India’s Blackout Lesson: Coal Failed, Solar Delivered

by Justin Guay, via The Sierra Club

Of all the headlines around India’s historic blackout none summed up the truth more than the Onion:  “300 million without electricity after restoration of the power grid.”

In fact, when asking Indian colleagues about the blackout most acknowledged it as simply par for the course. That’s because India’s over reliance on a centralized grid powered largely by coal has always been a failure — a fact that most Indians face through prolonged power cuts. That’s not to mention the 300 million people who don’t even have access to the grid.

The only thing unique about this blackout was the duration and size, which exposed just how epic this failure has become. As the analysis rolls in, the fundamental lesson is clear: coal, and the centralized grid it powers, is the problem, not the solution to India’s energy woes.

As my colleague Gordon Scott pointed out in a post last week, India is currently learning the most important lesson about its over-dependence on outdated, centralized coal-fired power. It is simply not flexible enough to accommodate India’s real problem: peak demand (the kind that happens when 20 million Delhi inhabitants turn on their AC or fans all at once). Instead coal chugs along at a steady rate unable to keep up with the flexible demands of daily life, which regularly leads to blackouts.

Worse, even if India decided it was worth it to massively overbuild coal plants to avoid this problem, the coal sector is such an absolute train wreck it would be impossible. That’s because costs are skyrocketing and the transportation infrastructure is so out of date that the country can’t get the coal where they it to be – the plants themselves. This combination of factors, not ‘environmental regulations,’ has forced the existing coal fleet and many proposed plants to sit idle, half-completed, or even abandoned.

In essence, it’s a complete failure of what ‘very serious commentators’ call the ‘modern grid.’ These commentators suffer from an extreme failure of imagination — one that is tethered to the past and continuously looks in the rear view mirror. The truth is that countries like India need to, and are, building an entirely different form of grid from the bottom up. One that more accurately reflects their own realities and actually delivers energy to the poor – something the ‘modern grid’ has miserably failed to do.

Of course, they still have to face the problems they have inherited from trying to copy/paste a centralized grid from the West. So what can they do to solve peak problems with the grid they already have in place? Deploy lots and lots of distributed solar and efficiency.

That’s because unlike coal, solar is mostly available when you need it – during peak hours. Which is why it’s great to see States like Gujarat taking the lead in roof top solar programs with the support of the IFC. In addition, efficiency makes the peaks smaller, so you need less power in the first place.

The irony here, of course, is that distributed generation has always been ignored as trivial compared to the real need for a large scale ‘modern grid.’ That’s because policymakers and commentators lack the imagination to understand that when aggregated, small can be very, very big.

Take the hidden truth behind India’s grid (as my colleague Jigar Shah points out): it is actually already a distributed system that is largely powered by filthy, costly diesel generation sets. That’s because power outages are so frequent that businesses and wealthy individuals have been forced to pay for this backup generation to ensure power. This is a tremendous opportunity for companies seeking targeted diesel replacement strategies to save people and companies tremendous amounts of money, while providing reliable power.

Grid issues aside, the real story here is that while the grid — the center piece of efforts to deliver energy access for all — failed spectacularly, it was small scale off grid clean energy that delivered. Ironically enough it was the rural poor, not the middle or upper classes, who were best off because they were powered by distributed solar. A sweet irony if ever there was one.

So if the ‘modern grid’ is really a failure where it already exists, is being outperformed where it will never reach, and the cost of coal combined with its scarcity is crippling existing generation, why is India doubling down by building a whopping 519 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity and pretending the grid will reach the rural poor?

Very good question. Luckily it’s one that’s India office is posing to Prime Minister Singh and his new power minister in an online petition:

“600 million people without electricity, shaky grids, leaky distribution lines and an outdated system of power generation. The story of India shining got a rude shock…relying on highly inefficient power grids and dirty and expensive fossil fuels like coal has only lead to greater environmental risks and poor energy access for millions of Indians…Another way is possible…It’s time to invest in energy efficiency and decentralized renewable energy for all.”

We can only hope Indian leaders heed their call before billions more dollars are wasted on a system that is steamrolling the country’s poor, leaving them waiting for power, and plunging those that do have it into darkness. Let’s hope 350 can help them to see the light.

Justin Guay is the director of the Sierra Club’s international program. This piece was originally published at the Sierra Club and was reprinted with permission.

18 Responses to India’s Blackout Lesson: Coal Failed, Solar Delivered

  1. Leif says:

    Now we’re talking: Profits to the people, not the polluters!

    Now if we can just get a government “of the people, buy the people, for the people,” it would be game over and a new kid on the block. Humanly structured capitalism to actually help “humanity” as well as Earth’s life support systems…


  2. squidboy6 says:

    The grid can be useful once a switch is made to wind and solar – solar for peak demand and no grid required plus wind which would have to be transfered from remote areas.

    Mountainous regions have huge potentials for wind power and an extension of the grid would be needed. But it doesn’t have to follow the old pattern of huge infrastructure spending.

    In San Diego County residents have been fighting solar projects in the desert near El Centro with the argument that local solar on the rooftops makes more sense than putting power lines through sensitive parts of the desert, especially State and Federal Park lands. I think the project in the desert is going to go through but the panels on rooftops makes more sense. Local generation and local use. Users won’t be stuck when high winds in the desert puts out the lines and they’re in a blackout!

    At any rate the centralized power was the same as in the US – a great thing for influential and rich developers but a crock for the users down the line.

  3. M Tucker says:

    Yep, “off grid” is the way to go if you can afford it. Off grid is best. In India some small businesses even had backup generators, not many, but it kept some businesses going. The grid in India already suffers from voltage overloading so adding more capacity: solar, wind, or coal will not help. They need to get off that decrepit grid. The government in India cannot be trusted to do the right thing with the government run power industry. The government will allow preferred customers to steal electricity causing residents and most small businesses to suffer. They rely on neighborhood water trucks for drinking water even the large most prosperous cities. Power outages are common even the large most prosperous cities. The Indian government is a train wreck and they will continue to waste millions of dollars on useless projects.

  4. Henry Sullivan says:

    Solar may help but what is India to do during the monsoon months? Seriously?

  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    If we make lots of optimistic assumptions, then the grid is good until about 2020. If we make less optimistic assumptions we are in trouble alot sooner or even now.

    I have no idea how to fix it, The mish mash of regulatory authorities, diversified ownerships, price pressures and long lead times make the problem intractable.

    Self sufficiency is looking more and more attractive. The US is not nearly as bad as India, yet.

  6. sailrick says:

    typo – word missing

    country can’t get the coal where they it to be

  7. Mohan Menon says:

    Interesting article. One only wonders how all the land required for solar energy based electricity to replace the “filthy, costly diesel generation sets” would be found in the cities. Solar requires about 80 times the land.
    Secondly, while renewable energy is perhaps the best choice, it is not only low on efficiency but also very expensive. Their costs are viable only in remote areas where the cost of supply from a centralised grid is very high already. India’s problems with the centralised grid notwithstanding, wouldn’t renewables be only a small part of the answer, at least just yet ?

  8. Joe Romm says:

    We call them roofs. Solar requires far less land than coal, especially since solar doesn’t destroy land by sea level rise and dust-bowlification!

  9. squidboy6 says:

    Photovoltaic cells, light equals electricity. The monsoon doesn’t block out all of the sun so there will still be electricity. Solar alone is not enough but solar and wind will fill most needs.

  10. Joan Savage says:

    Basic question about the diagram of energy usage and solar generation; how much of that offset between the two is just due to the use of Daylight Savings Time?

    e.g. Solar noon is roughly 1 pm EDT.

  11. fj says:

    Highly inevitable headline

    Gotham’s Transit Knockout Lesson: Massive Vehicles Failed, Net Zero Vehicles Delivered

  12. Schoolmarm says:

    “steamrolling the country’s poor, leaving them waiting for power, and plunging those that do have it into darkness”

    Correction: those “WHO” do have it. It may seem like a trivial thing but language determines and reflects what and how we think and feel. How many times, for example, have you seen people make the opposite mistake: “things who do…” Never happens. We objectify life; we don’t animate objects in our minds.

  13. Daniel Coffey says:

    I read an account of what happened and there is a major lesson to be learned for those who advocate solar on rooftop. It was a draw on power over the allocated levels due to an effort to stabilize the grid frequency which gave rise to the core problem.

    This is exactly the same risk which small scale solar deployment raises and is now raising in US grids. When the small-scale solar fluctuates, it creates issues with the voltage on the entire local distribution system.

    That is the key issue which absolutely must be understood and dealt with by those who think that global warming is going to be resolve by solar on rooftops.

  14. Daniel Coffey says:

    You suggest that “renewables” are not efficient. This notion is entirely incorrect and based on a statement which can only be made if unchallenged.

    Wind and solar are incredibly efficient, stunningly so. Standing alone, however, they do not have energy storage components, which creates the false impression that chemical fuels are somehow superior in efficiency. Not so.

    The sole advantage of chemical fuels is the cumulative storage of energy over very long periods of photosynthetic activity, a process which cannot realistically be replicated in real time. However, I have done the calculations, which I will not bore you with, and it is very clear that modern solar panels are vastly more efficient than thermal processes using photosynthetically derived energy, be it wood, coal or otherwise.

    Any caveman can find a lightening strike and carry a fire for heat; it takes modern science based on utter brilliance to create a solid state device which takes light and issues forth electricity.

  15. Daniel Coffey says:

    You are right to be concerned. I do not share the optimism for solar on rooftops which some suggest as a solution. However, the large-scale use of centralized solar and wind operations provides a very good opportunity for diversifying the generating portfolio.

    However, those who think that solar on each individual’s roof is a solution, might also advance a farm in each back yard, a well in every courtyard, a generator in every shed, and an oil well for each individual. Grids are good because they serve a purpose, share a valuable resource, and provide resources to the poor at reasonable cost.

    The modern utility is not to be underestimated in its role in raising up the poor and middle classes. The rich will always have luxuries, including electricity. The poor may not unless it is provided as part of a larger scale effort – like the grid.

  16. Mohan Menon says:

    Thank you, Joe. Very insightful indeed.

  17. Mohan Menon says:

    Thank you, Daniel. I thought “Solar” has a utilisation factor of about 20%, “Wind” about 15 to 30% depending on location, while “Coal” has about 90% anywhere. Photosynthetically derived energy was not created by mankind and therefore i agree mankind can take no credit for it. However, isn’t wasting 80 to 100 times more land (unless one is thinking of Australia or Texas) for “Solar” a criminal act ?