Massive Power Outage in India Highlights Energy, Water, and Climate Vulnerabilities

, lead economist and climate policy manager | August 1, 2012, 4:25 pm EDT
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When I was growing up in Delhi, we were well accustomed to daily summer power outages, euphemistically called “load shedding.” These blackouts were regularly scheduled every evening and often created an atmosphere of genial neighborly fun — people out on terraces enjoying cold drinks, talking with neighbors over walls, taking walks, kids playing in the street — and they didn’t seem particularly inconvenient. But all that was another time and a far cry from the catastrophic two-day power crisis that India experienced earlier this week.

The massive power outage in Northern India occurred over two days and affected up to 670 million people at its peak. Trains came to a halt. All over Delhi there were sprawling traffic jams caused by traffic light failures. Hospitals ran out of back-up power. Inoperative elevators left miners trapped underground. People sweltered in the summertime heat.

While the exact causes of what triggered the outages are still being investigated, one thing is clear: This crisis highlights some critical energy, water and climate vulnerabilities that India is grappling with. Many of these challenges are recognized in India’s 2008 National Action Plan on Climate Change.

India’s Energy Challenge

India is confronted with a threefold challenge: how to generate enough power keep pace with rapidly growing demand, how to diversity and upgrade its energy base and infrastructure, and simultaneously how to expand access to the millions of people who currently do not have electricity. Energy is of course key to the country’s economic growth and its prospects for lifting millions of people out of poverty. And as many as 300 million people have no electricity at all.

Power demand regularly outstrips supply by 9 to 10 percent in India. The country is heavily dependent on coal and has had significant problems with coal shortages in the last year. But it has also announced ambitious plans to ramp up energy efficiency and solar and wind power — and that might prove to be a much less risky and less costly bet than relying so much on coal.

India plans to get 15 percent of its energy requirements from renewable energy sources by the year 2020. India’s Solar Mission aims to generate 20,000 MW of solar power and deploy 20 million solar lighting systems for rural areas by 2022. This tremendous scale-up is expected to drive down costs rapidly so as to achieve grid parity in that time frame. A key enabling policy for this is a Renewable Purchase Obligation (RPO) requiring state energy providers to buy a certain percentage of their energy from renewable sources, including a carve-out for solar specifically. There are also significant opportunities for improved energy efficiency.

India’s energy infrastructure is notoriously weak. Transmission and distribution losses are as high as 40 to 50 percent. The power grid does not extend into many parts of the country. In many of those places off-grid, decentralized solutions like rooftop solar panels, biogas, and mini-hydro projects are likely to be the best solution. In fact, many of the richest in the country, as well as large businesses and industrial users, have already turned to off-grid solutions like diesel-powered generators to ensure continuous power availability.

Water: A Scare Commodity

Apart from frequent power outages, India also faces chronic water shortages. Access to clean drinking water continues to be a challenge for many people. And there is real tension in water availability for drinking, agriculture, and power generation. A draft National Water Policy, to be finalized by next year, aims to address many of these problems but it will by no means be easy to implement. India’s Water Mission aims to increase water use efficiency by 20 percent.

This year’s delayed monsoon has only heightened water scarcity. Lower water levels have meant that hydroelectric dams are not able to generate as much power as usual. Cooling water scarcity has affected power plants, with some nuclear plants facing potential shutdown. And farmers who usually depend on rain for irrigation have been pumping water and using (subsidized) electricity at record levels. As a recent UCS research shows, choosing more renewable energy is less likely to lead to energy-water collisions in a warming world.

Increasing Risks in a Warming World

While this year’s monsoon may have been delayed for a number of reasons, scientific studies show that India will be at increasing risk of erratic monsoons as our climate warms. In addition, the country is also very prone to drought and floods, and its groundwater supplies are increasingly stressed.  This has profound implications for the country’s energy and water choices, and poses a threat to food and livelihoods for millions.

The good news is that power is now restored to the affected areas. I look forward to following the robust discussions at all levels of society, government, and media that will no doubt ensue about what went wrong and how to fix it. (That’s a given in India’s chaotically admirable and robust democracy!) And I am hopeful that those discussions will include the need to incorporate the changing climate while planning for a more resilient power system in India.

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