus on demand side management (DSM) to contain not only the run-away peak demand on the grid, but also on the annual energy demand on the grid for obvious reasons; which are the unacceptable societal level additional costs of meeting such increases in demand. But sadly, the focus in our power sector policies have been to encourage the ever expanding capacity and expansion of the grid at enormous societal level costs; although multiple options available to our society to contain/ reduce the grid demand are not looked at seriously.
My own modest experience as a power sector professional for over 40 years, including many years in power grid monitoring roles of the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), convinces me that the country has spent horrendously in increasing the power generating capacity, and in grid expansion since independence, and that there is no need to further expand these infrastructures to the extent that is being planned for the next 20-30 years. 
 If our authorities care to optimise the utilisation of the existing power infrastructure with adequate focus on highest possible efficiencies, optimal DSM, innovative energy conservation, distributed kinds of renewable energy sources, mini/ micro/ smart grids, battery energy storage systems (BESS), suitable economic decision making tools such as costs & benefits analysis, and effective public participation, our country can satisfactorily meet the future electricity/ energy demand on a long term basis without having to spend massively on such costly infrastructures.
The country has spent horrendously in increasing the power generating capacity, and in grid expansion since independence
One such option is to install, on a priority basis, suitably designed rooftop SPV systems in everyone of the suitable houses, IP sets, streetlights, commercial establishments, sports stadia, railways properties, hospitals, educational institutions, FCI storage facilities etc., and all other installations/ structures with good roof top surface areas, along with provision for grid interface and backed up by BESS.
The other option with cross-sectorial relevance and massive benefits to the larger society is to make all possible efforts to increase the green cover in urban areas, through road side trees, parks, urban conservation areas, reduced sizes of our cities/ towns etc. The other critical need/ option is to minimise/ stop diverting our forest lands to various projects until the forest and tree cover in the country (in every state/ district/ taluk/ town) reaches at least 33% of the land area, as per the target in the national forest policy.
There is also a critical need to diligently review our high GDP growth rate paradigm in the overall context of the true health of our natural resources; pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil; fast shrinking forest and agricultural lands; food security; and the escalating threats of climate change. It will be appropriate to highlight what the UN Secretary General has recently stated on the occasion of World Environment Day. He said: "the battle to secure the planet's future will be won or lost in the next 18 months."
Without such a holistic and multi-sectoral approach to the overall welfare needs of our people, our power sector will continue to incur enormous societal level costs, but still will be unable to meet our expectations.
The concerned authorities in the power sector should for prepare effective discussion papers addressing other ministries of environment, forests and climate change, urban and rural developments, roads, railways, agriculture, water management, NITI Aayog, PMO, and all the state governments urging them to take suitable and effective measures all the associated concerns.
And without a diligently prepared national energy policy, which would cover all such relevant policies, every associated concern of the power sector will continue to haunt our communities.
---
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on the author's representation to the Union power secretary and the Union new and renewable energy secretary, among others

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