Source: National Post
Armina Ligaya | Jul 31, 2012 10:30 PM ET | Last Updated: Jul 31, 2012 10:42 PM ET
The world’s largest blackout left at least 620 million people without power in India on Tuesday, causing widespread traffic jams, stranding train passengers, trapping miners, leaving hospitals scrambling in the dark and even snuffing out electric crematoria with bodies inside.
It was the second such outage in two days after power grids collapsed on Monday in a similar, but smaller blackout, raising questions about outdated infrastructure and the Indian government’s ability to meet its growing appetite for energy.
The back-to-back blackouts were a “wake-up call” that the country’s ambition of becoming an economic superpower is at risk if India doesn’t get its act together, experts say.
“There are these various, serious, persistent bottlenecks which need to be broken, and rapidly,” said Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science and South Asia expert at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Otherwise, the prospects of India emerging as a great power is really going to be a mirage.”
Tuesday’s blackout stretched from Assam, near China, to the Himalayas and the northwestern deserts of Rajasthan, covering more than a dozen states where half of India’s 1.2 billion people live.
It left 200 miners stranded in three deep coal shafts in the state of West Bengal when their electric elevators stopped working. Workers at the mines, one of which is 700 metres deep, were not in danger and were being taken out, Eastern Coalfields Limited official Niladri Roy said.
Meanwhile, train stations in Kolkata were swamped and the streets were jammed with cars after government offices closed early in the dilapidated coastal city of five million people. Some major city hospitals were left without power, and office buildings had to fire up diesel generators.
India’s power minister, Sushil Kumar Shinde, told reporters he blamed the new collapse on states taking more than their allotted share of electricity.
But this problem was compounded by a weak monsoon, which did not produce enough rainfall for adequate hydroelectricity generation, which accounts for one-quarter of India’s power, said John Kirton, the director of the BRICs research group at the University of Toronto. With less rain to irrigate the crops in India’s agricultural states, such as Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, more farmers use electric pumps to draw water from the wells, he added.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has vowed to fast-track stalled power and infrastructure projects as well as introduce free market reforms aimed at reviving India’s flagging economy. But he has drawn fire for dragging his feet.
A longstanding power deficit has spurred major industries to have their own private power plants or diesel generators, which are shielded from outages. Still, the inconsistent supply hits investment and disrupts small businesses.
Heavily subsidized prices for electricity, often promised by politicians to constituents in smaller agricultural states, leave some citizens with very little incentive to conserve, added Mr. Ganguly.
By nightfall, power was back up in the humid capital, New Delhi and much of the north, but a senior official said only a third was restored in the rural state of Uttar Pradesh, itself home to more people than Brazil.
Still, these power outages will have lasting effects, and said Marcos Troyjo, co-director of BRICLab at Columbia University.
“The series of power outages in India will bring about big economic losses for the country,” he said in an e-mail. “It also affects its image negatively as an emerging market. It will certainly cast shadows on its prospects as a favoured destination of foreign direct investment. India authorities will face increasing difficulties in terms of assuring investors that the Indian Government is doing its utmost in terms of updating the country’s inadequate infrastructure.”
Mr. Kirton, however, said he was optimistic India would weather the storm. It is not unique among the so-called BRIC emerging economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – in facing endemic infrastructure problems, and issues such as corruption, he said. But it does have a young population and a vibrant democracy that will help keep India on the “flight path towards emerging successfully.”
Crises like the outages tend to spur countries into action, he added.
“There is an overwhelming political incentive for every democratic politician in India to look at the tens of millions of people without power for a couple of days and say, ‘Look, they’re the angry voters, and I’ve got to show I’m meeting their needs better than my political competitor.’ Everybody is going to be racing to find a solution.”
The country’s future prospects will hinge on the Indian government’s response in the aftermath, said Mr. Ganguly.
“There was a propensity to sort of sweep some of these inherent and structural shortcomings under the carpet. But now the dirt is beginning to once again come out from underneath the carpet, and this will have to be dealt with,” he said. “I think the next few months will really tell us whether the political elite has gotten the message, that these structural impediments cannot be papered over.”
National Post, with files from Reuters and The Associated Press
With India’s growing demand for energy, the current obsolete infrastructure will not be able to support its rapid economic growth. It is estimated that in North America, one new single circuit power line of five miles long on flat land with urban setting and tubular steel poles will already costs $14 Million. Even though lower labor costs in India may help to drive down the construction costs, building new power is still time-consuming and restrictive.
SAS’ research has also shown that India does not have a proper transmission line monitoring system in place. With a real-time monitoring system like SAS’ technology, accurate calculations of line capacity can be achieved using current line condition and environmental factors.
Indeed, large scale power outages are not unusual and they happened almost every year around the world, affecting tens of millions of people and costing the economies billions of dollars. For instance, it is estimated by the US Department of Energy that the worst U.S. blackout in 2003, has resulted losses of $6 Billion dollars. This failure has inspired and prompted significant advancement to today’s dynamic circuit rating technology used by SAS.
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Smart Autonomous Solutions is a Canadian company specialized in addressing Dynamic Thermal Circuit Rating (DTCR), stress/strain, temperature, displacement and wireless monitoring of asset management needs of electrical utility companies as well as other infrastructure entities. Led by a blue-chip management team, the company has patented technologies developed by the University of Manitoba.
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