Power Crisis in India – Picking up the Pieces After the Heatwave

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Power Crisis in India – Picking up the Pieces After the Heatwave

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India’s poorest communities are still reeling from the intense heatwave that recently enveloped the country. At the same time, infrastructure assets are struggling to cope with this climatic upheaval. What could be the way out?

09 August 2022 – by Heba Hashem

Is there a Power Crisis in India in 2022?

The blistering heat that recently engulfed most of India has taken a heavy toll on the economy and energy sector of India. It has slowed down factories, closed schools and disrupted the water supply and traffic. It also caused a power crisis in India.

Temperatures reached almost 50C° in mid-May, putting enormous pressure on the grid and leading to critical power shortage.

Extremely heavy rainfall is on its way now for many parts of the country and the meteorological department has warned of potential the flooding of roads and riverside areas, as well as landslides and mudslides.

Reliable Electricity in India Critical for Infrastructure Plans

It’s no secret that India’s poor infrastructure is not climate resilient. It continues to hamper economic development and poverty reduction. Road quality is generally low, despite India’s roads carrying 90% of passenger traffic and 65% of freight.

At the same time, 40% of the road network is unpaved and most highways are narrow, congested and poorly surfaced. A lot of the railway corridors are also facing capacity constraints and have safety issues.

Improving infrastructure is critical to the liveability of India’s urban and rural areas. It is also central to the country’s productivity and the competitiveness of sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing.

In 2020, India announced the National Infrastructure Pipeline, a massive scheme that will expand and modernise all aspects of infrastructure, including roads, railways, shipping, energy, water sanitation and rural development.

The plan seeks to achieve USD 5 trillion GDP by 2025 and will require India to spend about USD 1.4 trillion, according to the government’s Economic Survey 2021-22. All this progress, however, could be derailed without a massive overhaul of the power sector.

Energy Shortage in India Threatens Economic Progress

Power outages in India have become almost regular occurrences because of a fundamental shortage of power and an ageing grid. The heatwaves have only worsened the situation and sparked scrutiny of India’s long reliance on coal. Furthermore, it has highlighted an energy crisis in India. Depleting domestic coal supply to India’s thermal power plants was one reason for India’s power crisis.

In 2012, power outages plunged 20 of India’s 28 states into darkness when three of its five electricity grids failed. The blackout affected more than 700 million people.

The latest heatwave in India, which started in March 2022, was the strongest in 122 years. It caused blackouts across the country, with some lasting as long as nine hours. It also pushed up electricity demand by 40,000-45,000 MW per day, according to the Power Ministry.

Power interruptions severely impact economic productivity. For example, when factories experience outages, the semi-finished products get rejected and must be thrown out. And the process has to start all over again when the power comes back on.

This usually happens when factories fire up diesel-powered generators to keep production running. For one factory in Delhi, running diesel generators is costing three times more than grid electricity. This has cut into the company’s profits and affected its competitiveness.

India’s Power Crisis Threatens Livelihoods

While everyone is feeling the impact of this power crisis, India’s poorest are paying the highest price. Dr. Chandni Singh, senior researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, told BBC News, “Poor people have fewer resources to cool down as well as fewer resources to stay inside, away from the heat”.

Low-income households without electricity often look for alternative sources of power like kerosene-burning lamps, which pose health and safety risks. In some areas, water-pumping stations also shut down due to the power outages, leaving residents without water.

Additionally, the welfare of low-income households decreases during heatwaves, as after daylight hours, productive activities cease without energy or lighting.

The situation is even tougher for those whose work requires them to be outdoors when the heat is high, such as farmers, street vendors and rickshaw drivers.

Workers in construction, the second-largest industry in India – responsible for an estimated 60 million jobs – also lost income due to workers being unable to work in the heat.

More Coal to Meet Higher Power Demand

Without a resilient power system, India’s infrastructure plans could face delays, and some projects could even fall apart.

Many of the problems countrywide stem from a coal shortage. This is despite India’s recent decision to operate its fleet of imported coal-fired power plants at full capacity.

As India’s power demand climbed during the heatwave, so did the demand for coal. The fossil fuel accounts for nearly 70% of India’s power generation. It is also the largest source of global temperature rise. With coal stocks close to critical levels, the government is focusing on securing and burning more coal.

At the current rate of pollution and climate change, heatwaves in South Asia will become more intense and frequent, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

While the country has prioritised the short-term needs of its citizens over climate goals, the present coal-based power generation system is unsustainable, as coal imports have proven expensive and unreliable.

A Way Out of the Energy Crisis in India

Decentralised or microgrid renewables could be a way out of this power crisis of India or, in a worst-case scenario, a backup system in case the grid fails.

In Bangalore, one of India’s most populous cities, local NGO Selco Foundation is stepping up to fill the gap with decentralised solar power. However, in New Delhi, IElectrix – a consortium of energy specialists from Europe and India – has launched a solar microgrid to improve electricity supply.

Meanwhile, TP Renewable Microgrid plans to roll out 10,000 solar microgrids across India’s remote rural villages. So far, the Tata Power subsidiary has installed 161 of these microgrids, which include a battery and energy storage system.

The diffusion of decentralised and microgrid renewable energy in India could be a viable solution to the recurring outages. It could provide affordable electricity and reduce reliance on imported fuel.

In doing so, these alternative energy systems would not only improve lives but also support India’s decarbonisation goals.

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