India’s Electrical System Produces Largest Power Blackout Ever

Michael Giberson

From the New York Times2nd Day of Power Failures Cripple Wide Swath of India

It had all the makings of a disaster movie: More than half a billion people without power. Trains motionless on the tracks. Miners trapped underground. Subway lines paralyzed. Traffic snarled in much of the national capital.

On Tuesday, India suffered the largest electrical blackout in history, affecting an area encompassing about 670 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population. Three of the country’s interconnected northern power grids collapsed for several hours, as blackouts extended almost 2,000 miles, from India’s eastern border with Myanmar to its western border with Pakistan.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, India’s largest electrical blackout in history shows how much it has grown. Such a widespread outage means the Indian electrical system has grown large and has become thoroughly interconnected. Not so many years ago the system had too many locally unreliable parts to have brought about such a widespread failure. (And even now, as the article pointed out, “many people in major cities barely noticed the disruption because localized blackouts are so common that many businesses, hospitals, offices and middle-class homes have backup diesel fuel generators.”)

The article highlights some of problems that emerge with local political involvement in interconnected power system operations. Regional dispatch areas may have been able to avoid the blackout through coordinated use of rolling blackouts, but regional power system managers are appointed by local political authorities and are loathe to cut off their area’s customers for the benefit of power consumers elsewhere.

It is easy to say that they should have better procedures in place, but the United States power system has had its share of large-scale blackouts. Here, as elsewhere, experience provides the lesson and motivates improvements.


2 thoughts on “India’s Electrical System Produces Largest Power Blackout Ever

  1. Yes we both have blackouts. But I think comparing the state of India’s electrical system to the United States is disingenuous. India’s power sector, as I’m sure you know, is the poster child for toxic investment environments for the private sector. As a result, there has been chronic underinvestment for years, leading predictably to episodes like the last few days. India’s power sector is serious drag on growth and has been for years. We should be grateful for the material difference between our system, as complex and problematic as it is, and theirs.

  2. From the NY Times piece;

    ‘Many analysts have long predicted that India’s populist politics were creating an untenable situation in the power sector because the government is selling electricity at prices lower than the cost of generating it. India’s public distribution utilities are now in deep debt, which makes it harder to encourage investment in the power sector. ‘

    Some Indians (farmers) get the electricity at no cost whatsoever! What would one expect, but catastrophe.

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