Behind India’s Grid Breakdown, Deeper Energy Issues And Opportunities (Video)

Behind India’s Grid Breakdown, Deeper Energy Issues – and Opportunities (New York Times, July 31, 2012):

Here’s a look at the world’s biggest blackout and India’s underlying energy challenge by someone who works to bring electricity to the hundreds of millions of Indian citizens for whom the grid failures are an abstraction because they were never on the grid to begin with.

In June, at a summit in Manila on Asia’s energy future, I met Harish Hande, an award-winning Indian engineer and entrepreneur based in Bangalore who, since 1995, has built a company that provides energy assessments and solar panels or other sources of locally generated power to (mainly) rural Indian communities. We had several long conversations about how to affordably provide electricity in countries like India and the Philippines, with vast poor populations, both rural and urban.

With much of the electrified half of India suddenly thrown into the dark, I re-visited video I shot of parts of our conversation. Here’s a portion that’s highly relevant, in which Hande explains that urgent calls now to fix the grid or speed the building of more coal-burning power plants are unlikely to ameliorate the energy challenges confronting hundreds of millions of citizens there:


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I also invited Hande this morning to reflect on the current debate over India’s various energy gaps, and opportunities. Here’s his “Your Dot” contribution

It’s interesting that the rich in the states without power are complaining the most, about how they are suffering because of no air conditioners, etcetera. Yet 400 million Indians today still have not seen a light bulb while 200 million more regularly suffer from regular brownouts (between 6 and 19 hours).

The massive grid breakdown in India should not come as a surprise at all. The surprise part is why it did not happen before. It has been a ticking time bomb. Coal and nuclear will not solve the issue. Energy inefficiency, creaking infrastructure (increasing transmission and distribution losses), lowering of water tables and electricity theft all have to be taken care of at once. Increased urbanization is caused mostly by rural migrants. Proper planning of new urban houses is essential and also a great opportunity. For example, such housing could be designed for better day lighting (and easily could be designed in combination with renewables like solar from day one).

In Delhi, having modern buildings with glass facades that trap heat (increasing the need for heavy air conditioners) just does not make sense. Modern buildings have been designed with scant respect for the local environment and have been built for outward show.

In the name of satisfying voters, huge subsidies for electricity for agricultural water pumping have led to to rapid depletion of groundwater, thus leading to the need for more powerful water pumps, and thus the need for more electricity — a vicious cycle.

It is time for India and Indians (especially the rich ones) to reflect and not just complain. Mere complaining will not solve this problem. The problem is here to stay — and coal and nuclear will not solve it. They will just hide the problem under the carpet for sometime. Renewable energy options and decentralization will help foster discipline — demand-side power management, energy efficiency, accountability and a sense of ownership — things that the centralized grid can never provide.

India should see this power outage as a opportunity — but sadly the debate is going the other way — as if pumping in more power will solve the underlying problems. Pragmatic solutions will give way to politics. The climate change problem and solutions will be set aside. Hopefully, the 400 million Indians who do not have electricity today (because they never had!) will show the rest of India how to behave in the future.

Here’s an added perspective from Anjali Jaiswal, the director of the India Initiative at the Natural Resources Defense Council, on prospects for expanding renewable energy to ease the strain on the system and reach more off-grid populations:

It’s difficult to imagine the full extent and impact of today’s power shortage in India. It’s affecting more people than the populations of the U.S., Canada and Mexico combined!

The Government of India is taking measurable steps toward improving power reliability, including the development and distribution of energy from all sources, including solar and wind. But clearly more needs to be done, and fast.  One step in the right direction that Indian leaders could take today is to adopt mandatory energy efficiency codes for new buildings and major retrofits.

Another promising opportunity would be to build on the success of India’s solar energy market and create policies with teeth for roof-top solar, solar water heaters, and major solar power projects.  Over and above the economic incentives to develop a robust solar market in India, solar energy is fast-becoming a power source for Indians from all walks of life. For example, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy is working with municipal and state governments across India’s rural and urban landscape to increase adoption of solar street lights, lanterns, back-up generators, pressure cookers and other appliances.

NRDC’s India Initiative is deeply engaged in efforts to accelerate energy efficiency and clean energy development in India, and I would love to speak with you further about the pivotal role that both of these efforts could play in securing India’s energy future.

5:30 p.m. | Postscript | While in Manila, Harish Hande and I escaped from the energy summit briefly and were driven to Calauan, a 5,000-family resettlement “village” at the base of a forested mountain, built for people displaced by disasters in and around the megacity. Here’s a video I made that focuses on the very surprising array of job-training programs (bodyguards?!) offered by Salesian priests working there:


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