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Charge of the light brigade
The future isn't black. India needs to up power generation, acquire global fuel assets, and focus on renewable energy.
For two consecutive days last week, north India suffered spectacular outages, rated the worst in the world. The East and North-East suffered as well the second day. While 70 crore Indians struggled with the challenge of total power collapse, the 50 crore who live in western and southern India didn't know if they should celebrate being spared or brace for their turn. This brings us to an important issue - how do we make India power sufficient? It isn't just a question of generating power but also of dealing with the challenges of environment and energy security.
At a per capita consumption of just 700 Kwh, we have the dubious distinction of being one of the lowest per capita users of electricity in the world. In fact, 44 per cent of Indian households still don't have power. A big percentage of the rest have to make do with erratic supply for not more than a few hours of the day. If you live in rural or semi rural areas, 24-hour power supply is a distant dream.
To deal with this supply gap, we need to increase the generation of electricity to 30, 000-40, 000 MW each year for at least the next 30 years. We have now a comprehensive policy framework for this in the form of the Electricity Act which I had introduced in the Parliament. The success of this law is there for all to see - we generated 55, 000 MW of power in the last five years, more than double the quantity we ever produced in the same period earlier. The substantial private sector investment that made this happen was possible only due to the new law.
Now there is huge interest in investing in the power sector but fuel remains a big problem area. Coal, gas and even water have to be tied up by a very highpowered group as soon as investment decisions are finalised. The import of fuel needs a special regime to ensure smooth landing.
We need to support Indian power companies, both government-owned and private, in their quest to acquire fuel assets globally. China puts the entire might of the state behind overseas investment by its companies. Could all our foreign missions and the external affairs ministry not stand behind our endeavours similarly ? Could we not ensure that we work collaboratively in alien markets for this rather than compete?
It's also time for us to revisit our fuel mix. Indian coal will not be as available as we believe. Most of our coal reserves are in tribal areas which are also host to some our best forests. We cannot neglect social and ecological issues in our haste to become self-sufficient in power. We can't afford to depend on imports as it affects our energy security. Our wind potential is now at least 6 lakh MW. Solar power can easily be generated in a country that has more than 300 days of sunshine with very good radiation to harness it in electricity. We need to put more renewables in our grids to address our environmental concerns. The climate change threat can be mitigated only by shifting to non-fossil sources. And we need to harness the huge potential offered by our 7, 800-km-long coast to become a hub for oceanic energy. Our 1. 2 billion people produce so much household waste that we would need indigenous technology to convert it into energy. We need to invest in R&D for storage of electricity as well.
We need a national grid connecting all our regional grids. For this we need a grid code which can't be violated at any cost. Let's now also focus more on the Smart Grid concept to catch up with the best in the world. This could help in better load as well as demand management. Our sub-transmission and distribution segment can be revamped with ICT solutions. To this end, I had got Nandan Nilekani to chair a group to prepare a plan. All these measures can help us avoid theft and address power quality issues and make redundant inverters, diesel operated gensets and voltage stabilisers.
We now think of distributed generation wherein we will generate electricity for a cluster of villages and distribute it through gram panchayats, cooperatives and so on. We have telecom towers in most of villages which operate on diesel. These could be used as hubs of renewables generation and the excess could be sold to nearby villages. We can reach universal electrification and still be locally accountable with ICT to track abuse and theft.
I had created the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) for conservation of energy. We must focus on this idea more. We can save as much as 23 per cent of the power we consume through conservation. We must have more inventive demand management. For instance, differential tariffs encouraging lower energy use in metropolitan areas is a good idea. We can also replace the energy guzzling agriculture pumps and introduce dedicated feeders for agriculture consumption.
As per the law, regulators are mandatory for all states. Now let's focus on their appointment, training and so on to make them a truly formidable and autonomous body which is sensitive to both consumers as well as producers. It's critical that we have a separate route to select regulators who are so crucial for the progress of the power sector. Late starters have the advantage of being able to avoid the problems faced by pioneers. Let's seize this advantage by integrating new concerns of climate change and self reliance with the old challenges of power shortages.
All this needs a pliable political economy. Political will can't be bought off the shelf. I used to meet political leaders, chief ministers, trade unions and other stake holders regularly to ensure that the effort is based on partnership. We need to realise we can't get off the ground a project that is not shared but pushed only by the Centre. Let's launch a national mission headed by PM himself with all CMs as members. They must meet once in three months and review operational obstacles. There is no bigger priority than this because drinking water, agriculture, jobs, manufacturing, transportation and even peace are dependent on adequate power supply.
Prabhu is a former Union power minister.
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