Thursday, August 2, 2012

India's Stunning Blackouts: Key Facts & Thoughts

When I served as a Pennsylvania Public Utility Commissioner from 1993 to 1998, my two most important duties were keeping drinking water safe and the lights on.  A nightmare scenario was an uncontrolled, cascading electrical grid failure and blackout.

That nightmare scenario unfolded in India on Monday, when a then world record blackout knocked out power to 300 million Indians.  The very next day, a worse blackout hit, knocking out service to more than 600 million people or about half the population of India.  Both were uncontrolled, cascading outages.

Here are some key facts and further thoughts about India's electricity situation. 

India's daily peak demand is regularly 12% higher than peak supply but the shortage is managed through rolling or controlled blackouts that cut electricity supply deliberately to specific locations to balance supply and demand.

The basic problem in India is that daily demand outstrips supply.  There is just not enough power or generation that pushes the grid in India just about everyday to what would be considered a crisis in the US.

In fact, the USA has a mandatory generation adequacy or reliability standard that requires enough electric generation be available to make the probability of even a controlled blackout no greater than one day in ten years.  Indeed, apart from Texas, America has excess generating capacity--an amount of capacity that exceeds even the protective mandatory reserve requirements--in just about every region.

Despite the massive generation needs in India, India has built only about 50,000 megawatts of new generation in the last 5 years or about 5% of the total US generating capacity.  That is just not enough to begin to meet India's basic electrical needs. Not even close.

Over the same 5 years, China, however, has built approximately 300,000 megawatts of new generation. 

As for the US, even though we have an excess generating capacity position, America typically builds 10,000 to 20,000 megawatts of new generation every year.  According to EIA data, to date more than 8,000 megawatts of new generation began operating here through June.

The shock of a cascading blackout to a society--especially a democratic one like India--is enormous.  Count on India launching a massive priortization of resources to building much more generation and taking other steps to close its gaping electric demand and supply gap.


  1. Blackouts and outages are the norm in many countries of the world, for example: Egypt, Iraq, energy rich Nigeria. There probably are many more.
    It's not that India is especially incompetent. It is that the standards, practices and norms of the developed world haven't yet reached all countries.

  2. The problem (both economically and environmentally) with additional generation in India (or Eqypt, Iraq or Nigeria) is that most of that generation is likely to be fossil-fueled, right? If their society can't afford to build sufficient generation, wouldn't economics dictate that incremental generation is from lowest-cost fuels, like peat or coal?

    1. Hydro and coal would be lowest cost, leaving aside externalities and transmission costs. India has substantial shale gas potential. That could challenge coal.

  3. Fossil fuel generation is better that no generation (blackouts). There is no viable alternative. Shale gas will take a few years to develop, so it will be available, maybe, later.