AP Photo/Bikas Das
Stranded passengers wait for train services to resume in Kolkata on July 31.
AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh
New Delhi streets were clogged following the world's biggest-ever power blackout.


India’s power sector demonstrated a grave need for investment when the northern grid that supports a significant portion of the country’s population collapsed on July 30, tripping other shutdowns in the region. The world's worst-ever blackout left roughly half of India's total population without power.

Electricity for nine states in the northern grid, supporting about 370 million people, went off at 2:00 a.m. on July 30 and returned within 11 to 18 hours. Northeast India lost power at 1:00 p.m. on July 31. Ten hours later, power had not been restored in some places in north India. In all, the outages have affected some 600 million people in 19 of India's 28 states.

A combination of drought, unmined coal resources and a lack of grid controls likely led to the collapse, experts say. The northern grid, the country's largest, is not matching up with demand. Hydropower has suffered this year because of a lack of monsoons, and thermal powerplants are suffering because of low coal supplies. Thermal plants supply 65% of power in the country.

The blackouts stretched from the border with Myanmar in the northeast to the Pakistani border in the northwest, about 1,870 miles away. Outages occurred in remote areas and populated cities alike, including New Delhi and Kolkata, stretching from Assam in the east to the Himalayas in the north to Rajasthan in the west.

As industry and daily life came to a standstill, the blackout highlighted the need for stronger infrastructure. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the country is seeking $400 billion of investment in the power industry in the next five years as he targets an additional 76,000 MW in power generation by 2017. However, India has missed every annual deadline to add power capacity since 1951.

“The only reason for the collapse of the grid is indiscipline in the grid,” says Shahid Hassan, associate director of the Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), a Delhi-based think tank on environment and power. Many states on the northern grid have been overdrawing power, leading to a supply-demand mismatch.

Government directives have "asked states not to overdraw power," adds Anil Razdan, India's former energy secretary. "Indiscipline can affect the whole grid. It’s an evolving grid which is in the process of being integrated. We need correct enforcement in place."

India currently has five power grids. The fifth, in south India, is scheduled to be completed in 2014.

"There is no connectivity between the southern grid with the other four grids," says Prakash Iyer, an energy expert and author. "We need a smart grid. We need technology to upgrade, not the use of manual [systems]. This is a question of the security of the country."

As drought has swept north India this year, power cuts have been common in the rain-starved states of Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, which are responsible for about 37% of electricity consumption, according to the Central Electricity Authority. With no rain on the horizon, some states are violating their quotas by providing power to farmers in the early hours, says a power ministry official, who spoke to ENR on the condition of anonymity.

India's power-sector policy remains paralyzed. According to power mandates, states are to be penalized if they overdraw power. However, India "has an election in 2013, and no politician wants to lose their vote bank,” says the official.

India's last power crisis, in 2001, was sparked by large deposits of dust over insulators. TERI's report on the 2001 crisis noted the supply-demand mismatch and rogue states drawing more power than they were allowed.

The country's western grid has not suffered a blackout. In Mumbai, an islanding system is in place, an engineer at Reliance Energy Ltd. tells ENR. If something goes wrong, the system detaches from the grid.

“We have to focus on efficiencies even on the demand side, whether buildings or other uses; strengthen the regulatory system at the state level [where officials] do not have the expertise nor the power to enforce efficiency in the system; and diversify our sources of supply," says R.K Pachauri, director general of TERI.

"Take Delhi—go in for major solar panels on roofs. We need to look at the larger complexity of the problem," he says.