By Reuben Gergan and Sunetro Ghosal, Stawa 05-18
Electricity supply in Leh is notoriously unreliable though it seems to be relatively stable in Kargil this year. A resident of Leh explained, “Sometimes we do not have electricity for hours… How are we supposed to work when most appliances need electricity? Sometimes there are power surges that burn these appliances. I have spent thousands of rupees to replace and repair these appliances. The person at the repair shop claims that this is commonplace.”
In response to such complaints, we spoke to various stakeholders involved in Leh’s power sector. This helped us understand the complex issues related to electricity supply and measures needed, and being taken, to resolve them.
Supply and demand
As expected, the Nimoo-Basgo Hydroelectric Project does not generate sufficient electricity to meet the demand during periods of peak consumption such as the winter. We were not able to speak with anyone at National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC-Leh) but sources in Power Development Department, Leh (PDD) confirmed that power generation is sufficient to meet the average summer demand. However, energy demand continues to increase and Leh will continue require more power along with more efficient management of transmission and distribution.
Supply issues of hydroelectric power
Most power generated and consumed in Leh is derived from non-polluting and renewable energy sources, such as hydroelectric power. However, over-reliance on hydropower has several challenges, especially the seasonal variation of water discharge. Thus, lower temperatures in winter simultaneously increase demand for electricity to meet heating demands, even as it reduces water discharge rates. Officials from PDD, Leh explained that the current demand for Leh during winter is about 25MW over 24 hours, whil NHPC project generates eight to 10MW over 24 hours in that period. This effectively means that electricity can be supplied for approximately eight hours in that period with power cuts accounting for the mismatch in supply and demand. There is a consensus for the need to augment supply by tapping alternative sources such as solar and geo-thermal energy, and connecting with the Northern Grid.
Is Alchi project below par?
Many people argue that the Nimoo-Basgo Power Project is underperforming as it was supposed to generate 45MW but rarely does so. Various officials explained that 45MW signifies the optimum capacity of the plant, while the actual power generated depends on several factors such as water discharge. Thus, the Nimoo-Basgo power project is designed to make optimal use of peak discharge levels, while still being functional when discharge levels are low. Since a higher capacity turbine generates more power when water discharge levels are high, it reduces the overall unit cost of electricity generation and benefits the consumer. However, such a design is more efficient when it is connected to a larger grid network. Furthermore, building a higher capacity power plant makes financial sense as the cost of constructing civil structures remains constant.
Transmission and distribution networks require constant upgradation to cater to increasing demands and keep pace with technological advancements to minimise transmission and distribution losses and faults. According to a senior engineer at PDD, Leh, the distribution infrastructure in Leh needs to be upgraded. Many distribution transformers are underrated as demand has increased in Leh, while distribution poles, distribution lines, and allied equipment also need to be upgraded. Thus, systemic failures in distribution due to overload of distribution transformers also cause power cuts. This upgradation has lagged due to delayed sanctions and funding. A senior engineer confirmed that funds to upgrade the distribution infrastructure in Leh have been sanctioned under three Centrally Sponsored Schemes and the tendering process is underway to start the work in 2018.
Faults, maintenance, and surges
Sources in PDD said that faults in the transmission and distribution networks also cause power cuts. One official explained, “The recent outages are due to maintenance works but faults in the distribution network do cause unscheduled power cuts. These faults result from high velocity winds that cause wires to touch and short circuit , or trees touching the cables to cause an earth or ground fault that forces current to flow in the ground. Such power cuts are resolved once the location of the fault is detected and the maintenance workers reach the spot to repair it. The breakdown time depends on the time required to locate and resolve the fault. Power cuts that last for several hours are usually due to a major fault or maintenance work that is carried out by the PDD or by NHPC in the power plant.” He added that many maintenance issues are not anticipated by consumers, which leaves them frustrated. He confirmed that PDD announces scheduled maintenance works on the radio but did not explain why they were not using cell phone networks for their registered consumers.
The engineer also acknowledged the issue of electricity surge in Leh. “When a distribution transformer gets overloaded, its neutral line may break and lead to high voltage in one phase, very low voltage in a second phase, and no voltage in the third phase. This will be resolved once we upgrade all the equipment in the network,” he explained. He added that the department needed more line operators to monitor the load on transformers.
Shortage of staff
The shortage of staff is another issue that emerged as a major issue that affects the power sector. It directly contributes to extended periods of breakdown and recovery time whenever a fault arises. Senior officials in PDD, Leh have taken up this issue with the state government but have not received any response yet. “We definitely need more engineers and line operators in Leh,” he added. In addition, there is need for constant skill building and training activities to operate advanced technology used in the power sector.
When asked about this issue, J&K Minister for Cooperatives and Ladakh Affairs, Tsering Dorje Lakrook said that this is a problem across the state. “This is a longstanding problem across J&K. The department has been employing people on a daily wage basis and since there is no budget for it, funds are diverted from other sources, which leave no formal records. Now as the work has increased manifold, with plans to extend the current network to Nubra and Nyoma, along with new project, these people are demanding regularisation. There is an estimated 100,000 such people across the state. The state government has provided assurances that they will be regularised though the time frame remains unclear. In my opinion, we need to make manpower requirements an integral part of every new project.”
Policy framework and gaps
Power generation and distribution is further complicated by the current policy framework. Government of India usually caps capital investment cost per unit according to a national benchmark. However, in Ladakh other mountainous regions, the cost to build infrastructure and labour costs are relatively higher than the plains, thereby increasing the project cost that requires a special consideration in the current policy framework. There has been a sustained demand from India’s mountain states for specific policies that accounts for the geographical realities of these regions.
Planning, management and data gap
The power sector across India suffers from a lack of coordination in planning the development of infrastructure, which delays the development process. In addition, distribution losses occur due to power theft, which requires administrative control. Planning also requires reliable data that is often missing for remote locations such as Leh. For instance, we do not have long term data of water discharge in rivers in Ladakh. In contrast, there is historical data on water discharge for rivers in other parts of India and the world that go back 100 years and more. This allows for reliable calculation of long-term averages. As the demand for such data increases, feasibility studies are carried out for short periods and extrapolated for longer timeframes. Urgent steps are needed to make data collection a norm to prevent compromises in design and development of projects.
Connecting to national grid
There is a major push to connect Ladakh to the national electricity grid. The national grid has multiple sources of generation, in the event of a fault or an overload, it is able to augment the required supply. Currently, Leh is dependent on a localised and decentralised network with limited sources of power. Thus, any fault or maintenance issue leads to power cuts. A distribution engineer explained, “If we are part of the larger grid network, we can evacuate excess power into the grid and draw power when there is a shortfall.” However, being connected to the norther grid also means becoming a part of J&K’s power crisis as it has a deficit in power generation and purchases electricity from outside. According to reports, peak deficits in J&K are around 500MW in the winter. Mr Tsering Dorje Lakrook explained that these fears are unfounded as there will be a quota for Ladakh once it is connected to the grid.
Consumer level issues
Consumers too contribute to the electricity issue by using underrated equipment and wiring, while the lack of proper earthing and safety/protection devices make electrical appliances vulnerable to surges in the system. Furthermore, unregulated use of electricity and poor management at the household level multiplies across the number of consumers and has a significant impact on power supply and distribution.