Lights out for 700 million?

Decentralization could be beneficiary

Phil Carson | Jul 31, 2012


It's obviously premature to natter over any "lessons learned" from the blackout in India or to say whether those "lessons," in whatever form, will have relevance to the United States. 

But when as many as 700 million people, about 10 percent of the world's population, are left without power—it is said this is the biggest blackout in history—and people start murmuring the term "smart grid," you have to wonder where the conversation is going to go.  

According to news sources, the grid in India is still being developed, localized blackouts are common and many businesses thus rely on generators for uninterrupted service. But the sheer scale of events in India inspired shock and awe, a serious "wow" to any and all with an interest in electric grids and the role of electricity in the lives and economies of the modern world.

(I'll just whisper a few phrases here such as "decentralization" and its companion terms such as "distributed energy resources," "microgrids" and "automation." Also, to suddenly deal-hungry vendors: "Go East, young man." Read on.) 

For today, all I can do is cite coverage of the blackout and its aftermath to make a few points.

The New York Times had an excellent piece titled "Second Day of Power Failures Cripples Wide Swath of India," which offered lead sentence full of potential conflict: 

"The world's largest blackout ever crippled roughly half of India for a second consecutive day on Tuesday, sending officials scrambling for an explanation."

The "explanation," indeed. The Northeast blackout in the U.S. in 1965 took out power to 30 million. The Northeast blackout of 2003: 50 million. Both events spawned legislation, agencies with new acronyms and technology and procedures to minimize the chance of a recurrence. None of that prevented near-real time finger pointing, which apparently is a universal human predilection. Indian officials, too, eschewed restraint and careful study, as reflected in the Times article.

"Top government officials blamed several northern states for pulling more power from the national grid than they had been allotted. [But it is] unlikely that power demands suddenly spiked this week since monsoon rains have lowered temperatures in recent weeks across much of northern India.

"An investigation has been started, with some government officials pointing to a relay problem near the Taj Mahal as the prime culprit."

As the government controls much of the grid and electricity generation, perhaps it's not surprising that the Indian power minister got a promotion (perhaps temporary) and that he immediately called for sanctions on northern states—regardless of the event still unfolding and continued uncertainty around the cause or causes. 

Another cause suggested by the Times article was human failure based on political convenience. 

"The chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission in 2001 [that studied] the nation's last major blackout said that a fairly sophisticated system of circuit breakers should have prevented the failures on Monday and Tuesday. But, he said, the people manning the circuit breakers are bureaucrats beholden to state government officials, who are loath to have the power in their locality shut off—the usual prescription when power surges threaten the national grid."

That official's prescription? Greater privatization of the grid to avoid political frailties that led to inaction that might have contributed to the loss of power for 10 percent of the world's population.

I'm pretty sure some folks I know in the U.S. would say, if failure to manually throw circuit breakers was the issue, that the problem was a lack of automation—in other words, distributed intelligence that is an integral part of grid modernization.  

Certainly that, if anything from this imbroglio, will play well here on American soil where, undoubtedly, consultants and vendors are flocking to the airport for a ride to New Delhi. 

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily 







Related Topics


Strong Grid: Smart, Secure, Backed Up

Shocking, to be sure, but also inevitable, as modernity creeps into the Indian middle class and window unit air conditioners abound. The modern grid in the developed world was able to grow slowly to accommodate gradual expansion of the population and addition of ever more appliances. Beyond slow, steady growth, it required tremendous amounts of capital and a stable political climate to ensure its continued success. Take away those environmental conditions and you get the volatile combination of unstable grids and off grid populations, as we see throughout the developing world. At some point, as system load grows, the complexity of the grid provides the conditions for a slip up, as we saw in India.

I would suggest the lesson learned is that a massive blackout can happen anywhere, and is likely to happen here again if we remain utterly reliant on a system with multiple points of failure and inadequate back up. The recipe for grid security, what I call a Strong Grid, is 1) make it Smart - double down on our efforts to make the grid smart - that is, automate functions, deploy massive amounts of sensors, embrace data anayltics and shift decisionmaking to redundant systems with failsafe mechanisms; 2) make it Secure - insist on addressing the inherent vulnerabilities of centralized grids by fortifying points of physical vulnerability and enforcing cyber security standards, starting with the weakest points and applying consistent measures to identify and remedy points of vulnerability to hacking; and 3) Back it up  - foster decentralization at the feeder level so that services can continue in the event of a failure that leads to an extended outage, despite our best efforts at making the grid Smart and Secure.

Anything less than providing attention and resources to these three steps iinvites unnecessary risk and disaster at some point in the future. When disaster occurs, we will have only ourselves to blame, because these warning signs are clear for all to see. Of course, we can always expect our political leaders to run about, as they are now in India, and as they were after the Derecho, pointing the finger at any convenient target. But blame and repair are poor strategy alternatives to forethought and preparation. We must start by acknowledging the inherent frailty of our centralized grid and take steps to make it stronger.

John Cooper, Partner, NextWatt Solutions