Blackouts Call for Rethinking the Grid

Video by Ethan Oser and Shivan Sarna

A map showing the eight states that suffered from the power outage in northern India. (Photo courtesy Voice of America)

This past summer, the collapse of power grids in northern India, an area home to 670 million people, caused the world’s largest blackout.  That is about 10 percent of the world’s population. It’s also more than double the population of the United States. The outage, which lasted a day, brought transportation systems including rail and metro services to a halt. Major traffic jams resulted throughout cities such as the capital, New Delhi due to disconnected traffic signals.

Commuters wait for buses outside a Metro station after Delhi Metro services came to a halt. (Photo courtesy Mustafa Quraishi/Associated Press)

People experience power outages daily in India. It’s a fact of life. I lived in Delhi for many years and whenever our house went pitch black, my family would scramble to light candles. Someone would then have to climb the winded stairs to the roof to power the generator. I remember the long, summer nights spent under the drowsy fan -- the only ventilation the weak generator could power. Though, an outage on the level experienced in July was simply extraordinary. So, what exactly caused the blackout? It has to do with basic supply and demand. On average, the demand during peak times outstrips supply by 9 percent, according to India’s Central Electricity Authority. According to this article in the New York Times, besides excessive demands made on the grid from the country’s regions, explanations include low monsoon rains, which forced farmers to pump more water into their fields, and large solar flares (a less conceivable possibility). There are solutions out there – clean tech ones! – that can prevent such massive electrical outages. Enter microgrids. Microgrids exist free from larger power grids and use their own energy, such as solar and battery power. In the state of Bihar – the poorest in India – Greenpeace India recently released this report, calling for the implementation of these decentralized power plants. The microgrid approach aims to make Bihar a “power surplus state,” said Samit Aich, executive director of Greenpeace India, in this article. With this method, less stress is placed on the central grid to allocate energy from its already imposed-upon supply system.

Development stages of the micro-grid strategy. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace India)

Reliability is the microgrid system’s greatest advantage. While power from a central grid may be the cheapest, reliability and quality is often compromised (due to supply shortages and electricity theft).

Photo courtesy Greenpeace India

Swathes of India lack access to electricity in the first place. Mera Gao Power, started by two U.S.-born entrepreneurs, works to provide micro lighting services to meet the needs of the “poor, off-grid households,” in the state of Uttar Pradesh. The company uses solar panels to generate power, and due to the low-energy design, just four panels are adequate to provide power to a 100-household village with light and mobile charging, according to the company’s website. This service has been enthusiastically received by villagers, who have to pay the equivalent of $.50 – or 25 rupees -- a week. It’s affordable and reliable.

A family during the power failure in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. (Photo courtesy Channi Anand/Associated Press)

The U.S., according to Face the Facts USA, experienced a combined 104,406 hours of power outages across the country. That’s up 67 percent in just three years. Pareto Energy, a Washington D.C.-based start-up company, is developing micro-grid technology for implementation at universities, government agencies, and downtown business areas. In a recent interview Chief Technology Officer Dr. Shalom Flank said microgrids have significant potential not only at home in the U.S., but also in developing nations. “If you have a utility blackout in an area where there is a micro-grid with grid link up and running, it’s going to stay up and running. It will literally be an island that’s on in the middle of that blackout." Communities, institutions, and countries should increasingly look toward this technology for clean energy solutions.

 - Shivan Sarna

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