WRR Commentary: A Shining Light

Jason Rainey
Thursday, August 23, 2012

Commentary: September 2012 World Rivers Review

As I write this, the failure of India’s electricity grid has created what surely must be the world’s largest blackout. The New York Times reported that over 600 million people live in the impacted area. In case anyone is feeling numb to the number of zeros in that figure, the Times points out that we are talking about roughly 10% of humanity affected by the outage.  

This news is being spun in a number of ways, for a range of motives. Was an operator asleep in the control room?  Is India’s electricity demand outstripping its generation capacity?  Is this an indicator of mismanagement in national energy planning?  So the speculation, finger pointing, and opportunism goes.

Whatever the specific causes, what seems clear to me from this massive grid failure in India – and the blackout that swept the eastern United States in 2003 and the rolling blackouts in California in 2001 – is that large, centralized and inter-tied systems are by their nature vulnerable to systematic failure.  And once a chain reaction begins – whether it’s in a system such as an electricity grid, or perhaps, too, in ecological systems on Planet Earth – it’s not easy to contain the fallout.

India’s grids are fed largely with coal, with a strong and increasing percentage of hydropower. And while the dam-building industry and others who are in a position to profit from large infrastructure projects will surely use the blackout as a rallying cry for new dam construction in India and the Himalayas, forward-thinking planners might offer another approach.  

International Rivers and our partners in India have long worked to raise awareness of the risks involved in building large dams in the mountainous regions of South Asia. The latest hydrological science and modeling results suggest that Himalayan precipitation regimes are shifting under climate variability and that the total ice pack is diminishing. This creates great risk and uncertainty for the existing dams of the Himalaya – in terms of their safety, their longevity, and their ability to produce the power for which they were designed.  Indeed, most of the news coverage of the Indian blackout picked up on the fact that the drought in India caused a reduction in hydropower production and thus likely contributed to the strain on the grid.  

In an increasingly unreliable climate, energy planners should use great caution before investing huge sums in building monuments to the 20th century on rivers that may lack reliable water flows to generate power. And with the current proposals for upward of 500 dams planned in the Ganges River basin alone, this is no minor investment decision. Indeed, it will decide the fate of Himalayan rivers and the communities that depend on them.

As our Policy Director Peter Bosshard lays out in our recent report, “Infrastructure for Whom?”, there are substantial trade-offs in terms of beneficiaries of big dam infrastructure investment vs. decentralized solutions. For about half the estimated cost of the proposed Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River, for example, a decentralized energy investment would bring basic electricity access to 79 million people and provide improved cooking stoves for 200 million more.

We’ve all heard of what the alternative solutions might be for meeting the needs of the 1.5 billion people without electricity.  Technological innovations in wind, solar and geothermal have a role to play bridging this divide, and also in a broader transition of global energy production to renewable sources. This issue of World Rivers Review focuses on the how of energy solutions. Community energy initiatives put appropriate technologies to use at a human scale that offers community self-determination, resilience to risks, and keeps economic benefits near the origin of production. Scaling up such decentralized solutions is ultimately a matter of investment priorities and public policies that incentivize such enterprises.  

The blackout in India serves as a reminder that a transition away from hyper-centralized electricity systems may ultimately be inevitable. What we need now are investments and incentives to hasten the transition to community-scaled energy production while we still have living rivers to nourish and replenish our communities.