Solar escape from power rangers

Lack of knowledge and a perception that solar power rooftops are unaffordable and expensive to set up

This column was first published on 7 July 2012 and had to be republished due to technical glitches.

The monsoon may have hit the western coast but as northern India faces a murderous summer day after sizzling day, it feels like the end of the world is upon us. As though the sun will beat down upon Delhi and the surrounding regions mercilessly until we all wither away and die. Or, at least, throw stones and sticks and beat each other in heat-induced rage. That’s what happened this week in our part of the world. After a night-long power outage on a day when the temperature was 41.8 degrees Celsius, residents in various sectors of Gurgaon vandalized power stations and blocked traffic on arterial roads. In Noida, at the eastern end of Delhi, there were rallies by local residents and stone throwing at sub-stations. Local electricity officials had to be provided protection. People in Faridabad took to the streets after 12-18 hour power cuts.

If someone were to read the news reports and not the location, they would be forgiven for thinking we live in some chaotic banana republic where citizens are denied their basic needs. The right to basic needs is one of the rights under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. Power is a basic need, along with health, clean water and safe food. It’s a different matter that all of them have been compromised. But coming back to power, the situation is as entangled as the messy web of wires you see in bazaars put up by unauthorized shopkeepers to steal electricity.

The target for power generation set in the 11th Five-Year Plan (2007-2012) has been revised downward (78,700MW to 62,374MW) and even that will be missed by a long shot when the term ends. That would be in keeping with tradition since only 50% of the target for power has been met in the 8th, 9th and 10th Five-Year Plans as well. The reason cited is shortage of coal as more than half of India’s power is thermally generated. Coal extraction is a monopoly of the public sector giant Coal India Ltd, whose output has been stagnant for several years now. They have issues of coal mafia, corruption and usual public sector inefficiencies. But their defence is that they are not allowed to mine in many areas because the environment ministry terms it ecologically untenable to dig there. The next important source of power is hydroelectricity. If the rains are delayed, as they are this year, the water in the dams fall and generation of hydro power is affected. As I write this, the water in the Bhakra Nangal and seven reservoirs in north India has reached a critical level.

This is about generation of power.

The next step is transmission, which is controlled by problem-ridden state electricity boards all of which are sick units, in more ways than one.

The last leg in the chain is distribution which has seen the enthusiastic entry of private companies, including Tata and Reliance, when this sector was opened up in 1998. But distribution companies are facing huge financial losses because tariffs, being politically sensitive, have been kept at ridiculously low levels while the cost of supply has increased year after year. For every unit sold, they incur a loss of 2.

Then, there are local issues such as electricity theft, tripping and breaking of transmission lines and overheating of transformers at the local sub-station.

The energy problem in India is, therefore, a complex saga involving various government ministries, loss-making public sector companies, political sensitivities, corruption, coal reserves, the level of rainfall and numerous other factors. In other words, it doesn’t look like it is getting sorted in a hurry.

How can an individual customer escape from outages and pay 12-14 per unit generated through a diesel genset instead of 5, which is the cost of government-provided power (Delhi rates)?

While the conventional power distribution is a morass, the government has been enthusiastic about renewable energy. Under the Energy Conservation Act of 2001, a statutory body called the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) was formed to help develop energy-efficient programmes. Each state has nodal agencies which work under the guidelines of BEE to help solar power projects. Solar power is getting all heated up in India. It grew by 400% in 2011 largely due to the setting up of several solar power farms built using government subsidies. The reason you do not see more solar power rooftops is because of lack of knowledge and a perception that it is unaffordable and expensive to set up. It used to be expensive, but the Chinese, who are very aggressive in the solar energy space, have come to everyone’s rescue by making solar panels whose price no other producer could beat. That, and the government subsidies are making people look at solar energy very seriously. A retired civil servant in my town set up a solar power plant on his rooftop with a capacity of 1 kilowatt and 10 solar panels and is unaffected by power disturbances. It cost him 1.7 lakh, excluding a government subsidy of 80,000. A neighbour is seriously exploring options. I am inspired myself. I am figuring it makes more sense to rely on an energy source that has been around for 4.5 billion years than our discoms.

Vandana Vasudevan is a graduate from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and writes on mass urban consumer issues. Your comments are welcome at toughcustomer@livemint.com

Also Read | Vandana Vasudevan’s earlier columns

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