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Electricity: Availability and Accessibility, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Power

The World Energy Council, India Member Committee, organised a two day India Energy Congress 2010 at Delhi on 6th and 7th April, 2010. I participated in the Panel Discussion on the theme "Challenge of Accessibility". The issues covered included - eradicating energy poverty, integration for infrastructure adequacy and efficiency, subsidy and credit, Decentralised Distribution Generation for rural areas, energy for mega cities and role of public private partnership.

Before I discuss some of the issues which were deliberated, I outline the observations that I made as a part of initial remarks:

  1. In spite of massive efforts that have been launched to substantially enhance the electricity generation capacity, it is unlikely that we will be able to eliminate power shortages in foreseeable future. India's target for overall economic growth of 9 to 10% would require a similar growth rate in electricity generation. Therefore, even if we accelerate the power capacity addition programmes to match with the above requirement, much of it will go for meeting the demand for manufacturing, service sector, urban infrastructure and to meet the emerging requirements of modern living styles, which are gradually getting pitched up, particularly in towns and cities.

  2. Most of rural India has always remained at the bottom of the priority list in so far as providing access to commercial energy in general and electricity in particular is concerned. The very fact that even after more than 50 years of independence, the Census 2001 highlighted total inadequacy in terms of access to electricity. For the whole of the country, it was less than 50% and for rural India as much as 56% of population did not have access to electricity.

  3. Poverty in India could be directly correlated to access to electricity and energy. The latest estimates indicate that almost 39% of Indian population is below poverty line (BPL); in case of rural India the figure is much higher. Again, these figures represent the national average. Regional disparities are much more pronounced. Correlating it to the proportions of population having access to electricity, though the national average was 56%, atleast six large Indian States had electricity connectivity in rural areas to the extent of less than 10%, in couple of cases less than 5%.

  4. Thus, availability may increase, though adequate availability will continue to be a challenge, but bigger challenge would be accessibility and that too for rural India. We have seen, through experience, that when there is severe mismatch between demand and supply, much more pronounced during peak hours, the biggest brunt of the shortages goes to villages. Administratively and politically, sometimes even technically, it is found more convenient to resort to load sheddings in rural areas than in urban areas. This problem - the disparity and discrimination - is becoming more pronounced in last few years with the ever increasing presence of media and its impact on the decision making apparatus of the Government. While the load sheddings of days together in rural India can go unnoticed, even an hour of disruption of power supply in urban settings get highlighted predominantly in newspapers and electronic media. Therefore, the response of those who manage power supply and also of those who are at higher levels of management - administrative and political - is predictable. They do, and perhaps they should, respond to problems which occupy media projection more than the problems though of higher magnitude, which do not capture the attention of media. Under the circumstances, the fate of rural India may continue as such in so far as making power available to them is concerned, if the present mode of supply of electricity through grid continues. Grid Supply is bound to continue to be more generous to urban and industrial areas than to rural population for reasons mentioned above.

  5. Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna (RGGVY), formulated by Ministry of Power, and approved by the Cabinet in 2005, has been a landmark Scheme aiming at creating Rural Electricity Distribution Backbone (REDB) in order to create much needed infrastructure to provide electricity access to all areas and to all households in rural India. The main objective of the Scheme has been to develop the required infrastructure. Obviously, this infrastructure alone will not ensure supply of electricity. There has to be electricity to flow in these local grids. It is here that distinction between availability of power and accessibility to it becomes so vivid and clear. It is not to say that the conceptual consideration that went into developing the architecture of the above rural electrification programme does not have the relevance. In fact, it was essential. But, to provide access, the necessary condition would be to have enough power, and that too locally, which can flow into the rural electricity sub-transmission and distribution systems.

  6. The RGGVY Scheme, when it was being formulated, did envisage the above likely disconnect and the fact that the distribution backbone will have to be supported by adequacy of power, and that too that power which can be made available to the rural area. The fact that power of the grid may not be made available, to the extent required, to the rural population, because of other priorities, was known. Therefore, the RGGVY does envisage, to address this challenge, Decentralised Distributed Generation as a possible answer to this major problem. In fact, grant funding to the extent of 90% of the project cost is available to DDG just as it is available for the distribution infrastructure. In the first phase, RGGVY started addressing the gaps in the electricity distribution backbone. Perhaps we could have simultaneously taken up also the DDG Schemes. Only recently REC has come out with the Schemes on development of Decentralised Distributed Generation. There are some inherent problems, mainly on account of level of development of technologies to suit the rural area DDG facilities. Normally, these were not encouraged because the cost of generation was not competitive with conventional power such as power from coal or gas based power plants. This problem could definitely be addressed through the financial support which is available under the RGGVY.

  7. The generation technologies which could be relevant to such local requirements would include Bio-mass, Solar (PV), Micro-hydel, Wind etc. Each technology will not be relevant to every area. In the hill States, micro-hydel would be more relevant and in planes, bio-mass and solar systems could be more appropriate. When rural India gets the gas grid connectivity (unlikely in the near future), even micro turbines could be deployed.

  8. High cost of power through non-conventional sources of electricity generation, could be mitigated partly by grant funded DDG and partly by State distribution companies recognising the fact that cost of supplying grid power to rural areas, in view of high technical losses, is too costly for them and they could partly bear the cost to support non-conventional generation, so that the present financial loss that they are suffering could be partly reduced.

  9. Another consideration to mitigate the high cost of electricity through new technologies could be derived from the fact that Government subsidy on kerosene oil is proving to be more costly and if the Government were to support the electricity generation through new technologies by way of bearing an extra cost, though much less than the subsidy they are supporting on kerosene, a win-win situation could be created.

  10. One of the other important factors which has stood in the way of extensive deployment of DDG in a rural India has been the absence of any institutionalised arrangement for long term operation and maintenance of these systems. Many of them supported by various Government Schemes did not function well because the post commissioning operations were not handled in a professional manner. Answer to this problem could lie, as an option, in combining the development and post commissioning maintenance, while entrusting the responsibility, to the same agency. Selection of agencies should be so done that they also have the responsibility of maintaining the system for a specified period of time during which the local groups could be trained to take over. Involvement of local bodies like Panchayats would be important for the success of the Scheme. RGGVY Scheme requires the arrangement of Franchisees for taking care of the rural electricity supply. Therefore, for the success of DDG, institutionalised arrangement for development and massive capacity building exercise would be essential.

  11. Another important aspect of the rural electricity access would be in relation to revenue sustainability. I recall, when we were formulating the Scheme, two most important concerns which were uppermost in the minds of various Departments, including Power Ministry, were in relation to - (a) availability of power, and (b) revenue sustainability of supply of power. DDG together with Franchisee Scheme for commercial aspects could effectively handle both these concerns.

During deliberation a few points emerged:

  1. PV systems did not get the mass support because it remained limited to lighting. The emerging desire in rural India is to go beyond lighting - they also want T.V., Fans etc. The recent developments under which PV based solar systems could also have local distribution and provide adequate answers to the above needs. During the Panel Discussion the presentation from the TATA Solar BP highlighted that in Chhattisgarh they have been able to provide connectivity to clusters of villages in a radius of half kilometre.

  2. One of the points that came up during discussion that if the DDG remained totally away from the grid connectivity, overall rural development might remain restricted. The answer lies in DDG systems also being connected to the grid. In fact, this would make it more economical and effective inasmuchas it could feed power into the grid when locally not needed. Similarly, when grid has excess power the same could also be available. We must recognise that rural economy will expand and contribute to national GDP only when electricity is supplied to a larger extent, going beyond household needs.

  3. As regards lighting, right from the beginning the generation and distribution arrangements could also include lighting through most efficient systems. CFL and LED (preferably LED) could be incorporated in the Scheme right from beginning, so that the electricity needs are minimised.

  4. If all these are handled in a professional manner, then issues like technologies, optimal capital costs, proper project management, financing, operations and maintenance, Franchising the commercial operations, efficient lighting and consumer gadgets etc. can all be properly addressed.

Inclusive growth cannot be all encompassing and pervasive unless rural India is provided access to adequate amount of energy, particularly electricity. As a matter of fact, rural and urban divide is widening primarily on account of inadequacies of electricity access to these areas. It is unlikely, that in foreseeable future grid supply can provide an effective answer to the major challenge of providing access to electricity in these areas. Therefore, Decentralised Distributed Generation, with the arrangement of grid connectivity, when needed, is a strongly recommended strategy.