Off Grid Post Mortem
August 10, 2012 7:28 AM   Subscribe

A Post-Mortem on India's Blackout: IEEE Spectrum's energy, power, and green tech blog gives an excellent overview of what led to the devastating blackouts that occurred in India on July 30th and 31st leaving more than 600 million people (approx 10% of the world's population) without electricity. Bonus: BBC's Soutik Biswas gives us 10 interesting factoids on India's power situation to chew on.
posted by infini (25 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
It seems odd that the first link made no mention of why peak demand was peaking so high.

In the summer of 2012, leading up to the failure, extreme heat had caused power use to reach record levels in New Delhi.

Seems like there's a lot of that going around.
posted by Egg Shen at 7:39 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I heard about this, I was pretty stunned. What I would love to see is, if it's available, a comparison of photos of India from space before and during the blackout.
posted by Ghidorah at 7:44 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

An aggravating factor, mentioned by McDonald and discussed at length in an earlier IEEE Spectrum post, was a shortage of water in India because of weaker-than-usual monsoons. Jigar Shah, CEO of Jigar Shah Consulting, points out in a recent Earth2Tech post that the power sector is India’s greatest single consumer of water—bigger than agriculture—and that within the power sector, almost all the water is consumed by the coal-fired power plants that produce the lion’s share of India’s electricity.

Egg Shen, it sounds like the guy interviewed was skirting around having to say the dreaded word "Drought"...
posted by infini at 7:45 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

The frequency of huge power outages revealed by that wikipedia article is pretty scary.

Even scarier is how all these systems are less redundant (thanks, "efficiency"-minded business majors!) and more tightly coupled (thanks, "efficiency"-minded engineers!) than before. It's going to take a smaller and smaller perturbation to upset the applecart if things keep going this direction.
posted by DU at 7:49 AM on August 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

We were so annoyed with the Canadian media - CBC Radio one, to be specific - when this happened. Here was the most important story in the world, a massive event - and their top stories were all Olympics or Canadian.

Way to stay parochial, CBC. And not in the good sense of being like a parish.
posted by jb at 8:13 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sixty-five years after Independence, only nine states - Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Goa, Delhi, Haryana, Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu - of 28 have been officially declared totally electrified.

I did not realize this. Coincidentally, all the states listed here have a per-capita SGDP that's higher than the national average, as also the states that have enacted power-sector reforms (more or less?) in the last ten years.

While industrialists fretted over the opinion of international investors, the frustrations of an increasingly vocal and discontented middle class—a term usually employed here to denote something like the 9.9 per cent just below the top 0.1 per cent

This, this and a thousand times this. I get really irked up when folks unironically say they're "average middle class people"; as surprising as it might seem to a lot of Indians, to be "middle-class" in India is actually to lead a life of privilege and wealth within the national context. (And don't even get me started on the so-called middle-class "values"; all that the middle-class cares about is not having to pay bribes at the local DMV. Different rant that. )

Egg Shen, it sounds like the guy interviewed was skirting around having to say the dreaded word "Drought".

If I'm not wrong, districts being declared as "drought-affected" has a specific administrative meaning in India, something to do with governmental aid and stuff. In any case, the word seems to be freely bandied about now; it's a welcome-change from the 80's and 90's, when people used to talk about the Monsoons failing or being a success in general, without paying attention to regional differences in how the Monsoons have held forth, which is the right way to think about this.
posted by the cydonian at 8:32 AM on August 10, 2012

This, this and a thousand times this. I get really irked up when folks unironically say they're "average middle class people"; as surprising as it might seem to a lot of Indians, to be "middle-class" in India is actually to lead a life of privilege and wealth within the national context.

That is just using the traditional definition, aka the definition before the mid-20th century. The 19th century middle class were doctors and lawyers and industrial capitalists -- status-wise, they were below the landed gentry/nobility and above the working-class/poor (90% of people). Historians of Britain use the term "middling sort" to extend that group down into the "petty bourgeoisie" like larger farmers, butchers and shopowners, but in the pre1800 world, more than half of people were below even the "middling sort". Middling was their word for themselves from about 1650-on to refer to the fact that they were neither rich nor poor, thus in the "middle" -- and some middling-sort writers claimed that their class was possessed of specific values because of that middle-status, not greedy and corrupt like the rich or lazy and untrustworthy like the poor. (This was the birth of the "middle class values" mythos).

North Americans have redefined "middle class" to fixate on the "middle" bit as being in the middle, rather than between two things (rich and poor). It's one of those weird re-constructions of the meaning of a word, but being North American myself, I can't help but use it that way when talking about contemporary issues. (My ur-middle class family is not, as it would be for a Brit, a professional family in the top 10-20% of income worrying about whether to pay for an expensive private school or fighting to get into a selective state school, but a probably blue-collar working family with a union job, a house and a car and an income around the 50th percentile).

Anyways - middle class Indian families do have a luxurious life compared to their fellow citizens, but seem to have about the same levels of luxury as middle-income families in North America.
posted by jb at 8:49 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I appreciate your comments about the term 'middle class', jb, but there are some differences b/w middle class life in India vs North America.
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 9:07 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

On CBC Radio's As It Happens program, I listened to some smug, arrogant idiot from utilities regulator or something say that the blackouts are a "good thing" because it demonstrates India's economy is growing - "there is more demand for power, which is good."

He also said that it didn't matter anyway, because people in India are used to blackouts and electricity shortages.

Jesus wept.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:19 AM on August 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

While I don't have any cites at the moment at hand, I've been seeing two pyramids emerge in India. The original one with the middle class as being described by all in the thread and now, another one, where there's a whole new pyramid within the wide swathe of what used to be lumped as the "common man" or even, "the poor". An example is Sanjay, who, with a 10th grade vernacular education and vocational training is now head of maintenance for a precision machine shop (as in providing parts for the Chandrayan moon rocket type of precision) who considers himself and refers to himself as "middle class". From a village in rural Bihar, one of India's most backward states, he has risen to the level of respected blue collar worker with a factory issued ATM card (direct deposit paycheck and the machine is in the factory grounds), motorcycle, all the mod cons of TV, VCR, mobile phones and music systems, living in concrete housing in the industrial town of Faridabad, just kilometers away from the capital New Delhi.

Just a generation ago he would have still been considered an untouchable (his name is Mandal) and regardless of his achievements, considered one of the down trodden etc whereas today he sees himself as upwardly mobile as he learns to repair FANUC controllers by intuitively reading the 1 and 0s and living a respectable lifestyle.

This is the hidden pyramid of upper class, middle class and working poor and the shadow one that has emerged in India.

That other middle class implies elite, English educated multinational or large corporation employees, this one entirely something else.

Value is contextual and class is relative, in this case.
posted by infini at 9:40 AM on August 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

My error (after some Wiki reading) not untouchables, but primarily from the Shudra or artisanal caste. The 'bottom' of India's caste pyramid.
posted by infini at 9:47 AM on August 10, 2012

What's interesting to me is how the potential interaction of several factors drives things into positive feedback... drought means less water, so less power. Failure of the rains means greater heat, so greater power consumption. Less power, more demadn means more possibility of failure. And before you know it, the whole thing has become a self-destructive circle where demand can never be satisfied....
posted by livewithme at 9:56 AM on August 10, 2012

Cite (and I'll back out of the thread now)

Despite having incomes which are above international or even national poverty lines, middle classes in many cases remain vulnerable. Their employment (many work in the informal sector), education (few have university degrees) and consumer behaviour do not coincide with perceptions of a middle class that drives domestic consumption and growth. For instance, in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Mexico there are up to 44 million informal middle-class workers, more than 60% of the total middle-class working population of 72 million. Not surprisingly, social protection systems fail to reach even half of this population, as coverage rates of informal workers are extremely limited: below 15% in Brazil, Chile and Mexico, and almost negligible in Bolivia.

This middle class is unlike that which became the engine of development in many OECD countries.
OECD Development Center
posted by infini at 9:58 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

fascinating comment infini: it seems that both the 19th century British definition and the 20th cent North American definition of middle class is being used by people in India.

thank you also for the link, not_that_epiphanius - I was somewhat aware that having personal service was more common, but not the extent of it. I found this bit interesting:

"English is not used with office boys, or with servants, even if they know to speak it. This is because it is unnatural to be English-speaking and a menial. That is why office boys and servants are not spoken to in English. Not because they’re unfamiliar with it, many are not, but because the speaker isn’t comfortable expressing his tribal self in a European language."

This seems to imply that the relationship with servants in India is inherently Indian - when really it sounds remarkably similar to how English people related to their servants in the pre-WW2 days, and largely continue to interact with their servants (those who have them). It wasn't any enlightenment that changed these relationships - though the wars had their cultural effects, in the end it really was the post-war boom that meant that people could find jobs elsewhere and did. If India's growth leads to a similar increase in demand for labour, then servants will become as rare there.
posted by jb at 10:02 AM on August 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Even scarier is how all these systems are less redundant (thanks, "efficiency"-minded business majors!) and more tightly coupled (thanks, "efficiency"-minded engineers!) than before

Not in India. If you want to blame the big bad neo-liberal business school boogy-man for the power grid failures in the US over the last decade, that's fine, but it really isn't applicable here. There really isn't any kind of Arcadian past where the Indian power grid was reliable.
posted by atrazine at 11:06 AM on August 10, 2012

Even scarier is how all these systems are less redundant (thanks, "efficiency"-minded business majors!)..
In fairness, and as the article said, 80% of the power sector is state-owned. The hurdle is likely that the system isn't efficient enough, and so much investment cash gets wasted when it really should be spent on new infrastructure.
posted by Jehan at 11:24 AM on August 10, 2012

I believe 80% of the demand also comes from Gujarat state as well, specifically large industry within that that. You'd think that level of concentration would make is easier to build redundant systems.
posted by Mezentian at 4:29 PM on August 10, 2012

As a wild-eyed optimist, I think this simply means that it will fall to India to find a solution to the the world's energy needs. The U.S., Europe and Japan are heavily invested in legacy systems, which although increasingly stretched, function well enough that there isn't the incentive to find radical solutions. Africa is too poor to fund the search for such solutions and there is no single economy that can demand a solution, only a collection of disparate states. That leaves China and India - both huge economies, and more importantly both poised for massive growth (unlike either Africa or developed Western economies). China and India will experience dramatic and sustained increase in demand for energy - they are only at the very beginning of their growth trajectory which seems aimed straight up.

How will they meet their needs - needs which will, in contrast to the rest of the world, keep growing explosively for the foreseeable future? There really are only two ways. One - the proven solutions of legacy systems as seen in the West. The difficulty with that approach is that you need absolutely massive capital investment in infrastructure - and this is what China seems to have chosen, perhaps because China can actually afford such a massive capital investment (see: Three Gorges Dam). China also has not inconsiderable domestic oil production. And China has the capital to buy energy (oil) on the international markets - China is willing to pay high prices and lock in long term supplies.

But India strikes me as being in a different position to China. I don't believe India has quite the capital resources that China does. Nor, more importantly does it have as much political room to undertake dramatic solutions such as the Three Gorges Dam - India seems much more decentralized compared to China and cannot as easily dictate painful policies from on high. They have oil deposits, though not as large as China, and some offshore natural gas. But India's explosive economic development has come later than China's, and so they are not only in a worse capital position, but will face rising costs in trying to buy energy, the price of which (such as oil) will keep escalating as China's needs grow; and because China grew first, it will have more capital to outcompete India for the purchase of such resources. Meanwhile India's energy needs will keep growing dramatically, and a lot of energy is now supplied by coal, which is not only environmentally costly, but whose price is also going up.

This seems to me to say that India is perhaps not as well suited to follow the conventional energy solutions path that China, following the West, has. So what remains for India? Well, the second option - bypassing legacy solutions altogether. India is in a position of great demand, but also in a position of having the capital and scientific resources (unlike, say, most African countries), to find a solution that bypasses the legacy solutions the world has seen so far. Is enormous motivation and access to the means enough to pull a rabbit out of a hat here? Well isn't India famous for the approach of "more from less for more", according to various TED talks extolling what they call "Ghandi economics", with examples being eye operations that cost $15 instead of the $4000 as in the West, the leg prosthesis for $28 instead of $12,000 and the $2000 car, drug development at 0.0001% of what it costs in the West etc. They need to supply enormous of energy at a fraction of the cost the West pays. Time to step up to the plate. Or so I say to myself as I sweat in the heat (we've been having a heat wave here in LA)... I open the refrigerator, grab a beer and think to myself "India will save us on energy".
posted by VikingSword at 5:13 PM on August 10, 2012

Not one to pick, but not sure if factoids can be "interesting" per se.
posted by mattoxic at 9:22 PM on August 10, 2012

The Big Picture: India Suffers Major Power Failure
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:02 PM on August 13, 2012

The Economist: India's Electricity Shutdown(video, autoplay)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:50 PM on August 14, 2012

(the ultimate roundup of stories, angles and perspectives - from cost of power to corruption and 'informal' connections)

India Power Black Out: The Shape of Things to Come?
posted by infini at 3:21 AM on August 21, 2012

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