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July 31, 2012

India's Blackouts Expose Coal-Dominated-Grid's Failure, Need For Distributed Solar

SolarIndia is currently learning a hard lesson about its over-dependence on outdated, centralized coal-fired power. The country's energy needs vastly outpace the ability of its inefficient and inneffective coal-fired power plant fleet to supply power where and when its needed.

The result has been sweeping blackouts across northern and eastern India for the second straight day, leaving nearly half the country without power. The other half of the country had little to no electricity in the first place because the centralized grid has failed to ever bring it to them.  If anything, these blackouts have exposed the big problem in India’s plans to build hundreds of coal fired power plants: they can’t deliver peak power.

For years India has attempted to fuel unprecedented economic growth with coal. The Indian pipeline is now full of a whopping 519 gigawatts of new coal-fired power capacity. Unfortunately for India, due to increased capital costs and the rapidly-escalating price of coal on the international market, many of these new plants are sitting idle, half-completed, or even abandoned

But aside from the upside-down economics of coal in today’s energy market, the problem with India’s myopic pursuit of coal-fired power is that it misses the whole point. India has a peak power problem, not a baseload power problem.

Let me explain. Coal plants can only provide base-load power - a steady stream of power 24 hours a day that cannot be ramped up or down depending on demand (for example, a really hot day when 20 million people in Delhi turn on their air conditioners). But that’s exactly what India’s huge urban demand centers need: flexible power that can ramp up when they need it most – usually hot sunny days.

What’s more, the coal plants are actually the last to get up and running after the blackout, showing just how inflexible a source of power they are.

So what does match that need perfectly well and wouldn’t go down in a black out? Distributed clean energy solutions such as solar and energy efficiency. Solar panels reach their maximum production capacity during daylight hours, when consumer energy demand also reaches its peak.  Distributed roof-top solar in urban areas close to where demand is happening is therefore an ideal solution to meet peak demand.

At the same time massive energy efficiency investments can reduce the size of the peak demands, meaning you need less energy overall (did we mention India loses 20-30% of all the coal power it generates in its leaky grid?).

Energy-usage-graph

Image source: Refresh Energy Group

Thus, if there is a silver lining to be found in India’s current energy crisis, it is the golden opportunity it presents for clean renewable energy solutions.

The good news is that clean energy has already been making rapid strides in India.  The country just passed 1 gigawatts of installed solar capacity and has plans to develop more.  The state of Gujarat in the northwest of India has been leading the way in installing grid-interactive solar capacity, and is unrolling a new program of distributed rooftop solar panels on individual buildings and homes.  Under the new program, consumers can generate their own power, thereby reducing their electricity costs, and can also sell excess capacity back to the grid to create a little extra household income. 

This week’s blackouts show that while impressive, these efforts need to be deployed at a much faster pace. These blackouts are the direct result of India’s over-reliance on coal, and are not because they do not have enough coal. This should be an eye-opener: coal is failing the country and the poor. It’s time to move to modern clean energy.

-- Gordon Scott, Sierra Club International Program

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