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From Plan to Action: Three Considerations for Meaningful Electricity Planning in India

India’s power sector has ambitious targets. The Indian government has pledged to develop a renewable energy (RE) capacity of 175GW from the existing 57GW in the next five years, and promised electricity for all homes in the next two years, powering more than 300 million people. The realisation of these targets hinges heavily on a holistic electricity planning process.

At present, electricity planning happens at both national and state levels. The National Electricity Plan (NEP) is developed by the Central Electricity Authority every five years. The draft plan for 2017-2022, circulated in December 2016 is still under review. Meanwhile, electricity is also covered in NITI Aayog’s national level draft Action Plan, which is also currently under review. This is part of a broader strategy that covers various sectors to achieve the national government’s 2030 Vision. At the state level, electricity planning is carried out separately through electric utility expansion plans, energy department policy notes and State Planning Commission reports.

As the various electricity planning pieces at the national level are now being put together, here are three considerations for ensuring translation of plans to action, and action to meaningful impact.

1. Understanding and Integrating State-level Interests

The recent years have seen a tremendous push on key issues in the electricity sector, such as the 175 GW RE target, management of DISCOM's losses and providing 24X7 power to all, driven primarily by the national government. The ambitions set by the national governments run the risk of achieving limited results unless they have state level buy-in. For instance, many states are yet to align their respective state RE targets with the national target of 175GW by 2022, constrained by internal challenges such as poor utility finances. States often also have different priorities, such Tamil Nadu which prioritizes free, unmetered power for agriculture over a reduction in DISCOM losses.

Incentives tailored to state interests can go a long way towards implementation of national-level targets. The enabling environment created by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission led to RE rich states drafting solar policies. Meeting the current, significantly larger RE target of 175 GW requires a close alignment between national-level planning and state-level interests and efforts so that the right signals are sent to consumers, enterprises and developers, and utilities.

Finally, even when there is alignment between national and state government thinking for the sector, states often face inadequate institutional capacities, especially for addressing emerging concerns like integration of RE into the grid or proactive planning for DSM and load management. National planning needs to ensure that state-level capacity building and training are incorporated early in the plans to facilitate better implementation.

2. End-Use Data Collection for Monitoring and Tracking Progress

Conventional electricity planning in India has placed emphasis on supply expansion. Demand analysis often gets limited to aggregated load growth projections. The rapid expansion of decentralised electricity generation systems and the availability of demand management options call for electricity planning at disaggregated, end-use levels. This type of planning in India has been limited due to the unavailability of detailed, sector-wise and use-wise data.

Collecting end-use data gives planners bottom-up information to tailor electricity service delivery for specific electricity needs. For instance, it opens the possibility of schools and other institutions requiring day-time electricity to be powered by solar energy. It also provides electricity planners with a reliable baseline against which future planning can be done, incorporating prevalent practices such as the widespread use of power backup.

Collection of such data does not necessarily require an overhaul of existing systems. As the Indian government develops new electricity plans, end-use data collection can be mandated wherever possible or built into existing nation-wide data collection exercises such as censuses, NSSO sample surveys, and surveys by State Planning Departments.

3. Looking beyond electrification

Access to electricity is important for overall socio-economic development. Studies suggest that 33 million rural Indians rely on un-electrified health facilities, while 32 million children go to schools without electricity. Even where there is physical access to electricity connections, reliability and timeliness of supply becomes important. In sectors like agriculture, the availability of steady, day-time electricity through solar panels instead of irregular, night-time grid power could help farmers explore options such as protected poly house cultivation.

Being a key input for effective functioning of these sectors, electricity planners need to consider going beyond mere grid expansion to understanding electricity needs across various sectors. This can happen if electricity planners actively engage with other sectors such as agriculture, health, education and livelihood generation and factor in their energy needs and available supply options into energy plans. These departments on the other hand could consider integrating decentralised energy solutions in their schemes. Agricultural and horticultural departments in many parts of the country have already started doing this by incorporating solar water pumping with best practices like drip-irrigation and rain-water harvesting. NITI Aayog’s draft Action Plan, with its multi-sectoral focus is best placed to include such thinking, linking electricity to other developmental sectors.

While India makes positive strides towards meeting its RE targets and reforming the power sector as a whole, it is important that national, state and local plans complement each other and provide a coherent framework of action for the sector.

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