Thursday, August 02, 2012

Media hysteria over power blackout

The breakdown in power supply in the north over two days was terrible. But does it warrant the sort of media hysteria we have seen? I am not conversant with the technical aspects of the situation. But, yes, if technology can spot and cut off excessive demands on the grid from any state, certainly we should go for it. And I take EAS Sarma's point in today's TOI article that we should be investing in maintenance of existing facilities and not just in additions to capacity. These points apart, are there indeed "lessons" to be drawn from the episode, as the media has been making out? I am not at all sure.

Does the power breakdown say anything about our economic growth prospects, as Ramachandra Guha seems to suggest in the FT? Not at all. Is it anybody's contention that if you wish to be seen as a credible economic power, you should not be having breakdowns at all? Well, as the new minister of power has pointed out, the US has had a power breakdown a few years ago and it took longer to restore supply. And don't forget the blackout in New York city a few decades ago and the riots that followed. Are to conclude this renders Sushil Kumar Shinde unsuitable for the Home ministry or for the power ministry itself? Do we judge a minister on the basis of a single episode or do we look at his broader record? Just to clarify, I hold no brief for Mr Shinde either as Home minister or Power minister, I am just posing questions that would apply to any minister.

These kinds of disruptions cause enormous inconvenience and suffering to people and we should do our best to avoid them. But to regard these as proof of national incompetence or a reflection on our future prospects is, to put it mildly, to be getting carried away. The lesson, if any, is one that the media needs to reflect on: every murder does not become a national crisis, every report on corruption does not mean scams are the norm, and every ministerial lapse does not mean the political system has failed.

Incidentally, I have become an ardent fan of Doordarshan news in recent months. You get the news of the day, national and international, without any varnish, and with very few commercial interruptions, and news time is not the usual suspects bashing each other in some discussion on current affairs. The current affairs discussion has a separate slot, and the one in Hindi at 7:30 pm is of pretty high quality, with a whole range of uncommon faces presenting their views- and doing a great job too. Ditto for the discussions on Lok Sabha TV and Rajya  Sabha TV.

Try the national channels sometime, you will find these a refreshing change.


Krishnan said...

Even as the demand for electricity grows (in the US), there has been more and more resistance to increasing supply - there is a "carbon" sickness that inflicts some of the ruling class - A day of reckoning is indeed coming to the US when demand will outstrip supply and cause huge "load shedding" - in fact, it happens often in parts of California, the North East when the weather turns (hot or cold). It is indeed shameful that an "advanced" nation like the US cannot generate sufficient electricity to keep up with demand - there is indeed some joy when industrial production slows or growth stalls - because that means (to the carbon sick elites) less CO2 being generated in that time.

This current administration (US) has aggressively pursued the coal industry - and power generation from coal - all in the name of phantom benefits. There is yet hope that the economy will not be starving for power because of the fracking revolution and the huge supply of natural gas that is replacing coal - but I am waiting for the carbon sick group to target natural gas and demand that electricity generation be carbon neutral.

The NYTimes had this

"Surendra Rao, formerly India’s top electricity regulator, said the national grid had a sophisticated system of circuit breakers that should have prevented such a blackout. But 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"

The US and India do have a lot in common - the increasing power of government and bureaucrats who seem determined to help themselves while while unable (or unwilling) to step out of the way ... Oh yes, it is indeed fascinating to hear criticisms of India and the Government from many in the US - even as the US seems determined to strangle economic development and growth in the name of some phantom "climate change"

Prajeesh Jayaram L said...

Well put Mr. Mohan. I have been thinking in similar terms in the last two days.
The fact that India has a average shortage of 8-10% of the demand for power for the last few years is something that's well known. Media has been interpreting this technical problem in ways uncalled for.

Anonymous said...

List of countries by electricity consumption (in particular, please see per capita consumption numbers):

List of countries by electricity consumption

Draw your own conclusions.

The best report on the power crisis:
300 Million Without Electricity In India After Restoration Of Power Grid

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

I think you are being too soft on bureaucrats and politicians. These two were not technical failures. No system appeared to have broken down (and that is why restoration was so quick, unlike in US). The grid failure happened because certain states have been allowed to overdraw apparently on political reasons, knowing fully well that this could bring the whole grid down. The grids are monitored every second, and when someone overdraws, it is noticed, and it can be denied/stopped immediately. But it is not. Instead, a small fine is imposed, whereby the average cost of power plus fine is significantly less than the commercial cost of power at that instant. The fine cannot be increased because of political reasons. We can put in devices which will automatically deny/stop extra power that can be drawn by the state, but once again, politicians don't let such devices and such controls be installed.

What is really sad is that after the power was restored on day 1, the overdrawals were limited only for a few hours. States started overdrawing power the next day, even though they had seen the consequences of this just the previous day. After such a massive failure, the central government could have forced a bit more of a discipline, since the states would have had no way to protest under the circumstances. But even this minimal thing was not done. The fact that central government did not allow PowerGrid and other agencies to enforce discipline even for a day speaks volumes of the efficiency of Mr. Shinde, and the whole Power Ministry.

Not that his overall record is any better. The power sector is in complete shambles. And clearly the blame should go to the policy makers for this.

Suraj Kumar said...

@Krishnan: Sad to know you think "climate change" is phantom. Can you please cite legitimate sources to back up your claim?

Krishnan Chittur said...

Re: "Climate Change" - measurements indicate that the global temperatures have indeed changed over time - (sometimes they have fallen) - that CO2 has increased over time (recently) is true - that the feedback loops claimed by some will cause global havoc is simply not supported by models, data - that we are humans and so live and breathe and consume energy is all true - that we (WE) CAUSE all this change in the climate is simply not supported by facts, models - I am not a primary researcher involved in the collection and analysis of data - development of computer models - but follow the work of many who do - and some I have spoken with - and one who was on the IPCC - There is and never was a cause for alarm because of a small change in Temperature - which may have multiple reasons - the deliberate fudging of data and attempts to hide such fudging (Michael Mann/others) indicates that there was/is indeed fraud committed - Science does not run on "consensus" - nothing is "settled" in science - Look up Ivar Giaver's emails to the American Inst of Physics - and why he resigned from the APS - Examine the work of Lindzen (MIT) - examine the work of Spencer, Christy - Go back and look at the predictions of doom and gloom about the disappearance of winters about 10/15 years ago because of "climate change" - and go back and look at last Winter - 2012 - was still very cold - Examine the predictions of the disappearance of the snow (?) and such on the Himalayas (Pachauri?) - and how they made up that data - There are very few people practicing "science" in Climate Science - it is akin to a "religion" - where the adherents get furious with those that question any of the assumptions and ask for data to prove what they claim - so yea, phantom indeed - made up by people whose lives depend on the continual infusion of funds to perpetuate the theories they keep publishing while doing their best to keep alternate theories or explanations from being published

Anonymous said...

I haven't read the long comments by others above, but I completely endorse your view about media hysteria. I will just add to it:

1. Today's media is irresponsible
2. It is not independent & objective
3. It gives more of entertainment and less of news
4. It's being sold to different political parties
5. It does not reflect views of common man
6. Breaking news appear 24x7 and 365 days
7. It has habit of building mountain out of mole.

Anonymous said...

@Dheeraj: you sound like a Sangh Parivar* logic just rhetoric

* PS: am not a fan of any political party

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir, I completely endorse you views. As an electrical engineer from an IIT (this is not to boast, but to establish my credentials against the storm of backlash that the sanghi commentators are going to unleash) - a part of me died when I saw the coverage of the blackout on news channels. The sheer illiteracy of panelists, spouting self righteous indignation and self flagellation was quite something to behold. Not one person understood that an electric grid is based on certain laws of physics that are inviolable whether in the US or in India. A tree falling in Cleveland knocked out power to the entire US Northeast in 2003 - how can you plan for such a thing? People went hoarse advocating jauhar after the blackout but not one person tried to understand the reason - and that's because a grid is a complex system, finding the true source of fault takes time. For all the talk about supply shortage, no one seems to have thought about the fact that the first outage took place at 2:30 am - when demand is low - residential demand is a fraction of its peak since there is virtually no lighting or home appliance load, industrial demand is also lower as non 3-shift businesses are shut down - in such a circumstance, th fault was probably on account of a line going down somewhere which created a domino effect. Last point, a grid tripping is not a tragedy, it is exactly what a grid is designed for - if the demand supply situation is such that a parameter like voltage or current goes very high then circuit breakers automatically isolate equipment like generators and transformers so that the contagion doesn't spread and equipment doesn't burn (thereby creating a REAL problem)

Anonymous said...

To @Dheeraj - How can angst against media make some one be associated with Sangh Parivar? Strange. However, I don't belong or like any political party or for that matter politics as a subject.

And I don't think one needs logic for what you say rhetoric. Its very much evident, unless you deliberately are willing to elude yourself of reality. This too short a space to explain you the logic which is ubiquitous.

Vivek said...

DD has been guilty of promoting government propaganda, and is a loss making entity. Sir, what about the small matter of it being a loss making entity?

That doesn't make the private channels great, but I think there has to be a better system for private channels, not a govt-owned solution to everything. In fact, the private channels have too much govt control and politician ownership, etc.

Anyway, the professor supports the govt in everything, even when he says himself that he does not have technical expertise on the power issue. PSU banks are good, Coal India is good, DD is good, etc, etc. If it were supported by good arguments, that would be one thing, but its presented as an argument in itself.

Do we need a private sector at all, or should the govt do everything in India? That would be surprising, when it has a pretty poor track record, and given the hundreds of examples to the contrary from all over the world!!

I guess the confusion is because the private sector is guilty of crony capitalism, so apparently, Sir's argument is that private sector is corrupt, lets replace it with PSUs. But, isn't the crony capitalism because of rent seeking by govt (earlier by license raj, now by resource raj - as mentioned by PM adviser Raghuram Rajan). Isn't there a case for cleaner private sector by reducing private-public corruption? And, not tilting even more towards the government?

Anonymous said...

If anything, it is surprising that Indians aren't more hysterical about the pathetic state of affairs.

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