Too Soon to Make Sense of the India Blackouts

By Kennedy Maize (@kennedymaize)

Washington, D.C., 31 July 2012 – What to make of the two successive, horrendous electric power failures in India? The smart money avoids conclusory leaps. When the first cascading blackout hit on Monday, there was much media chatter about generating capacity. The implication was that the outage was demand-driven. But there was nothing particularly unusual about conditions in northern India that could account for the failure of the country’s grid, which is dodgy at the best of times.

Then the Indian press reported finger-pointing and denials between the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh about exceeding established limits for taking power from the grid. Later reports also suggested that the state of Haryana may have been overdrawing from its slice of the grid. Ironically, both Punjab and Haryana were created in 1966, carved from India’s portion of the Punjab after Britain left the region in 1947 and India and Pakistan were born. Punjab (mostly Sikh in religion and culture) and Haryana (Hindu majority) share a capital in the modern city of Chandigarh.

Then things settled down a bit, except for a brief bit of comedy when the government of India announced a reshuffling, already well in the works, which saw Power Minister Shushilkumar Shinde promoted to the job of Home Minister. M. Veerappa Moily, the current corporate affairs minister, got loaded up with the responsibilities of the power ministry. Given the current situation, that handoff looks like the passing of the black spot in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

But 34 hours later on Tuesday disaster struck again, even wider and more ferociously. Another cascading blackout struck, taking out electricity to over 700 million Indians (added to some 300 million who have no access to electricity at all), in 22 of 28 states. The New York Times commented, “The root cause of the vast power failure was not immediately clear.” The Indian correspondents for the U.S. newspaper noted that high demand was an unlikely culprit, since recent monsoon rains “have lowered temperatures in recent weeks across much of northern India.”

Upcoming inquiries, which are certain, will certainly look at the structure of the Indian power grid and power generating markets for clues to the outages. They may also take a look at the convoluted politics of India and the relationships among the states. The central government owns the grid and much of the nation’s central generation (although many institutions and businesses, prudent actors all, own their own diesel generation, not trusting the reliability of the central state-owned-and-run system). India has five major power grids, which a central organization, the Power Grid Corp. of India, is supposed to run (it also runs the long distance phone system and is an internet provider). How well it runs the grid has long been a topic of debate in India.

Also, the state governments have considerable autonomy in the Indian governmental structure, and frequently disregard the instructions of the central government, and the interests of neighboring states.

Those in the U.S. with long memories will recall that it took months to sort out what happened in the Aug. 14, 2003 northeast blackout, at the time the second largest blackout in history after a 1999 Brazilian outage. The Indian events of this month substantially eclipse both of those events. It’s going to take a long time to figure things out.