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Like IT, India can revolutionise the power sector

The current debate over the nuclear deal has been a long drawn out affair and has generated lot of confusion. It was presented as a means to make India secure in terms of energy with a long time horizon perhaps of 10-20 years. A far reaching agreement like this without a bipartisan support will be difficult to implement.

The nuclear power generation (NPG) is currently about 3 % of total power generation in the country and with this agreement which will involve transfer of technology, as well as continuity of fuel(Uranium) the share of NPG will go to about 6 -7% by 2020 by importing 12 Reactors probably from the West with a total capacity of 12,000 MW.

It will be a turn key operation about which India has always had bad experience. Turn key operations in the power sector have historically never generated in-house expertise.

Nuclear power stations take a longer time to build about 3-4 years longer than Thermal power stations. Their induction in the power grid will require attention to special operational problems .For example they must always be operated as base load stations i.e. constant power output. In the event of grid failure which is common in India, the NPG's must not be 'islanded' i.e. with insufficient load being supplied by them.

This means any cluster of NPG's must be connected to a strong grid. This requires detailed system studies for which there is no evidence that it has been done in India. The country has historically relied on foreign expertise on all complex issues related to power. While the capital cost of NPG is high, the operational cost perhaps is not, though some argue that Uranium may become expensive in the international market in the future

This year we had a peak deficit of 14% i.e. approx 14,000 MW. Reduction of technical losses technical losses as well as getting the revenue from the unaccounted commercial losses should be a top priority. A simple calculation will reveal that if we cut our T and D losses by 12% over a period of 5 years, one can serve an unserved load of at least 5,000 MW. To do this will require the same determination that the country had in implementing the Green, Milk and Telecom (GMT) revolutions. From press reports, Gujarat has made some dent into collecting dues from all those who use electricity illegally. The private sector including the IT sector has to be involved. New technologies of automatic meter reading (AMR) through wireless, time of day metering must be thought of as means of both conservation and efficiency.

The modern day grid is a complex network of hardware, with electronics, communications and computers. In future GPS will be used to measure the instantaneous health of the grid and ensure its reliability in real time. Hence there is a desperate need to ramp up the expertise within the country .With the expertise of Fast Breeder Reactor technology and breakthrough in use of Thorium in future, India will be in the driver's seat soon. The country must consider these issues very carefully before going for the nuclear deal. In these matters there is no substitute for sound engineering judgments.

With India becoming the hub of global IT, it is a legitimate goal to pursue closer relations with USA since both have shared common goals and political systems. The public will surely welcome closer cooperation with the US. Perhaps the country can separately negotiate for access to dual use technology on a case by case basis given the clean record of India in terms of not sharing nuclear secrets with other countries. The government can then have a broader consensus in the country.

There is no need to put such a great emphasis on nuclear energy as if the country's future depended on it. We need to build good expertise in all aspects of power by focusing on modern technological aspects as well as investing in alternative energy sources. The nuclear aspect of the deal can wait but the greater technological cooperation between the countries must be given priority.

Just as IT, expertise in power if properly generated can put the country in a big advantageous position in the world. Can we replicate the IT revolution of the eighties with a similar one in the 21st century in the power sector? With perhaps the largest pool of English speaking manpower in power sector in the world, I believe we can.

(M A Pai is Professor Emeritus, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Univ of Illinois)

Courtesy : Economic Times News Paper

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