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August 06, 2012

India's Blackout Lesson: Coal Failed, Small Solar = Big Results

Smokestacks1Of 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 - one that most Indians accept as a fact of daily life considering the prolonged power cuts they routinely face, not to mention the 300 million people who don't even have access to it. 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 pointed out in a post last week, India is currently learning the most important lesson about its over-dependence on outdated, centralized coal-fired power: It is simply not flexible enough to accommodate India's real problem - peak demand (the kind that happens when 20 million Delhi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 air conditioners 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 over build 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 That's because costs are skyrocketing and the transportation infrastructure is so out of date that while the country has abundant reserves of coal it can't get them where they need to be - the plants themselves.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 rearview mirror for how development should occur. The truth is 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 for the most part is 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. And 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 the fact that when aggregated, small can be very, very big.

Take the hidden truth behind India's modern grid (as my colleague Jigar Shah points out): it is actually already a distributed system that is largely powered by filthy, costly diesel gen 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 though, 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 350.org's India office is posing to Prime Minister Singh and his new power minister in an online petition. The petition sums it up well:
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 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, Sierra Club International Program

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