Blackouts shine light on India's broken power sector
As India's power minister stood up to address parliament one day last May, the chamber was plunged into darkness and a roar of laughter went up.
Rolling power cuts are part of daily life in India, where energy production falls far short of the demands of a fast-growing economy and an increasingly affluent population, but blackouts for two days this week across a vast swathe of the country were no laughing matter.
Three of India's five transmission grids collapsed on Tuesday, cutting power to states where some 670 million people live, more than half of the country's population. That blackout, one of the world's worst, followed a similar breakdown across the north the previous day. It is not clear what sparked the massive failures.
The central government has accused state governments of taking more electricity from the grids than their allotted quotas, and some have blamed disappointing monsoon rains for a surge in power demand from farmers struggling to irrigate their land.
However, deep-seated problems spanning the generation of power to its distribution mean a repeat of this week's fiasco cannot be ruled out.
"So many things have been ignored. So many things have not been done. It is lack of initiative and wrong initiative, wrong policy and no policy," said Suresh Prabhu, who was power minister in a previous government led by the main opposition party.
Prabhu said the power sector was in complete chaos and risked collapse if no action was taken quickly. India has installed power capacity of 205,000 megawatts (MW), about 35 percent more than it had five years ago, thanks to an aggressive drive by the government to add more.
However, that is still only about a fifth of China's capacity, and so - even though one third of Indians are not even connected to a power grid -- there is a gap between supply and demand, with the peak-hour deficit reaching about 10 percent.
Efforts to accelerate the pace of capacity addition have been thwarted by hurdles standing in the way of land acquisition and clearances for power projects, including regulatory delays and environmental concerns.
Government data shows that the average delay for construction of thermal power projects is running at 15 months, but some have been on the drawing board for years.
Take the case of billionaire Anil Ambani's plan to set up a 7,480 MW plant at Dadri in Uttar Pradesh. A decade after the project was announced it is still not operational after protests by farmers over land acquisition and a legal challenge that is still pending in the Supreme Court.
Coal and natural gas shortages have crimped the rollout of new plants and left many existing units running below potential, where in all some 15,000MW of capacity are lying idle.