Navigant Research Blog

Cutting Power, Cutting Progress

Anne Wrobetz — March 6, 2013

I recently spent three weeks in India, and like most Americans traveling the subcontinent, I was struck by the deep differences between our two societies.  Waste disposal is a highly visible one – in the United States, we like to bury our trash and forget about it.  In India, trash is thrown on the ground and forgotten, or rather, ignored.

One of the sharpest differences between the United States and India, though, is the power system.  Citizens of developed countries are used to 24/7 access to power.  Sure, sometimes that power may be more expensive (thanks to utility attempts to balance demand throughout the day and night).  But when we flip a light switch, we take it for granted that the light will indeed turn on.  What if it didn’t?  What if we had regular power cuts, either scheduled or for emergency purposes?

In India, power cuts are a part of life.  The infrastructure was not built to handle such a huge population and, while construction is rampant throughout India, progress is slow and expensive.  Thus, utilities simply shut off the power when it becomes too difficult or expensive to run.  In Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, power cuts are scheduled for 2 hours a day, staggered across different parts of the city.  In the house where I was staying, the power went off from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily.  In remote villages, access to electricity is the exception: power cuts can last as long as 16 hours, every day.

Geographic Inequality

This may seem backward to those of us used to constantly running air conditioners.  But if American utilities practiced routine load shedding, even for 5 minutes a day, huge amounts of energy could be saved.  This is the principle behind smart appliances, which don’t consume electricity when it’s not needed.  In India, where smart appliances are still essentially unknown, load shedding is an effort to prevent emergency power cuts and blackouts, such as the massive blackout that gripped 20 states in north India last July.  Demand often outstrips supply, especially with inefficiencies and theft common across the Indian power grid, which accounts for between 20% and 50% of all power generated in the country.

Officials tend to blame coal shortages, although it is really a matter of geographic inequality.  India’s grid is fragmented.  Even when there’s a surplus of electricity in one part of the country, it’s impossible to transport it without losing most of the energy along the way.  Clearly, the Indian grid needs revamped massive upgrades.  On the website, citizens can report electricity outages via mobile web, SMS, Twitter, and other smartphone applications.  This website takes the information and makes it publicly available.  This is only effective in major cities, though, where cell phone reception is reliable and consistent.  The full extent of load shedding is hard to quantify.

In India, one of the most rapidly developing economies in the world, major inefficiencies in the grid cause many people to be without electricity on a daily basis, slowing development and costing billions of rupees in lost productivity, especially in villages.  The situation could be improved by integrating localized renewables, which is already happening, as well as better mapping of electricity use nationwide, which could reduce theft and inefficiencies.

It’s difficult to imagine, as an American, the effects of such widespread blackouts.  But with the growing frequency of major natural disasters and our own grid aging, they may soon become more familiar.

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