India pushed into darkness with world’s biggest power outage

Power Grid Failure in India (Photo: Times of India)

I am disappointed, sad, curious, and shocked as I read about this week’s grid failure in India which has caused the biggest power outage ever recorded in the world. Twenty states and 620 million people (nearly twice the U.S. population) were left without power on Tuesday, far exceeding the previous outage record in Indonesia in 2005 when 100 million people lost electricity for a couple of hours.

It all started in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, around 2:30 am on Monday, July 30, with a interconnect line failure in Agra that caused the near immediate collapse of the entire northern grid. The northern grid was restored on Monday after about 6 hours, but on Tuesday the northern, eastern, and northeastern grids all went out.

The current prevailing theory is that the outage started with an internal failure in a power line in Agra, removing significant generating capacity from the grid. This event should have triggered an immediate order to all states on the grid to shed load, or intentionally reduce power delivery to their consumers. By the time this order was given, however, most other generators on the grid had already dropped frequency due to the load demand being greater than what they could generate. This happened as no regions shed load and the rest of the generators were struggling to cover for the lost power on the failed Agra line. Before anyone could react, the whole northern grid had collapsed. The power deficit was worsened by a weak monsoon that lowered hydroelectric generation and kept temperatures higher, further increasing electricity usage from fans and air conditioners.

Traffic Jam in Delhi due to power outage. (Photo: NDTV news)

The effects of this massive outage were far-reaching. People were trapped in metros and coal mines as cities lost power. Hospitals and transport systems were hit hard as traffic signals went out, causing massive traffic jams in New Delhi.  Water supplies to cities and farmers were adversely affected as there was no power to run the water pumps and irrigation canals. The effect on farming was worsened by the weak monsoon in agricultural states such as wheat-belt Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in the Ganges plain, which together have a larger population than Brazil. With less rain to irrigate crops, more farmers resort to electric pumps to draw water from wells.

The grid is now being brought back in phases and my friends in New Delhi and Noida, Uttar Pradesh, got power back after 8 hours of complete blackout.

Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde blamed the crisis on states taking more than their allotted share of electricity. “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,” he told reporters. Minister Shinde also announced the formation of a three-member committee to investigate what happened and submit a report within 15 days.

Powerless (Photo: Economic times)

As a citizen of India, I am left with many questions. Did I see this coming? Was our energy sector bubble bound to burst some day? Is this a wakeup call for the issues facing our power sector, or is this just another day gone bad and unlucky? Could this outage have been avoided with a timely warning and load shedding? Is the government right in blaming states like Delhi and Punjab for consuming more power than what has been allocated to them (after the daily scheduled load shedding), or does the problem run deeper? Most of the transmission and distribution (T&D) in India is state-controlled; would privatizing the T&D sector make it more efficient? India faces a grave electricity theft issue, which directly translates into excess unaccounted load; is it time to take action and have strict enforcement of laws against power theft?

The problem we are dealing with is more complex than a two-day power cut or inefficient old coal plants or the need for a smart grid and renewables or corruption in the power sector – it’s everything put together. It’s time for a change. Hopefully the committee report will move India toward comprehensive power sector reforms.  Until then we can just hope that the grid restoration doesn’t fail again.


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