A couple of days ago, over 600 million people (that’s not a typo, six hundred million – 600,000,000) lost electrical power when three electricity grids in India collapsed. The cause was simple, demand outstripped supply, and the mechanisms in place to manage the imbalance were just not up to the job. This is not just a problem for India; most of the developed economies have done a bad job in maintaining and upgrading their infrastructures, especially in the energy field.
Minister for Home Affairs Sushil Kumar Shinde, whose portfolio includes power issues, said the collapse originated when some states took more power from the grid than the rules permitted – theft might be too strong a word, but it conveys the right idea. He told the press, “Everyone overdraws from the grid. Just this morning I held a meeting with power officials from the states and I gave directions that states that overdraw should be punished. We have given instructions that their power supply could be cut.” Quite how one cuts power supply from places without power remains a mystery.
Minister Shinde was quick, too quick, to exonerate the government, “If you put together the eighth, ninth and 10th five-year plans and compare them with the 11th five-year plan – we have done as much in the last five years as we did in the previous 15.” Obviously, what was done in the 11th five-year plan wasn’t enough (I will only mention in passing that Russia doesn’t use 5-year plans anymore, and things are radically better as a result).
The fact that India’s monsoon was weak does argue for a certain amount of understanding. India generates about 19% of its power with hydro-electric plants, and when the rains are sub-par, the capacity of these plants is diminished. However after 11 five-year plans, one wonders if the Indian government has entertained the idea that the rains might come up short every so often.
In short, India’s very rapid economic growth has simply over-burdened an already inadequate grid system. And it is only going to get worse. About one-third of Indian households don’t have electric lights, and when those hundreds of millions get electricity, they will want refrigerators, TVs and washing machines just like everyone else. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say India’s only hope to fix its power system is an Apollo moon-shot program.
That said, I remember walking home to Queens from Manhattan about this time of year in 2003 because the entire northeastern US and parts of Canada were as dark as India was a few days ago. A report looking into the causes of that blackout determined that those responsible “failed to assess and understand the inadequacies of FE’s [FirstEnergy, a power company in Ohio where it all started] system … did not recognize or understand the deteriorating condition of its system … and failed to manage adequately tree growth in its transmission rights-of-way.” A final contributing cause was the “failure of the interconnected grid’s reliability organizations to provide effective real-time diagnostic support.”
Fixing all of that requires huge amounts of spending. Utilities will have spent more than $100 billion by 2015 on the North American power grid to make up for the years of declining spending from 1975-1999. What we need to ask ourselves is whether that is enough because if not, there won’t be much difference between India and Indiana.