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#1 - A crisis barely averted

How India managed to keep its power going during the lockdown

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Lou Del Bello

May 07 2020

7 mins read

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Hello and welcome to the first edition of Lights On, a weekly newsletter that brings you the key stories on energy and climate change in South Asia. 

This week I discover how India managed to keep its power going during the lockdown, against the odds, and why this might actually be good news for the future of its renewable energy sector.

How India kept the lights on during the lockdown

  • India’s distribution system is in dire straits, the Covid-19 crisis exacerbated the issue and India will have to deal with it when the emergency is over
  • Power cuts were avoided also thanks to the integration of renewable sources, which suggests India’s grid may be ready to decarbonise more

The Covid-19 lockdown has been the most catastrophic event for the energy sector worldwide in 70 years, with an impact seven times larger than that of the 2008 financial crisis. Experts say that the wider global economy will not recover in the foreseeable future, despite government interventions.

In India, with cities deserted and offices closed, energy demand has collapsed by almost 30% during the 40 days of lockdown. Keeping power running to homes across a country as big as India is a massive feat at the best of times. Over the past month and a half, keeping the lights on - something that we mostly take for granted - has been one of the biggest, unsung successes of the Covid-19 story. 

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The Himalayas visible from Jalandhar, Punjab, during the lockdown - photo by Anshul Chopra

A crisis (barely) averted

India’s energy system is already historically fragile, because its distribution companies are riddled with debt and constantly on the brink of bankruptcy. 

When we think about how much energy a country has, as lay people we often just think of how many solar or coal plants there are. But all that energy is of no use if it doesn’t reach people’s homes. In a country as big as India, companies tasked with distributing energy struggle to collect payments from consumers, especially those who live in remote areas and don’t have meters, and in turn can’t pay power producers. 

A massive drop in demand has turned this problem, that the government had just started to take more seriously, into a full blown crisis.

Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, explains why. The government, she tells me, had set aside funds to deal with this structural issue “but it’s now being rerouted to deal with the cashflow emergency” and save companies from going bankrupt. “Electricity is essential, you can’t let distribution companies cut out power,” she says.

During a pandemic, a protracted power cut is as disastrous as it gets, because it disrupts the supply of fresh food and leaves hospitals unable to provide emergency care. India staved off that threat, but some of the energy system’s chronic faults will come back to bite.

Why the grid matters

Still, India’s energy system has been impressive in the face of the Covid crisis. “It's quite striking that the grid in general, and in India in particular, has been able to handle that kind of reduction, because that’s meant some major changes” says Brent Wanner, Lead of the World Energy Outlook Power Sector Modelling at the IEA. 

For electricity to travel from producers to homes, grid operators need to have a good idea of how demand fluctuates, and power production needs to match it as much as possible. This is because they need to maintain a stable grid frequency, which is the frequency of voltage cycles that allows power to travel through the grid (for a fun, gif-rich explanation of how this works, see this Medium post). 

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All India maximum demand and energy met during management of COVID -19 in comparison to 2019 - source POSOCO

We know it’s bad when there is not enough energy for all, but when there is too much of it, that’s also a big problem. For example, some power plants may not be able to reduce their output quickly enough as demand goes down, and in extreme cases this combined with other factors may lead to the grid collapsing entirely. Sounds like a doomsday scenario? It did actually happen in India in 2012, leaving 700 million people without electricity.

This time, the Indian grid rose to the challenge, and the lights remained on.

Renewables to the rescue

A big help has come from renewable sources. While the general output decreased massively, renewables maintained their pre-crisis levels. “Wind and solar are more dependent on the weather, they don’t necessarily respond to the market conditions,” like coal or gas, Wanner says. They are very low cost to operate, and in India like in other countries regulations assign them priority access to the grid over dirtier power.

India is making strides towards integrating renewables efficiently wherever conventional sources fall short, in particular through the use of pumped hydropower, and the way the grid coped with the emergency demonstrates it. Going forward, Wanner says, this bodes well for a broader, deeper energy transition, because it means that the system is getting ready for it.

“Where there is this disruption, there's this opportunity to make investments that are going to be locked in for the future, so there is a real chance of radically transforming the system,” says Santosh Harish, environment and energy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi. “But at the same time, I'm concerned that the government may choose a different route,” he says. There is a sense that damaging the environment is the price we must pay to get the economy back on track as quickly as possible, he tells me. “And if that means, for example, that they are going to be less careful in terms of new environment clearances, or regulating emissions, to them it is going to be worth it.”

In the coming weeks, I am going to ask more questions on how and why the government is speeding up environmental clearances and what this means for India’s nature, people and economy.

Hot in the region

India's Power System Operators Demonstrate the Fine Art of Grid Management - Vibhuti Garg, The Wire

Garg digs deeper into how the Indian grid coped with the challenges of a rapidly fluctuating demand - if you are left with questions after this week’s edition, here’s your chance to fill the gaps.

The Govt is Trying to Make it Easier for Industries to Avoid Environmental Accountability - Tiasa Adhya, The Wire

In the midst of the Covid-19 chaos, the government is rushing to pass a measure that would regularise industrial processes that so far have evaded environmental clearance. A controversial move that sees environmentalists up in arms.

To kickstart the economy, India’s environment ministry is clearing projects in 10 minutes - Nihar Gokhale, Quartz India

Talk about smooth governance. In India, where bureaucracy is traditionally painfully slow, officials have started to clear environmental projects online, just a quick Zoom call and you are good to go.

Environment Vs Economy: An Approach That Exposes India To COVID-19-Like Infections - Tish Sanghera and Disha Shetty, IndiaSpend with Pulitzer Center

A mammoth data-led investigation that sheds light on how the government’s easygoing approach to environmental protection is damaging India’s most precious resources, increasing the risk of new zoonotic diseases emerging.

Hot from the world

The world is on lockdown. So where are all the carbon emissions coming from? - Shannon Osaka, Grist

Osaka asks the fundamental question that has escaped most of us, mesmerised as we were by our cities’ blue skies: Why have global emissions gone down by so little, despite the whole world having ground to a halt for more than a month? Where is the rest coming from?

Watt It Takes: From Self-Replicating Machines to Decarbonization - The Energy Gang podcast

One hour of pure entertainment (and lots of swearing) as we learn about the life of Saul Griffith, material scientist and energy entrepreneur. If you are an energy nerd, don’t miss this weekly podcast, accessible and full of precious insights.   

Your voice matters: Let me know how to make Lights On even better! I am @loudelbello on Twitter, or you can write me an email on lou@lightson.news

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