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.