For far too long, the electricity debate has swirled around limited access, consumer theft and distribution companies’ losses. It is time the dependability of supply and accountability of energy distributors get the attention they deserve.
My village in North Bihar has been grid-tied for several decades: most houses are metered or pay a fixed periodic charge. And yet most households hoping to have their children study in electric light in evening or have a fan work in summer or watch a TV show of their choice do not rely on grid power. They know the grid will fail them exactly when they need it.
Houses rely on backup: a set of inverter and batteries to store power from the grid; a parallel connection for electricity supplied by diesel generators operated by some local entrepreneurs who charge a few rupees for each point of light or fan for three hours in evening; solar lamps; and the traditional kerosene lamps. Most families would keep all these options at home given the lack of trustworthiness of grid supply.
The diesel-generated power is dearer than the grid supply, but more reliable, and therefore has a big subscription base in the village. A household typically ends up paying every month for the intermittent grid power and evening supply from diesel generators, and locks up a substantial sum in inverter, batteries and solar lamps.
Many homes with the ability and willingness to spend big initial capital, have now begun installing rooftop solar panels that frees them from dealing with multiple power supply sources and hassles.
This description of coexistence of multiple sources of electricity for a society that after all consumes very little energy lays bare the inadequacies of our energy supply system and incompetence of policymakers who are unable to grasp the consumer need or build a robust system that can offer a unfailing supply.
Reliability of supply is at the heart of energy challenge India is facing today. Lesser dependability of grid supply means homes and factories must heavily invest in alternative supplies through inverters, batteries, solar panels, or diesel generators. From homes in Gurgaon, to malls in Delhi and factories in Kanpur, everyone must pay for this backup plan. But the homes in rural, poor and backward regions are most vulnerable to the unreliable supply and therefore end up paying a disproportionate price for the power they consume from multiple sources.
While the Prime Minister’s energy access drive, that aims to grid connect all homes by December 2018, deserves big applause, the time is ripe now to get the reliability of supply to the centre of the energy debate. Just connecting homes with no guarantee of quality supply means a big cost to consumers: They end up paying a minimum charge for the grid supply even without making the best use of it since supplies are absent in the most productive hours. Once they get the taste of electricity, most are persuaded to spend more for backup: those who can afford buy inverters and batteries, creating a boom for their suppliers, others are happy with cheaper substitute such as solar lamps.
For far too long, the electricity debate has swirled around limited access, consumer theft and distribution companies’ losses. It is time the dependability of supply and accountability of energy distributors get the attention they deserve. The deficient policymaking has kept power prices for rural and poor consumers very high. The cost must come down for the government’s electricity access drive to have a bigger impact.
Sanjeev Choudhary is a journalist with The Economic Times.