Huge Indian Power Outage – Protest From A Creaking System?

on Jul 30, 2012
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At around 2.30am on the morning of Monday, 30 July 2012, the electricity grid for northern India suddenly failed. The supply of electric power to some 370 million people – more than the US and Canadian populations combined – came to an abrupt halt, with no prior warning for consumers. Residents of a number of major cities, including the capital Delhi, awoke to a humid morning with no water – the outage had forced the shutdown of metropolitan water treatment plants across one of the most populous parts of India – and the planet. Inter-city and metro train services were also out, as were traffic lights, causing morning rush-hour pandemonium. Hospitals and airports were forced to fall back on diesel generators.

Major power outages are not uncommon around the world – much of Brazil and Paraguay were hit in November 2009, affecting 60 million people, and in August 2005 an outage affected central Java, Indonesia, including the capital Jakarta. With an estimated 100 million people in the region, that was considered to be the largest single outage in history – until now.

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!m[](/uploads/story/212/thumbs/pic1_inline.png)Generally speaking, power outages are caused by some form of overload on the grid and tend to happen during times of peak demand. The incident in India wouldn’t seem to fit that pattern – occurring at 2.30 in the morning – but the Economic Times reported that, whereas the normal rate of transmisson through the Northern Grid ranges from 48.5 to 50.2 Hz, at the time of the collapse the grid frequency was 50.46 Hz, a few notches above normal, which could have put the grid into overload.

The government has moved swiftly to set up an inquiry into the outage. Federal power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde told a media conference that the panel will comprise the heads of the three agencies responsible for delivering electric power – Central Electricity Authority chairperson A S Bakshi, Power Grid Corporation chairman and managing director A M Nayak and Power System Operation Corporation chief executive officer S K Soonee. Nayak’s selection – the PGC is responsible for the northern grid – suggests that objectivity is not a primary focus of the investigation.

Minister Shinde assured the Indian people that by mid-morning power had been restored to 60 percent of the region and reminded the media that this has been the first major outage in India in over a decade. But still questions are being asked. The fact is that the world’s largest country, population-wise, relies on elderly generation capacity long overdue for modernisation and hugely dependent on CO2-emitting coal-fired power stations. The government’s pledge back in 2002 that all Indians would have an electric supply within 10 years has proved to have been wildly optimistic – many thousands of villages, some within sight of power stations, and millions of rural dwellers, are subjected to power cuts on virtually a daily basis.

Yet attempts to stimulate the country’s fledging nuclear power industry – currently providing just three percent of annual electricity consumption – are stymied at every turn by a vociferous coalition of green and community-based protest groups. Meantime, a country which has huge coal reserves but insufficient mining capacity is importing coal from Indonesia and elsewhere – a case of carrying coal to Newcastle, as it were – and getting by on a wing and a prayer.

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