“In the past three weeks, my schedule has completely collapsed due to the frequent power cuts in Chennai,” says Nandhini R, a working mother to a two-year-old. She walks to and fro on the dark balcony at 3 am, patting her daughter, waiting for her to go to sleep.
Nandhini can only hope to get a few hours of rest before she begins her day at 5.30 am. Her husband, an IT professional who works the night shift from home, also finds his work affected by the power outage.
“We have been facing frequent unscheduled power outages amidst the soaring heat, particularly for longer hours at night. My daughter keeps crying all night. If her sleep cycle is disrupted, it disturbs mine too. Then it becomes highly challenging for me to function through the day,” adds Nandhini.
Nandhini’s experience is not an isolated incident. Instances of long hours of power cuts in Chennai have become so frequent that people have taken to the streets over the issue.
On June 3rd, residents of Nesappakam staged a protest at night, condemning the state government for its inability to prevent frequent power cuts in Chennai that have disrupted normal life. Residents of Kallikuppam near Ambattur have also staged a protest recently.
Residents’ lives in disarray
Chennai is facing a particularly brutal summer. While the temperature was expected to be high between May 4 and May 29 due to Agni Nakshatram/Kathiri Veyil, there has been no respite even well into June. The maximum temperature recorded this summer was in Meenambakkam and Nungambakkam at 42.6 degree Celsius and 42.1 degree Celsius respectively on June 3.
Power outages have compounded the issues faced by residents already reeling from the heat.
Pushpalatha Raman, Treasurer of the United Welfare Association of Ambattur, a federation of residents’ welfare associations in Ambattur, says that on most nights they have no electricity supply for at least a couple of hours in their locality.
“Two days ago, we did not have power supply from 8 pm to 3 am. For most of the day, there is also the issue of low voltage. Even the fans do not work properly at such times,” says Pushpalatha. “Even the power backup devices die when the power cuts prolong for the whole night.”
“The challenge is to manage children and senior citizens when there are prolonged power cuts during the night. Such power cuts clubbed with soaring temperature exhausts patients and their caretakers,” says Pushpalatha.
“Given the soaring temperature in Chennai, it is already hard to stand in the kitchen and cook. In recent times, power cuts have become so unpredictable that I cannot even plan a meal,” says Savitha, a homemaker in KK Nagar.
Prakash D, an IT professional from Nesapakkam, who works in hybrid mode, says that the power cuts have affected his work to a large extent. “I go to the office twice a week and work from home the other three days. A good Wi-Fi connection and a sufficient power supply to charge my devices are the primary needs for my work. The frequent power cuts have resulted in poor performance at work and a lack of sleep during the nights has also taken a toll on my health,” he says.
For small business owners, power cuts mean a substantial hit to operations. While the big shops or industries can manage with backup power supply, there are small shops that cannot afford them.
Bhuvana S, a small grocery shop owner in Arumbakkam says, “Unless my refrigerator works, some of the refrigerated products cannot be preserved. The frequent and long power cuts in Chennai have affected the business to an extent that I cannot store the goods despite having the facilities to refrigerate them.”
What’s causing the power cuts?
Tamil Nadu Generation and Distribution Corporation Limited (TANGEDCO) predicted the power demands in the state to go up by 2,000 megawatts (MW) this summer compared to last year. The peak demand was predicted to touch 19,000 MW in the state this summer.
The Chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board (TNEB) Rajesh Lakhani said on May 15th that power demand in Chennai had increased from 3,027 MW in 2013 to 3,778 MW in 2023 (April 20). This is close to the power demand of the entire state of Kerala which is close to 4,500 MW.
To meet the increase in demand, TANGEDCO signed a short-term agreement for the power purchase in February. Additionally, the agency also ramped up power generation through thermal and hydro energy sources in order to reduce dependency on private generators of power.
Despite the predictions and the purchase of additional power to keep up with demand, the continuing prolonged power cuts in Chennai only show that the state was unprepared to manage and actually meet the summer demand.
While Pushpalatha was paying Rs 290 as a bimonthly electricity bill, she says that the power consumption in her house has increased at least by 100 units since the summer began.
Pushpalatha does not use air conditioners at her home, but Harish, a resident of Velachery who was paying around Rs 6,500 as bimonthly electricity charges before summer, has now paid Rs 15,000. This is because his house has three air conditioners.
Acknowledging that there is also indiscretionary use on the part of residents, Pushpalatha points to the fact that there are households that have air conditioners in every room. While it is environmentally unsustainable, it shall also be noted that the government has not taken any regulatory measures to bring down the household use of air conditioners. Residents who are using many ACs are also prepared to pay substantially higher bills in summer.
“When the government is charging for the consumption of power and has not thought of any regulatory measures, as long as the residents are ready to pay for usage, they must also ensure regular supply of power,” she says.
Shop owner Bhuvana asks a question with no easy answers. “Had the government already made the predictions on the power demand in summer and made the additional purchase, why are we still facing the power cuts?”
Supply-side issues leading to power cuts
The answer to Bhuvana’s question might just lie in Chennai’s old electricity cables, found both overhead and underground.
A Murugesan, Councillor of Ward 200 says that the old power cables in several areas like Tsunami Nagar and Rajiv Gandhi Nagar cannot hold power load that increases with excess power consumption from the use of air conditioners.
“There is no issue in the supply but when the power cable cannot handle the overload, they get burnt or cause power cuts. Most of this is related to maintenance, and not the supply,” he explains.
He also points out that staff shortage in the TNEB is a major issue.
“While there should be at least 10 workers per division, there are only four to five workers (in the category of linemen who attend to the public grievances on the ground) per division now. This led to a delay in attending to public grievances,” he notes, adding that he has also highlighted this issue at the Greater Chennai Corporation’s (GCC) council meeting.
Areas like Ambattur being one of the localities that were annexed to the GCC in 2011 still lack many basic amenities.
“Works are underway for laying underground power cables in our area. When we complained about the power cut issues to our local officials, we were told that the underground cables got burnt due to overload as a result of excess air conditioner consumption by households. As it is challenging for the TNEB workers to spot the area where the wire was burnt, they had to dig open the roads every time there is a complaint,” says Pushpalatha.
Officials from TNEB also confirmed that they face challenges in spotting the repairs in the underground cables and also acknowledge the shortage of staff to attend to complaints.
“The issues of overload cannot be fixed during the regular maintenance work. We are attending to the issues as and when we receive the complaint. The root cause is that the old cables were installed years ago for the then population of Chennai. Now that the population has increased, the usage of electricity has also increased drastically. Particularly during summer, when the use of air conditioners increases, the old cables cannot handle it,” the official explains.
Meanwhile, in a recent press meeting, Electricity Minister V Senthilbalaji said that 4,749 new ring main units and 3,447 new transformers will be installed in Chennai to meet the power demands.
Managing Chennai’s rising power demand
Vishnu Rao, Senior Researcher, Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), says that TANGEDCO has historical information on power consumption during the summer but it does not have granular data.
“This means that TANGEDCO makes predictions based on historical data and trends. However, since it does not know how many households have installed additional air conditioners in their homes over the year, the predictions may go wrong,” he explains. “Better forecasting on the demand for power during summer should be made.”
Storage too is another issue faced by the state. While the power consumption is comparatively less during the monsoon, the storage technology has not developed enough to store it for later use.
“Decentralised storage is possible but we do not have the facilities to store the power at a very high level. This is yet another aspect we should concentrate on,” he adds.
Speaking on the demand side management, Vishnu says that the residents of Chennai are not making many attempts to conserve power.
A study titled ‘Standby Power Consumption, An Energy Saving Opportunity’ published by CAG points out that actions as simple as switching off the stabiliser of the air conditioner rather than just switching off the air conditioner can help in saving energy.
As part of the Minsarathai Semippom project, the CAG also published a handbook detailing ways to conserve energy in households.
What can you do to help ease the situation?
- Use a ceiling or table fan as the first line of defence against summer heat. Ceiling fans cost less to operate (about 30 paise an hour as against Rs 10.00 per hour with air conditioners) and use less electricity.
- Using ceiling or room fans allows you to set the AC thermostat higher because the air movement will cool the room.
- Save as much as 10% a year on your cooling bills by simply turning your thermostat back 10% to 15% for 8 hours. Use the automatic setback or programmable thermostat on your air conditioner.
- Clean filters help keep the air conditioning unit in good working condition. Dirty filters reduce the efficiency of the air conditioner.
- A good air conditioner will cool and dehumidify a room in about 30 minutes, so use a timer and leave the unit off for some time.
- Have your air conditioning unit checked every year to ensure it is working efficiently and providing maximum cooling.
- Buy split ACs instead of window ACs. They cost more, but they are more energy efficient and consume lesser electricity saving you money in the long run.
- Do not install AC units on the west and south walls as these are exposed to direct sunlight through a major part of the day during summers.
- Do not apply dark colours on the external surfaces (roof and walls) of the house. Dark colours absorb more heat than light colours, leading to increased use of AC.
- Ensure that the condenser of the unit has enough space around it for air to circulate and help the refrigerant dissipate its heat easily.
- Use Bureau of Energy Efficiency Ratings (BEE) star-labelled products
Source: Consumer handbook to save electricity and reduce bills, CAG.
Vishnu also adds that residents can take steps to mitigate the impact of heat and power cuts by making some design changes in their homes like painting the roof with reflective paints and by ensuring the switches are off when the devices and electrical appliances are not in use.
It is clear that the steep rise in the use of air conditioners in households has become the centre of the power cut issue in Chennai. While officials say that such increased use leads to an overload on the power cables and disrupts the power supply, residents question how else they are to survive such extreme summers.
Chennaiites can only hope that the demand-side management and supply-side management strategies are worked out by the authorities before they find themselves in the dark once again.