India’s grid system is in poor repair, as symbolized by this ad-hoc collection of connections in Raipur, India

Too Big Not to Fail: India Blackouts Highlight Need for Change

Lori Pottinger
Thursday, August 23, 2012

The world’s biggest power outage, which struck northern and eastern India over two days in July, affected nearly 10% of the world’s population, and 19 of the country’s 28 states. Many factors were behind the catastrophic failure, but one that is especially troubling in a changing climate is the relationship between water and the blackouts.

Robert Kimball of the World Resource Institute blogged that the blackouts “were created as much by pipes and pumps as they were by power plants and transmission lines. In many ways, the country’s power problems are symptoms of a growing water crisis.”

The excessive use of water pumps by India’s drought-struck farmers was one factor that tripped the system. Commercial growers in India are requiring ever-more-powerful pumps, thanks to having over-pumped groundwater. Because Indian farmers receive electricity free of charge, there is no incentive for conserving energy.

Another factor was the drop in hydropower from India’s large dams. Rainfall is down nearly 20% across India (and in the state of Punjab, India’s largest producer of wheat, it’s down by an astonishing 70%). India gets about 20-25% of its electricity from hydropower dams, and this year hydropower production is down 19% from last year, due to low rainfall.

The high use of water in conventional power systems contributed to the problem too. WRI’s Kimball notes, “Conventional power plants are just as dependent on water as hydroelectric plants. Thermal power plants (such as fossil fuel and nuclear plants) need water to keep their equipment cool and functioning. A lack of water for cooling has threatened to force some of India’s nuclear power facilities to shut down.” A 2010 report by WRI found that 79% of new thermal and hydroelectric power plants planned for construction by the three largest power companies in the country were to be built in water scarce regions.

The international NGO Alliance to Save Energy, working with USAID, has had an Indian “watergy” program (an effort to save water and the associated energy used by water systems) since 2002. The program has yielded impressive results in a number of municipalities, but the need to reduce the electricity sector’s water use remains great.

Which path?
There are competing visions on what the blackout might mean for India’s energy sector. While many hope it will provide an opportunity to increase the nation’s decentralized renewable energy resources, the reality is that the national system is deeply rooted in big grids, big coal and big dams.

"Unfortunately, a lot of developers and lobbyists are using the opportunity of blackouts to push the case for building more big hydropower, thermal and nuclear power projects. But building more large dams would be an invitation to bigger disasters,” said Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People. “What these incidents are telling us is that we need to ensure proper management of our existing electricity generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure to get optimum benefits, and go for better methods for controlling our growing water use – such as better cropping patterns, restoration of groundwater through rainwater harvesting, a shift to less water-intensive crops and to water conserving farming methods such as rice intensification, and other prudent water management practices. Most importantly, we need a more democratic, more transparent, and accountable governance of our water and energy systems."

After the recent mega-blackouts, many in India may be ready for more democratic decision-making and greater local control over their energy supply. India suffers frequent blackouts (though not usually on this scale), and the unreliability of the national grid has pushed many communities and companies to develop local microgrid and backup power systems. Bloomberg news reports that some of India’s biggest electricity-using companies have already spent US$29 billion on energy systems “to quarantine their plants from the national grid,” and thus were mostly shielded from the big blackout. The wire service reports that five of India’s biggest electricity users generate 96% of their electricity requirements.

The nation’s energy planners could take a clue from corporate India. Expanding the reliance on microgrids centered around a diversity of renewables would not only reduce the chance of massive blackouts affecting whole states, but would also be a better solution for meeting the energy needs of India’s remote rural areas, where most of the nation’s 300-400 million unelectrified citizens live.

Wind and solar systems have been credited with softening the blow of the blackout in a number of instances. For example, in Jodhpur state a local energy official reported: “We immediately switched to wind power and resumed power supply at hospitals, water pumps, railways, high court and administrative offices.” Solar-powered pumps and solar panels kept many awash in water and power.

India’s 970MW of grid-connected solar systems kept working despite the grid failure. The nation is planning a massive rollout of new solar systems, which along with a global drop in prices for panels is expected to result in solar grid parity (e.g., costing the same as conventional electricity supply) by 2017, according to a national solar center.

Efficiency should be prioritized
India’s grid is riddled with problems and inefficiencies. A McKinsey Institute report on India’s power system estimates that modernizing the grid, which loses 30% of its power in the course of transmission, would cost $110 billion.

A 2009 study by WRI noted that an investment of $10 billion in energy efficiency improvements in India would save 183.5 billion kilowatt hours each year – equivalent to the yearly output of 183 Sardar Sarovar dams (one of India’s largest, and most controversial, dams). A study by the energy efficiency group ACEEE found that a five-year model energy efficiency program for appliances and lighting could reduce domestic energy use by about 30% from a “business as usual” scenario.

Many destructive megaprojects could easily be avoided if these savings were tapped, and new blackouts avoided. Tapping into energy efficiency is also faster and cheaper than new power plants.

“Indian power planners must rethink the megaproject model, and move more quickly to expand clean, decentralized energy systems and tap into our huge potential for energy efficiency,” said Samir Mehta of International Rivers’ India program.