Explained: What causes Bengaluru’s frequent power cuts

Karnataka, as a state, has surplus power and suffers low losses at the transmission level but Bengaluru’s Bescom is the weak link in the system, say experts.
Power lines being worked on by cranes in an Indian city
Power lines being worked on by cranes in an Indian city

Over the last few years, Bengaluru, the IT capital of India, appears to be having a perennial problem of power cuts. No part of the city, be it the old Central Business District areas or the outskirts is immune to the power cuts. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw many industries temporarily shut down due to the lockdown and families move back to their hometowns, did not result in any dip in the frequency of power cuts. On any given day, social media handles of Bescom are filled with updates of power cuts in the city for a variety of reasons and of varying durations ranging from 30 minutes to four hours and beyond. While households, which cannot afford backup systems, like inverters suffer inconvenience, it has major financial implications for heavy industries. 

So it’s no surprise that reliability indices for the financial year 2020-21, Bengaluru is way below that of national capital Delhi. The reliability indices are reported by distribution companies like Bescom to the Central Electricity Authority. Bescom is a state government-owned entity which has monopoly of power distribution in Bengaluru and surrounding districts. 

What causes these power cuts?

Rishu Garg, power sector research scientist working with Bengaluru-based Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), pointed out that Karnataka, as a state, has surplus power and suffers low losses at the transmission level. But the distribution sector, is the weak link in the system. She explained, “The lack of a proper distribution network infrastructure and its inadequate operation and maintenance are the major reasons behind these power cuts. Poor network maintenance coupled with overloading and lightning can result in the frequent breakdown of distribution transformers, which are the last-mile assets in sending power to consumers.” 

Bescom classifies power cuts into two types— one planned outage and one unplanned. Some of the unplanned outages are due to rain and heavy winds when Bescom stops supply of power fearing that wires or poles may be damaged and create harm to life. In other cases, it is unforeseen issues like cable faults or tripping of transformers. 

But a majority of these power outages are planned. For October, Bescom has listed out planned outages for every day in the month. General Manager of Bescom (Customer Relations), Somasekhar, said that majority of the power cuts over the last few years are due to the conversion of overhead power lines and transformers into underground lines. “Other than this, there are upgrades of old infrastructures like transformers and ring main units to newer ones. There are sometimes issues due to damage to our cables caused by road widening works or laying of other utility lines,” he said. With more than 50% of Bengaluru’s power cables shifted underground as told by Bescom officials, the rain related problems will soon be eliminated but that will not solve the operation and maintenance problems.

Rishu suggests that an effective maintenance strategy that includes energy audit at distribution transformer level and deploys distribution life cycle management systems (DTLMS) could help in mitigating issues related to transformer failures causing power cuts. Earlier in February, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India report which was tabled in the state Assembly had said Bescom has only done energy audits of 60% of metered distribution transformers. 

“DTLMS can alert officials of any deviation from the permissible limit of oil level, oil temperature, ambient temperature, load parameters, etc, of a transformer. This would also help in reducing the expenditure incurred on replacing failed transformers. Transformer-level auditing can help in pinpointing the exact points/areas responsible for leakages so that immediate action can be taken to rectify them,” she added.

‘Lack of professionalism, corruption to blame’

Muralidhar Rao, a vocal activist against the city’s power woes, says much of the power troubles are due to inefficient work culture. “Right now all the cables are being made underground which will make the supply more reliable but due to their (workers on ground) incompetent nature they are causing single phasing as they are putting the wires in the wrong order. Power connections to households and complexes are done through wires put in order of red, yellow, blue and black. But these workers when they put the wires underground they connect it in the wrong order which causes the motor loads to trip. In our instance for our apartment complex we had to install a device called a single phasing protector to prevent damage to our equipment and had to call Bescom officials to redo the connection. This is due to the work culture and corruption in Bescom,” he alleged. He said that these issues are unheard of in other big cities of the country where discoms are not entirely government operated. 

“If these things happen, engineers will get sacked, but here these engineers might get promoted. But this work culture won’t change as long as the discoms are completely government owned,” he complained.

Muralidhar said that the root of the other upgradation and day-to-day maintenance related problems are in Bescom’s finances due to which modernisation is not occurring swiftly. 

“The company along with other Escoms is in a severe crunch as government departments do not pay their bills on time and secondly the government itself does not pay Bescom for the power spent by farmers in neighbouring districts as promised by the subsidy scheme,” he said.  

The problem has been rampant for a very long time and the government has floated the idea of prepaid meters to solve the problem of their own making. In mid-September, Energy Minister Sunil Kumar had stated various government departments alone owe escoms like Bescom close to Rs 6,000 crore.

The report by the CAG found multiple irregularities like even though officials had okayed payment for 8470 meters for DTCs, the installed meters were not communicating with the centralised data management centre.  

Will projected coal shortages make matters worse?

Union Power Minister RK Singh in an interview  on October 6 said that India is facing a severe coal shortage owing to unprecedented demands as a result of post-COVID recovery. He said for the next six months this crisis will remain as globally there is an energy crisis. However, independent observers disagree with the minister’s views. They allege an artificial crisis is being painted for the passage of  the controversial Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition & Development) Amendment Bill, 2021.

IAS officer Manjula N who is the  director of Karnataka Power Corporation, said, as of now there are no outages expected in the state due to coal shortage and the situation is likely to improve. “Even then, In Karnataka, we are not fully dependent on thermal power. We have good resources for wind and solar energy generation. And thanks to the rains, we have good yield from hydroelectric power plants and there is less demand for power for irrigation purposes,” she told TNM.

According to KPC, Karnataka consumed 170.69 million units (MU) of electricity on Friday, October 8. Out of that, 39.85 MU was provided through hydel projects, another 29.61 MU came from solar and wind generated power of 14.25 MU. The remaining 39.81 MU came from thermal power plants within the state and another 48.33 MU was taken from the central grid which is powered by a combination of sources, a majority of which is from thermal and hydel projects. 

So far, experts agreed that Karnataka as a whole is in a power surplus condition and disruptions are due to issues at the distribution end. “However, if the impending coal shortages continue, we may face issues at the generation (supply) end as well,” noted Rishu.

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