India’s power outage: A lesson

I have been reading articles over the past week following India’s biggest power failure on July 30 and 31. Some 600 million people were left without power after parts of the country’s massive electricity grid collapsed. Most analyses have attributed this large-scale grid failure to mismatch in power need and availability. Some hinted that the situation had been made worse this year by a drier monsoon season, which prompted northern states’ farmers to run pumps and draw more power than usual. Some analysts say India has poor energy infrastructure etc. Maybe it’ll take months to find out the root cause of failure.
But, it would be wrong to think that India is uniquely vulnerable to large-scale grid failures. The growing complexity and reliance on the electric grid in both developed and fast-growing countries is making stability tougher to achieve. To make grids around the world more reliable, operators need to incorporate more advanced control technology, which can help grids recover from disruptions.
There’s no denying the fact that the government has failed to lead the country in investing enough in basic infrastructure to meet such an essential need as energy for a country attempting to become an advanced power rapidly. Neither has it implemented any policy on power generation, transmission, distribution and use that can balance supply and demand adequately and intelligently. According to a government data, demand outstripped supply by more than 10 per cent.
Few countries suffer the same gaping mismatch between power need and availability. But India’s disaster illustrates the perils of relying on manual control of the grid as these systems get overtaxed and more complicated.
India operates its grid with one very large handicap: insufficient power. With demand for electricity regularly outstripping supply, grid operators ration out power by periodically cutting service in some areas.
“Any complex interactive system is prone to break up. You can minimize the risk, but you can never prevent a failure,” says Arshad Mansoor, senior vice president at the Electric Power Research Institute. “Saying the reason for grid-wide collapse was that they had more load than generation is too simplistic.”
The primary function of grid operators is to anticipate load and to maintain a steady balance between power supply and demand. The grid signal operates at a set frequency—60 hertz in the US and 50 hertz in India—and when supply and demand fall out of sync, the frequency will either dip or rise. In the US, grid operators have “hot” generators on standby to ramp up power in order to keep a close-to-steady frequency, but that’s not the case when generators are routinely maxed out.
India needs to work with private sector, including foreign investors, to ensure that growth is not disrupted. Stringent measures must be taken to stop pilferage of power and also effective measures must be taken to stop technical leakage.
Besides, the conflict between water and power is poised to become more acute as weather patterns change and fast-growing economies consume more water. A 2010 report from the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based environmental think tank, says economic and population growth is putting a stress on freshwater suppliers in India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. With the rapid expansion of thermal and hydroelectric plants and longer dry periods, many countries in Asia and elsewhere will face water-related risks in power generation, the report said.
There’s little doubt that the power collapse has more to do with politics than technology and engineering. It’s been reported that northern states have been consistently overdrawing power in response to drier weather over the past few weeks, but federal regulators did not discipline them for fear of losing political support for the UPA government.
India has the potential and technical knowhow to get to the bottom of the problems and set things right. But what it lacks is the political will.
Will the callous leaders learn a lesson from the biggest power failure that brought most parts of the country to a grinding halt?

Here’s a nice analysis by MIT Tech Review.

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