Friday, August 3, 2012

India blackout

Two pieces on the massive India blackout. First, an interesting
observation in the Scientific American on the recent black out vs
solar energy use in rural areas. (thank you Latha for submitting this
for the list!). Second, a blog from Nat'l Geographic on why the
blackout does not mean India needs more dams.

Solar Power Helped Keep the Lights On in India
By David Biello | August 1, 2012 |

Every day, at least 400 million Indians lack access to electricity.
Another nearly 700 million Indians joined their fellows in energy
poverty over the course of the last few days, or roughly 10 percent of
the world�s population.

Oddly enough, some of the formerly energy poor�rural villagers
throughout the subcontinent�found themselves better off than their
middle-class compatriots during the recent blackouts, thanks to
village homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels. In fact, solar power
helped keep some electric pumps supplying water for fields parched by
an erratic monsoon this year.

That monsoon is partly to blame for the blackouts as well. A lack of
rain has meant a reduction in power from India�s hydroelectric dams.
Pair that with problems with the supply of coal to burn and the
northern half of India found itself with not enough electricity supply
to meet demand. One ironic anecdote illustrates this conundrum nicely:
coal miners in northern India were trapped when their electric lifts
failed as a result of the blackout exacerbated by a lack of coal.

The thirst for electricity stems from burgeoning demand from India�s
middle class, which has embraced everything from air conditioning to
the electric-powered subway trains of New Delhi. India also enjoys
some of the highest rates of what is known in the trade as �non-
technical losses,� i.e. people hijacking electric supplies and not
paying for it (as opposed to �technical losses,� like the amount of
electricity lost via the physics of transmission itself and the like.)
And then there are the politically popular programs like providing
free power to farmers for irrigation pumps.

Such politics no doubt played a role. Tensions between state
governments, the national government and power suppliers are legion,
including some areas that take more electricity than they are supposed
to at times. That�s the reason the energy minister, newly promoted to
minister for home affairs for his stellar performance, gave for the
first day of blackouts. And politics have prevented the kind of
investment in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that can prevent
things like power lines sagging in the heat and shorting out via
untrimmed trees. Wait, does that sound familiar?

The root cause of the massive back-to-back blackouts won�t be known
for a while. It took three months to definitively trace the root cause
of the 2003 blackout that shut down the U.S. Northeast along with
parts of Canada to the aforementioned. But one root cause is already
obvious: a crippling indifference to the basic needs of electrical
infrastructure (the Indian government has declined to invest in an
upgrade to the country�s aging grid)�and people. That kind of sounds
familiar too.

Rotating blackouts, brownouts and power cuts are all too common in
India thanks to a shortfall of electricity, so much so that it is
taken as the normal state of affairs and major companies like Wipro
build their own micro-grids to cope. As is the fact that those 400
million Indians�and the more than 1 billion people around the world
like them�still lack access to modern energy.

Image: mckaysavage /

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment
and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.


India�s Massive Blackout, and the Environmental Danger to Come
Posted by Dan Morrison of National Geographic News Correspondent in
Water Currents on July 31, 2012

An estimated 600 million Indians � more people than live in western
Europe � were without electricity today, victims of a massive blackout
that darkened most of the northern and eastern portions of the country.
The Great Indian Outage, stretching from New Delhi to Kolkata, comes
just a day after 300 million people in northern India lost power for
much of Monday.

It is a disaster that�s caused untold damage to India�s economy, its
prestige, and its well-being � think of the millions of patients in
hospitals, the commuters stuck on trains, and farmers in need of
irrigation. Hundreds of miners in the states of West Bengal and
Jharkand were trapped underground by the blackout. Some 300 trains
were reportedly stalled across the country.

There�s more damage to come, I fear: Forces that have been bridling
against environmental regulations and science-based activism will use
the Great Outage as a cudgel to demolish future restraints on dam
construction, coal mining, and other projects.

India�s humiliating power failure is sure to birth a slogan as
reductive and wrong as America�s own �Drill Baby Drill.�

The north Indian town of New Tehri, built above the reservoir of a
1,000-megawatt dam to house displaced villagers, suffers daily power

The irony is that this outage was likely caused in part by
mismanagement at the Bhakra series of hydroelectric dams in Punjab and
Himachal Pradesh states in northern India, according to Himanshu
Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

�Had these dams been operated more rationally, keeping in mind the
emerging realities and forecasts, the situation in Northwest India
would have been different,� Thakkar told me. �Higher [water] levels in
these dams would have meant more power generation for each unit of
water release and at the same time more water for agriculture, thus
less water [for irrigation] pumped from aquifers, and thus less demand
of power.�

Earlier this month, Thakkar�s organization published a short paper
[pdf] criticizing dam administrators for allowing water levels to
become alarmingly low.

Thakkar says the answer to India�s current power crisis isn�t more
hydroelectric dams, as most currently existing dams aren�t built or
operated for maximum efficiency. Instead, power can be saved by
harvesting rainwater.

�Since most of our water is coming from groundwater, we need to store
the rainfall in aquifers that are fast depleting,� he says. �This
would have multiple spin-off benefits.� With healthier aquifers,
farmers wouldn�t have to run electric-powered pumps as much to
adequately irrigate their crops � a major drag on the power grid.

�More dams won�t help achieve that,� Thakkar says, adding that farmers
should shift to less water-intensive crops. �It is amazing that, among
all the crops, [acreage devoted to] sugarcane has gone up in this
drought year!�

At the Center for Science and the Environment, Chandra Bushan provides
some of the hard numbers behind today�s blackout, as well as a simple
cause: Indian states are taking more power from the grid than they are
supposed to, even as the power system lacks the flexibility to meet
seasonal spikes in demand.

In this case, a weak and tardy annual monsoon has millions of
households and businesses running their air conditioners for longer
than they would under normal conditions. This from the CSE:

Electricity generation for the month of June illustrates this problem:

� In June 2012, India produced 8 per cent more electricity than in
June 2011.
� The generation from thermal power plants was 11.4 per cent higher
than in June 2011. Coal-based power plants generated 16.7 per cent
more electricity.
� However, with low monsoon, the generation of electricity from
hydropower plants reduced by 6 per cent compared to June 2011. In
fact, hydropower plants produced 19 per cent lesser electricity in
April-June, 2012 than the corresponding months in 2011. As hydro
plants are also peak load plants, this reduction seems to have
affected the peak power generation in the country significantly.
None of this logic � nor the many recent plans and ideas for improving
the management and efficiency of India�s power grid � will make a
difference to the contractors and bureaucrats in the �Build Baby
Build� crowd that has much to gain from poorly-planned dam construction.

The debate over dams has become so silly that earlier this month a
minister from the government of Uttarakhand state went on a one-day
hunger strike to support more construction on the Himalayan
tributaries of the Ganges River. Mantri Prasad Naithani�s constituency
is in the region of Tehri Gahrwal, which was submerged a decade ago by
the giant Tehri dam. Residents of the doomed town of Tehri were
relocated to a �model town� higher up the valley to make room for the
$1 billion, 1,000 megawatt hydroelectric dam�s reservoir.

When I visited New Tehri last year, power outages were commonplace.

But it�s brute force, not the rhetorical kind, that truly keeps this
movement alive.

On June 22, the Indian environmentalist Bharat Jhunjhunwala was
attacked in his home in Uttarakhand state by a gang of 40 thugs
purportedly working for a contracting company. At the time of the
attack, Jhunjhunwala, 62, had been hosting G.D. Agrawal, an eminent
scientist turned swami who is also known as Gyan Swarup Anand. Agrawal
was in the region to protest the coming submergence of the Dhari Devi
Temple on the Alaknanda river by a hydroelectric project.

In full view of local police and journalists, the crowd kicked in
Jhunjhunwalla�s door and blackened his face with ink. He and his wife
were forced to flee the area.

�They threatened him that they will burn him alive in the house if he
did not stop opposing the dams within two days,� according to an
account by Jhunjhunwala�s family.

India�s power grid suffers from inertia on one hand and from
destructive greed on the other. It doesn�t suffer from a shortage of

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