Massive Blackout Leaves 600 Million Indians Without Power, Demonstrating Danger Of Relying On Outdated Coal System

Indian children read without power as a consequence of blackouts.

More than 600 million people in the northern and eastern parts of India lost power on Tuesday, putting roughly half of India’s population in the dark.

While the specific causes behind the mass blackouts remain unclear, the underlying cause is clear – India is reliant on an aging, inefficient government coal power monopoly that can’t meet the country’s energy needs:

Some analysts said public outrage over the widespread outages may force Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government to tackle reforms in the crisis-riddled power sector. Fuel shortages are crippling coal and gas-fired plants, forcing them to run below capacity or shut down for long stretches; state utilities have billions of dollars of accumulated losses; and, as has been on stark display, the nation’s creaky grid needs upgrading.

“Unless this government wants to commit political suicide, there’s no way they can ignore this,” said Abhey Yograj, managing director of Tecnova, a consulting firm that advises foreign companies on India.

While some are suggesting that increasing domestic coal production is the necessary next step in addressing India’s power problems, it’s not so clear that’s the case. One of the principal barriers to cheap coal production is environmental protection, and for good reason: The IMF estimates that coal pollution kills about 70,000 Indians per year and development of coal in India (and China) is undermining efforts to decrease global carbon emissions. Further, Indian coal development can create underground fires that cause houses to fall into the earth and fuels the corruption in the Indian energy sector that’s holding back meaningful reform. Solar power is actually less expensive than diesel in India and renewables more broadly are becoming increasingly plausible alternatives to expanded coal development.

In fact, the Indian government is pushing a National Solar Mission aimed at generating 12.5 % of India’s total electricity from renewable resources by 2020. By the end of 2012, the Solar Mission called for 810 megawatts of installed panels, but, according to a recently released report, India passed the 1 gigawatt mark in June of this year, a full 6 months ahead of the plan for 22 gigawatts by 2022. The report also found that India had only about 506 megawatts of installed capacity as recently as March, meaning that the country doubled its efforts in only two moths.

India has vast rural populations that often have limited access to electricity. The Solar Mission aims to provide more reliable sources of power to those citizens while reducing energy cost, decreasing reliance on foreign coal, and ameliorating the consequences of India’s economic growth for the environment.

Max Frankel contributed to this post.


This post has been updated to reflect the fact that the post originally mistakenly used “coal” in place of “diesel.” Diesel fuel is more expensive than solar in India, while coal is cheaper than both.

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29 Responses to Massive Blackout Leaves 600 Million Indians Without Power, Demonstrating Danger Of Relying On Outdated Coal System

  1. prokaryotes says:

    10% of the human race sat in the dark,and it happened so fast. Even though the 4-5 million US citizens affected from power outage after the recent Derecho are hardly comparable to 600 million, but it showed that it can hit everybody.

    So another point related when looking at power reliability, is energy security in the light of extreme weather events. A more decentralized net will always provide more security then central hubs. Lucky those who had an local energy source. And these are best when generated from renewable energies.

    And it is safest when you spread the energy with a smart grid, when millions of electric car owners batteries become the energy storage points.

  2. facts lean left says:

    Coal producers are still on their mass-murder campaign, i see. maybe this will slow it down some.

  3. clays says:

    India has a current capacity of 202.98 gigawatts. 22 gigawatts of solar by 2022 isn’t going to do ANYTHING to prevent these things in the future.

    If India just forgot about increasing coal while it was deploying it’s solar infrastructure they would be sitting in the dark for THE NEXT 90 YEARS!

  4. Cletus says:

    “Help desk? Hello, help desk???”

  5. Bird Thompson says:

    you’re right: almost 10% of humans affected! we have seen the future…

  6. Solar Jim says:

    Utility collusion, centralization, contamination, corruption, coal, collapse.

    The signs are everywhere that the entire western paradigm of “energy” is built on a house of cards and contamination.

    Maybe China should ship their spare solar technology to India (for distributed power) and the USA can make our own.

  7. M Tucker says:

    So, it wouldn’t have anything to do with India’s decrepit electrical transmission infrastructure? It must be the coal plants! So it wouldn’t have anything to do with the nearly 50% loss of power between the generating station and the end user due to decrepit electrical transmission and rampant theft? It must be the coal plants! So, it wouldn’t have anything to do with increasing demand in the rapidly growing cities while the government struggles to keep up with generating capacity? It must be the coal plants! Better analysis please!!

    India plans to add only 88,000 megawatts (from a Reuters report from today) and it will take them 5 years to do it! 5 f-ing years! Most of course will be coal power. About two-thirds of India’s power comes from coal. They will be using coal well into the middle of this century. With countries like India and China we can expect atmospheric CO2 to continue to rise at and accelerating rate well into the middle of the 21st century.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    There is even a website for this

    Power Cuts in India

  9. prokaryotes says:


    At 1:02 pm IST on July 31, 2012 the Northern Power Grid failed due to a fault at Agra near Delhi.[citation needed]
    In the weeks leading up to the failure, extreme heat had caused power use to reach record levels in New Delhi. Due to the late arrival of monsoons, agricultural areas in Punjab and Haryana drew increased power from the grid for paddy season.[5] The late monsoon also meant that hydroelectric plants were running under their usual production.[6]

    On the day of the collapse, Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde stated that the exact cause of the failure was unknown, but that at the time of the failure, electricity use was “above normal”. He speculated that some states had attempted to draw more power than permitted due to higher consumption. Spokesperson for Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (PGCIL) and the Northern Regional Load Despatch Centre (NRLDC) stated that Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana were the states responsible for the overdraw. PGCIL’s chairman also stated that electrical service was restored “at a record time”.[7]

    A senior director for an Indian power company described the outage as “a fairly large breakdown that exposed major technical faults in India’s grid system. Something went terribly wrong which caused the backup safety systems to fail.”

  10. Myron Mesecke says:

    Obviously India needs to cut down all of its forests to make room for clean green solar panels and wind turbines.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    A second larger outage occurred on Tuesday.

    The CNN report touched on increased use of electricity for air conditioning and agricultural irrigation, as the monsoon rains have been delayed.

  12. prokaryotes says:

    Because extreme heat had caused power use to reach record levels in New Delhi, the headline could read:

    Demonstrating Danger Of Relying On Outdated Coal System in the face of Global Warming.

  13. Mike Roddy says:

    This is a silly statement. The solar farms would be located in Rajastan, which is a desert. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, forests are not windy areas.

  14. prokaryotes says:

    On a side note, about low wind areas and deployment of wind parks

    ..financially feasible to install wind turbines in more low-wind areas than previously thought

  15. Mike Roddy says:

    Coal power networks are politically corrupt in India, China, and the United States, including the coal producers, utilities, and politicians. That’s why the companies and power plants are never charged for killing people with SOx an mercury, not to mention carbon dioxide. This has to change.

  16. M Tucker says:

    Mike that is a nice article loaded with info but it does not indicate serious action by China or India and I don’t believe the US will take a leadership role for many years to come. India and China have committed to coal power. They could close those plants before they reach their lifespan but I doubt that even China would give up on the investment. India is an economic basket case always on the edge of their budget for providing power and water so they will stick to their domestic coal supplemented by imports. China may switch from building new coal plants to natural gas, they are interested in domestic fracking, and that seems to be the current trend. As long as nat. gas is cheap it will be touted as the “bridge fuel.” Even many progressives in the US, who ought to know better, are persuaded by the hype. Maddow, last night interviewing Muller on his BEST study, accepted his conclusion that nat. gas was the way to go…”two-thirds the emissions of coal!” He is promoting his book “Physics for Future Presidents.” Just goes to show that Genius Grants can be given to the wrong people and Rachel needs to consult actual experts.

  17. Paul Klinkman says:

    One difference between solar and fossil fuels is that most home or village solar installations require labor. Labor in India is quite cheap. If India wants to be prosperous, they should go solar.

    India’s domestic supplies of fossil fuel are limited. As a result, fossil fuels require competitive worldwide bidding on a limited world fuel supply. If India wants to make a few foreigners rich while their own people suffer, they should subsidize fossil fuels. This would say something about the country’s leadership.

  18. Paul Klinkman says:

    I accept your point about the grid versus the coal plants. Sometimes it’s the grid.

    In one major NYC blackout it was a nuclear power plant that aggravated things. The plant tripped off early, because nuclear power plants are so close to monumental disaster that they have to abandon ship early.

    In general the U.S. grid has surprisingly little genuine government oversight. Crashes happen because the players consider themselves too big to fail, so who cares if the electricity goes out for a week or three.

    We can trace the too big to care phenomenon back to 19th century railroads, early 20th century steel mills and 1920s coal mines, none of which cared for worker safety or welfare. The various safety standards that our government does have are often based on massive killings of people when they didn’t have the rules.

    There’s no reason for our electric companies to care if our power works, not until we have enough blackouts again and again and again, which enrages citizens to vote out some pro-business Congresspeople. Then we get some token regulation of that particular problem.

    For that matter, the chances of an American child getting cancer in her/his lifetime used to be 1 in 1800 two centuries ago. It’s up to 1 in 2. That’s probably entirely because of lax carcinogen regulation. You’ll just have to deal with a death in your own family, I guess. My sister died.

  19. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I hate to be a spoil sport but this is actually the present – the systemic effects of our gambling with the future are probably outside any of our experiences, ME

  20. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Spot on. How many of our lovely new toys run without electricity? In fact how much of our lives will go smoothly without it? ME

  21. Dano says:

    I guess if we can’t figure out how to decarbonize and either gain efficiencies or do without, we’re screwed. The future is now.



  22. Gillian King says:

    This Times of India informative article (12 July 2012) predicts power outages and reviews the main causes.

    1. Power theft
    2. Inefficient transmission (32% losses)
    3. Erratic coal supplies
    4. Bankrupt state electricity boards that can’t maintain equipment

  23. Leif says:

    Point of use power, i.e. distributed solar, can be a big help here, taking much pressure off a shaky grid. There are lots on roof needs that a solar system and four ballast legs can serve in the third world. Solid corners and a water proof roof can even serve as a home with very flimsy walls and still be safe in an earthquake. Perhaps even flat batteries and built in LEDs on the under side. If we can raise the living conditions in the third world our military budget could be much reduced.

  24. prokaryotes says:

    Massive Blackout in India. 600+ Million with No Power. One More Example of why Renewable Smart Grid’s Time has Come

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The Indian middle class needs the electricity for air-conditioning, computers, plasma TVs etc, while a couple of hundred million Indians, surplus to requirement, would love just a single bulb. Capitalist democracy at its finest.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    India is a country riven by class inequality, but is so ancient a civilization that they have turn such injustice into an hereditary system of intractable caste differences, and made a religion out of it. That’s why the plutocrats of the West prefer India to China-it represents an ideal of zero social mobility and hereditary privilege that they deeply admire and are striving to emulate.

  27. Scott says:

    This article is actually incorrect. The government is intentionally bankrupting coal powered plants from providing a nation with ample amount of electricity.
    I found a quote from obama himself proclaiming this:
    “So if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” — Barack Obama