Thursday, August 2, 2012

Massive power blackouts answers why smart grid is the necessity for India

In this modern era when everything runs on electricity, power is a lifeline, without it, life is unthinkable and unsustainable.  This was well experienced by more than 620 million (roughly 10% of the world population) people in India by two successive power blackouts. Trains, metros, traffic lights, and many essential service halted which caused chaos everywhere. People traveling were stranded on railway station, metros, bus stop or on the road, water delivering system stopped, miners were trapped in mines, no Air-conditioning or even fans in this intense heat. With all sort of in-convenience and pains, the financial and productivity loss is yet to be counted, which may be massive when the figures are released. The swath of more than 2000 miles from the border of Pakistan to the border of Myanmar was affected.  By many expert this is probably the world's worst power blackouts, In India where brown-outs are so common in day to day life, many essential services like hospitals, airports police stations, and some businesses were well equipped with backup power to carry out their operations normally.

NY Times reported, "The country which is considered rising economic power this massive electric grid failure was an embarrassing reminder how intractable problems are still plauging India : Inadequate infrastructure, crippling power shortage, and according to many critics and yawning absence of governmental action and leadership."

Power outage affected regions (courtesy: NewYork Times)
What caused two successive power failures in northern and eastern India is yet to be known, which may take several months to figure out, and as per Reuters, it may never be precisely known as it is a complex process. Nonetheless, various media reports and experts revealed that possibly and most likely reason could be overdrawing of power by certain states due to excessive demands which is attributed to high heat and below par monsoon which prompted farmers to run electric motors to water their dying crops. In essence it is a demand-supply issue. Even in normal scenario, India has peak power shortage of 10.2%, according to recent government report.

On one end, the below normal moonsoon and excessive heat created unprecedented scenario that skyrocket demand, whereas on other end the low level of water in dams would have reduced energy output causing huge demand -supply gap. This would have caused failure in one regional location that generated cascading effect in whole transmission and distribution network. According to,  the director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, said, “The increasing gap between electricity supply and demand has long been a matter of concern,” 

Though government has taken series of steps to increase the generation capacity, it has lagged behind its own five-year target plans. While, there are more than 300 million people who are yet to receive electricity in India; the demand is increasing day by day due to host of factors; such as higher growth -  which requires more energy due to increase in economic activities and better quality life, climate change - causing unusual weather condition again needs more electricity to maintain normal temperature, Populist politics - offering free electricity, this is causing wastage of energy. In addition to this, almost 30 -50% generated power is lost due to theft and other technical and non-technical factors.

Over the years, the generation capacity has increased, however such complex challenges cannot be handled just by increasing the generation. A variety of urgent measures are needed to overcome the various challenges that are spreading like a wildfire.

Smart Grid is such a solution, which intends tackle all aspect of energy from generation to distribution to utilization. According to Wikipedia, "A smart grid is an electrical grid that uses computers and other technology to gather and act on information, such as information about the behaviors of suppliers and consumers, in an automated fashion to improve the efficiency, reliability, economics, and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity."

While, the developed economies are adopting smart grid for greater reliability and sustainability, for countries like India it is indeed a necessity. As pointed out by the Samir Sachdev in GovernanceNow,  "Had there been a smart grid, this crisis could have been easily been avoided. A smart grid would have shared the data in real-time which would have helped to instantaneously identify the fault. Smart grid would have also initiated self-healing and would have cordoned the fault line and restricted the impact of the failure." Mr. Sam Pitroda, the chairman of India Smart Grid Task Force (ISGTF) said, "While it may be difficult to guarantee perfect power availability, in the current context, we can at least replace blackouts with brown-outs by providing a basic threshold of power to all households, with which to run at least a few key appliances.” as reported by

In recent past, the government has taken series of steps to address various issues plauging the energy sector, such as rolling out R-APDRP program in 2004, Setting up India Smart Grid Task Force and India Smart Grid Forum, National Energy Efficiency Mission, however this development are moving at its own pace.

Though Smart Grid may be a panacea for the India's ailing power-grid and energy sector, according to Rajit Gadh, who founded UCLA's Smart Grid Energy Research Center, "India’s first challenge is to make the vast grid easier to monitor, so that engineers can spot the cause of an outage quickly -- even in advance." "When you have less data coming in about the grid, there is less number of things you can do and you are often shooting in the dark," says Gadh as reported by

The other options that Smart Grid offers is establishing MicroGrid - an island of power generation and consumption which can run on its own and may even help the Grid in stress. MicroGrid could be installed at a campus such as the one developed by Cisco and Wipro at Lavasa, or at commercial -scale, something Echelon is working on at high-end residential complex in Hyderabad, reports GreenTechMedia.

Demand Response is another such options which allows to manage peak power by offsetting the demand through pre-negotiated reduction in usage by the group which is ready to shift its needs to off-peak hours. An Indian start-up ecolibrium energy is working on this aspect in Ahmadabad-Gandhinagar region.

Such a massive power outage is a wake-up call for the national government to pursue Smart Grid at a higher priority in order to achieve energy sustainability. 


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