Power outages, water shortages: Karnataka braces for harshest summer in 25 years

By Janaki Murali

It’s that time of the year again. Summer, power outages, water shortages, and if you have somewhere to go, it’s the right time to do so.

Expect industrial, staggered holidays and blackouts. And unless you have a strong captive power plant in your factory and a stronger UPS at home, it’s going to be the harshest summer Karnataka has ever seen in the last 25 years.

 Power outages, water shortages: Karnataka braces for harshest summer in 25 years

Representational image. Reuters

The state government has already declared drought in 136 talukas, this in itself considered the worst in 40 years. Meanwhile, the rising gap between demand and supply for power is some 2,600 MW. Just some months ago, the power shortage was estimated at 1,820 MW, up from 1,500 MW in October last year. The total demand for power in Karnataka — industrial and household — is estimated to be more than 12,000 MW and 25 per cent of this power is consumed by Bengaluru alone.

Bengaluru, home to several technology giants, is reeling under four or more hours of load shedding daily, while rural areas see seven to eight hours, sometimes even 12 hours of power cuts every day.

A report in Business Standard states that 50 per cent of Flipkart’s sale of emergency lamps in India came from Karnataka alone.

The New Indian Express reports that a farmer, Sai Giridhar Rai, from Karnataka’s coastal Dakshina Kannada district picked up the phone a couple of days ago,  called state energy minister DK Shivakumar and let off some steam on the power situation. Of course, the farmer was arrested, but the energy minster might have to get used to more such outbursts, as the temperature rises outside.

But, why do I feel a sense of déjà vu?

It’s as though nothing has changed in the last 20-odd years I have been writing about power. Every summer, I would wait along with the other journalists in the corridors of the energy department waiting for whoever was the energy minister then to give us a ray of hope. The government of the day would resort to knee-jerk reactions about load shedding, scrambling to buy power from neighbouring states and, if good rains followed in the next monsoon, everything would go back to status quo until the next failed monsoon.

Karnataka’s power crisis is kind of a leveler. Whatever the political affiliation of the government, they have faced a power crisis at some time or other in their tenure. The BJP government faced its worst power crisis in 2010 and now in 2016 the Congress is facing is own.

It's not as though the power crisis has suddenly dawned on Karnataka. A poor monsoon last year meant that the farmers were dependent on ground water and water pumps to irrigate their crops. Given long hours of load shedding, even drawing on ground water became difficult for the farmers.

In Bengaluru, it seems that load shedding has been going on forever — nobody remembers when it started, it’s as though it never ended last year! While almost all multinationals and IT companies have their own captive power plants, the Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) don’t have that advantage. Last summer, most of the industrial units in Bengaluru got power for about an hour or so, setting them behind schedules and missing deadlines. One of the owners of an SME told Livemint in August last year, “I am yet to start the production for October. If it is going to be like this, people like me will have to shut down their businesses.”

Industry bodies feel that steps to improve power generation should have been taken months ago, in anticipation of the power problems after a bad monsoon. As early as October last year, Anuj Sharma, president of the Bangalore Chamber of Industry and Commerce told The Hindu Business Line, “The problems could have been avoided by judicious policymaking, appropriate planning and administrative steps to improve generation capacity, efficiency of generation, portfolio balancing and maintenance of existing units.”

So, why didn’t the Karnataka government anticipate the power crisis this season, the worst in 25 years? Why weren’t alternative solutions planned and implemented as soon as a poor monsoon was on the cards? And why is it that Karnataka is always reactive and not proactive? And this time around, what created the present power crisis?

Reason #1: Karnataka continues to rely on hydel power for 70 per cent of its needs. As a cascading effect of a poor monsoon, the three major hydel reservoirs at Linganmakki, Mani and Supa were generating only 46. 26 per cent of its capacity. The Times of India reported a recent fire at Sharavathi hydroelectric power plant, which only aggravated the already dire power situation.

Reason #2: The state's problems have been further compounded by the constant repair and maintenance activity at the thermal plants, at Udupi, Raichur and Bellary. A shortage of coal only compounds the issue. Five out of eight units at the Raichur Thermal Plant Station fell short of their production targets due to shortage of water in the Krishna River.

Reason #3: No major effort has been made to look for alternative sources of energy. Despite Karnataka being among the first states to adopt renewable energy sources like solar and wind, most of these projects are small scale. Other states have been growing rapidly in setting up their wind and solar power plants.  Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh added 2,000 MW of power in renewable energy in the last few years, while Karnataka added a dismal 200 to 300 MW in the same period. A wind energy plant with 1,000 MW capacity was able to produce only 17 MW due to low winds.

Let’s tune in to energy minister DK Shiva Kumar, who told The Times of India, as early as October last year, "We will sign a long-term agreement to buy 2,000 MW of power over 10 years. Under the short-term agreement, we are planning to purchase 1,000 MW. This will help us ensure things don't go out of hand during the summer."

The government also restricted independent power producers from selling power to other states. But ironically, so have the other states, since monsoon has failed in many western and eastern states.

The lethargy of the Karnataka government is no more visible than in its website Namma Sarkara, where reasons are given for the power crisis and the short term and long term steps taken. The information and statistics have not been updated for god only knows how many months. The status report of thermal and solar projects which were expected to be completed last year are not updated. Are they delayed or have they started quietly functioning? For instance, the state is setting up a solar power park with a 2,000 MW capacity, which is coming up in 10,000 acres in the Pavagada taluk of Tumakuru district. What stage is this project at?

Karnataka needs around 22,200 MW of additional power to meet the growing demand in future. Thermal, renewable energy, solar and wind power have all to be explored to find a permanent solution to the power crisis in the state.

A silver lining in the dark clouds is the expected investment in the energy sector from the recently concluded Global Investors Meet in February. The Times of India reported that the meet garnered an investment of over Rs 3.07 lakh crore, of which Rs 1.73 lakh crore has already been approved by the Karnataka government. Among various agreements inked in the infrastructure sector, energy is also one of them.

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Updated Date: Mar 09, 2016 10:01:01 IST