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Keep the candles ready
India is shining brighter now than it ever was, so the rising demand for electricity is something that should have been planned for.
After last week's one-two punch that knocked out power in almost twothirds of the country, it looks like things are back up and running, for now. The grid outage in 2001, lest we forget, was strikingly similar to this one;yet, we let it happen again, only on a much larger scale. While self-proclaimed technical experts like myself, are busy hurling jargon at each other in an aggressive blamegame, and our new minister promises short- and medium-term solutions, the question that is begging to be asked is not so much what went wrong, as much as what we're doing to prevent an encore.
Think of the power grid as if it were made up of roads - means of transporting you from one point to another. And, when there's a disruption - say a political rally at Palace Grounds - you're bound to get stuck in traffic and be inching along for kilometres. On the power grid, these jams cause a chain reaction of jams throughout the network - eventually resulting in collapse. It's practically impossible to store electricity in large quantities, so the grid constantly plays a delicate balancing act to ensure, that at all times, the amount of power being fed in, is equal to the amount being drawn out. Inculpating the increased demand for electricity by some states is therefore the convenient option, and seems to be the most popular conclusion at the moment. This is however, oversimplifying, and unnecessarily politicizing the issue. For one, India is shining brighter now than it ever was, and a rising demand for electricity has been an obvious trend for decades, so it's not something that hit us out of the blue;it could easily have been expected, and should have properly been planned for.
Second, and more important, is the fact that such surges and disturbances happen all the time - in India, and elsewhere. We don't see such spectacular failures as frequently, though, because grids are equipped to handle these things - with solutions ranging from high-tech computerized switching devices, to power-cuts and load shedding. While I don't want to speculate until the official report is out, my strong suspicion is that the cause of all this will be found to relate to overall generating capacity, or to the nature of the transmission lines - something more systemic than a momentary drop in how much electricity Bhutan is sending across the border, or how many farmers in Uttar Pradesh chose to use irrigation pumps to water their crops.
Of course, the report itself, even if it manages somehow to stay completely unbiased, is unlikely to achieve much unless it is acted upon. A recent Bloomberg report noted that for the last sixty years, India has consistently missed, by quite a bit, the electricity generation targets that it set for itself.
The Eleventh Five Year Plan, which ends this year, is currently being missed by close to 25, 000MW, which is a third of the initial 2007 target. What this means, is that while the need for more power has been recognized, the few, if any, new electricity generation plants that have come up, are not generating nearly as much electricity as the government itself has conceded will be required. Additionally, the power transmission network is quite old, and running dangerously close to its maximum capacity, in many parts of the country. At the current rate, it won't be long before demand starts exceeding the lines' capacity on a more regular basis. Given how last week, the northern grid was able to trip the eastern grid, which in turn tripped the north-eastern grid, there's clearly a need to take a second look at the systems that these grids are using to isolate themselves in case one section goes down, to prevent exactly what ended up happening.
As we start ramping up production, it is also crucial that multiple options are considered. Like an investment portfolio, an energy portfolio too, must be diversified in order to hedge against any major crashes. By investing in new sources of energy, like solar or wind, not only are we saving the planet, and cutting costs, but also reducing dependence on any one specific fuel or power-plant, thereby reducing the likelihood of a failure, if one type of plant suddenly goes offline for some reason. Through programs like the Jawaharlal Nehru Solar Mission, and other private investments, India's renewable energy generating capacity has grown significantly over the last couple of years, but we are still nowhere near exploiting full potential.
The United States national power grid, though older than ours, is still at least a decade or two away from facing the kind of congestion and reliability issues that we currently are. In the early 2000s itself, though, many experts started calling for a major overhaul of the US grid. It could be argued that the more judicious use of power, or higher transmission capacities might rectify our problem. These are no doubt important, but as Bangalore has learnt the hard way, sometimes, it's not enough to just divert traffic or widen the road. Holistic, long-term planning is now more urgent than ever.
A large-scale transformation of our energy generation and distribution network, if done right, could be a time-consuming and expensive process. But if we don't start soon, you might want to keep the candles ready.
It is romance blooming all over North India today. Everyone is having a candle light breakfast. #JeeHaan -@ 0rkutiya The Dark K'Night' finally rises in North India. . . But why into a monday morning. Cheh! #NorthIndia #DelhiMetro #BlackOut -@ lilybishnoi Spiderman was found drunk on a Delhi pavement yesterday. Why? - because with no power comes no responsibilities. ;) -@ paponmusic Pankaj Udas is coming back with "Chithhi Aayi Hai" part-2. He's calling it "Bijli Aayi Hai, aayi hai, bijli aayi hai;bade dino ke baad"-@ fakingnews Earlier we used to ask our neighbours if their house had electricity. Now we ask our neighbouring state. -@ meajay Even after 65 years politicians continue to promise us Paani, Makaan and BIJLEE. And we continue to believe them. Jai Ho. :) -@ AnupamPkher
The writer has studied engineering and public policy at the University of Maryland.
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