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India seeks light in the dark

  • Asia Times Online
  • Wired World
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The power failure that this week brought half of India to a standstill is the result of energy shortfalls caused by an addiction to over-consumption, with gadgets such as air-conditioners now seen as essential by the newly prosperous. The answer isn't India sacrificing its chillers to swelter in ascetic discomfort, or modern nuclear plants. An alternative to reliance on hydro-power and imported electricity is needed, with the sun being a glaringly obvious candidate. By RAJA MURTHY (Asia Times Online)

The massive electricity outages that brought India to a standstill this week are the result of a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode. More than 300 million people were affected when the first cut hit, but that number soon escalated in what may be the worst power crash in history. 

Hundreds of trains stalled and hospitals and essential services stopped functioning in the early hours of Monday. Normalcy didn't limp back until dawn. Bureaucratic heads rolled and power minister Sushil Kumar Shinde (now shifted to the home ministry) appointed an investigative task force. 

But then the bad news got worse. Another massive breakdown struck at around 1.30pm on Tuesday, affecting many more hundreds of millions across northern and eastern India. 

"Power grids fail: 20 states affected, 600 million people suffer," screamed a headline in the Hindustan Times. The capital, New Delhi, was also in blackout. Traffic lights went haywire, the metro railway ground to a halt leaving commuters stuck in tunnels. Affected states included Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, regions that are key to the national economy. 

More than 200 miners were trapped underground in eastern India, in the Eastern Coalfields, in Sodepur and Satgram in Burdwan districts of West Bengal state. They were directed to a temporarily safe area with oxygen and ventilation, and efforts to rescue them are ongoing. The government of West Bengal declared a public holiday on Tuesday. 

Officials of the state-owned Power Grid Corporation of India, the apex power transmission body, restored over 90% of power within seven hours, another world record of sorts. It took nearly four days to restore power during the major power failure across the US in 2003 and 2008, and about 18 hours for normalcy to return during India's last major power crash in 2002. 

According to initial findings, the villain behind the misery was one state or more withdrawing excess power, resulting in a collapse of the entire power grid. Somebody overdrew on their power account by 3,000 MW. A chain reaction caused three more grids to crash, and kept disaster headline writers busy until Tuesday evening. The northern, eastern and north-eastern grids account for 50,000 mega watts of electricity. 

Delhi needs a daily electricity dose of around 4,000 MW. It had only about 48 MW at 1.40pm when the power grids collapsed. 

India need not again generate such bad publicity if the lessons from the blackout are learned, but they must be learned quickly. 

Merely depending on hydro-electricity, or even more controversial nuclear power, is unlikely to meet the growing electricity appetite of India. Industrial demands for electricity have risen in the world's second-fastest growing economy, even as millions of its more prosperous people are suddenly discovering, that life is difficult to negotiate without air-conditioning. 

The question is not whether India should swelter in ascetic discomfort with less air coolers sold, as a New York Times article cautiously wondered, but what are new ways and means for the growing electricity demand to make acquaintance with supply?

India is already the sixth-largest consumer of electricity in the world. 

An electricity-desperate India even struck a deal this April to import 5.4 billion kilowatts from the neighbouring tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which sated just 1% of India's annual electricity thirst.

The thirst only looks likely to worsen. The air conditioner-manufacturing industry, for instance, this year expects a 15% increase in sales, over the 3.1 million units sold across India in 2010-11. 

Leading Indian air-con manufacturer Blue Star, Korean manufacturers Samsung and LG, and Japanese brands like Hitachi, Toshiba Panasonic and Daikin, have eagerly announced more aggressive marketing plans to air cool India this year. 

One could see the power crash coming when most hotel owners in prime tourist locations across northern India went on a luxury-accommodation building spree two or three years ago. Air-conditioners were apparently becoming as much a "necessity" as a tap with running water. 

Add the flourishing air-con industry to growing demand for water heaters, microwave ovens, toasters, washing machines and all manner of other electricity-driven gadgets that an average Indian household had happily done without about 30 years ago. 

More of India may soon discover that dependence on luxuries is no guarantee to happiness; a fully centrally air-conditioned dwelling can turn to a sweltering rat trap of misery when power blows out as it did in the past 24 hours. 

The major power blackout served as a blessing in disguise, and another warning that countries like India and China, with a billion-plus population, cannot simply afford to blindly follow insane patterns of over-consumption that has ruined certain Western economies. 

"Economic reforms", or the relentless neo-conservative pressure on India to unwisely open ultra-critical sectors, like the $500 billion retail industry to billionaire Western profiteers, is guaranteed to propel developing economies to a situation where planet earth would need another two planet earths to make electricity sustainable. 

More electricity demand has already translated to less electricity supply. This summer, most popular holiday resorts in northern India were running on diesel generators for nearly eight hours a day – courtesy of the frequency of power cuts and unscheduled power failures in May, June and July. Most often, the generators too collapsed from fatigue. 

This grand national electricity crisis of the past 24 hours had been simmering all summer. 

If necessity is the mother of invention, the power crisis should announce the birth of urgency in the development solar power and other alternative power sources like wind energy across India. Conventional electricity can only serve as a back-up to such abundant natural, green forms of generating power to run daily lives. 

India is one of the most sun-blessed countries on Earth. Most parts of the country receive over 300 days of sunlight. 

According to Ecoworld, the sun gifts an incredible 12.2 trillion watt-hours per square mile per year. 

However, India needs great effort to harness this solar power. India's 2010-11 federal budget invested about US$180 million for solar energy projects. The funding was over double the previous year, but much more investment and work awaits – particularly a massive public awareness campaign for people to make use of solar power in daily life. 

Major corporate houses like the Tata Group are investing and marketing solar power. But the overall corporate interest is still on the fringes. 

Prime minister Manmohan Singh launched the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission in January 2010, with the goal to make India a global leader in solar energy. The Mission set the target of deploying 20,000 MW of grid connected solar power by 2022. But not much is heard about the National Solar Mission in daily news. 

Yet solar power technology has evolved cost-effectively in recent years, and wider use of solar technology such as the new solar ATMs in rural India. Solar water heaters, for instance, are efficient enough that hot water flows even without sunlight for a day; kitchen gadgets like solar rice cookers are inexpensive, costing about 4,000 rupees (about US$72). 

But there is no buzz in the national media about solar energy. Even after the latest mega crisis, opinion pieces were advising more on how best to generate more hydro-electric power. 

Building more dams isn't going to solve the problem. It's a self-defeating equation that more clearly reveals itself during relative drought, such as the current weaker monsoon. More dams equals less forest cover equals less rains equals less water in dams equals less hydro electricity equals more power crises. 

The latest blackout was an instance of the common Indian trait of not immediately attending to problems. We learn to live with them. "Adjust", one of India's favorite words, is both a national strength and weakness. 

The problem gets more seriously noticed when it becomes a crisis. Perhaps we will only start seriously looking for solutions when the crisis graduates to a catastrophe – for example, an eight-day power breakdown across most of India. 

Instead of waiting for such disasters to knock on our doors, as they inevitably will, India has little choice but to start accepting nature's alternatives like the generous gift of power from the Sun or Surya, the solar god. And the rest of the world too will benefit from creative technology solutions India and China invent to feed their massive electricity needs. DM

Credit: This edited article is used courtesy of Asia Times Online, who retain copyright.

Photo: Traffic moves along a busy road after electricity was restored in New Delhi July 31, 2012. Hundreds of millions of people across India were left without power on Tuesday in one of the world's worst blackouts, trapping miners, stranding train travellers and plunging hospitals into darkness when grids collapsed for the second time in two days. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

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