Just another day, in India

The last two days of month of July were the first reflections of the deep technology dependency of  the modern era in the lives of Indians. Or is it?

On July 30th and then on 31st, we saw the avalanche collapse of the Indian power grid. On the 30th, the northern region collapsed and on the 31st, it took down the eastern and north eastern regions with it. These days saw a total load loss of about 36000MW and 48000MW respectively (according to the report published thereafter). I have no idea about the total impact of these events, may it be in terms of the number of people impacted or the financial loss. The official report that I have had the chance to read don't even make a mention.

This event brought out many technical, political and social outcries. The Ministry of Power, Govt. of India had many press briefings and the then Minister of Power, Mr. Sushilkumar Shinde made many press appearances. He had his political cards, but failed to make any technically or even political correct statements, in my opinion. 

Having said that, I am not that pessimistic about the technology side of the whole affair. I am not suggesting that the event was a positive experience. It, most certainly, was the difficult hours for the people stuck in trains, elevators, etc. But I would bet my money that most people did not realize, at least in the beginning, that the event was not the typical one they experience every other day. Most people who have not lived in India don't realize that most Indians do not take electricity for granted like the people who live developed countries. They perhaps find it hard to believe, but its true.

For instance, my mom makes sure that she prepares everything that she needs before 8am on Tuesdays. Because,  by definition, Tuesdays my town gets its turn for "load shedding". From 8am in the morning, till perhaps 6 or 7PM, we will not have power. We just live with that, we have to. It gets worse in summer, and worst in drought years. That's when we get unscheduled "load shedding". We still live with that. 

Much of India has not seen electrification but of the many places that has, most will have some sort of backup power, like diesel (petrol, kerosene) generators (most buildings that have an elevator will have a one, I would guess), backup (battery powered, or solar or both) power sources for lighting, etc. They can survive a day or two without power and they wouldn't know. Here is the kicker, every desktop computer would be connected through an UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply). Perhaps only server rooms of the developed countries have such a power supply for computers. 

But, these balckouts brought out a spectacular outrage of people, many making very strong statements on the tv, etc. (media mightier than the sword, right!! ) and bigger twitter storms. Eventually, the Govt. of India gave in and replaced the Power Minister. Yes, thats the political solution for a seemingly technical problem.

Now, it has been two months and there is still a lot of that anguish in the air. I know, I can understand how important energy is to a country which seemingly cannot tame its growth pattern. I agree with the long term strategic goals of a smarter, tech savvy grid with the "intelligent everything" features. Should we just go and invest in these technologies, that in many case don't exist. Is everything as bad as it is made out to be? Or is it simpler than that?

For example see this post 

 (I am hoping he will respond to my comments :) ).

Mr. Gopi Katragadda, ( Managing Director at GE India Technology Center) in the above blog, argues that India should get to the smart grid very quickly and that is the panacea of all the curses of the Indian grid and its vulnerabilities. Don't get me wrong, I am a big proponent of smart grid technologies, my research is on technology similar to  what many people think as being part of a smarter grid. Nonetheless, I disagree with Mr. Katragadda's proposals as both short and medium term solutions. I don't think India's current grid situation needs a smart grid approach, in the short term. There are more fundamental problems than that.

(Also, notice that many technical solutions he proposed are the fields where GE has a strong footprint, talk about marketing.)

I will give you a simple example. I was in the audience of ta discussion on nuclear power plants in the aftermath of tsunami in Japan. The panelists were many eminent experts from the power, nuclear generation industries and the faculty of the nuclear engineering dept. of MIT. One of the primary concern they all voiced is that, country like India lacks the discipline to run a large scale nuclear power plant and any incident may lead to large scale disaster given the attitude of people, emergency response infrastructure and the population density.

People, my dear friends, is the key. One of the recommendations of the TECHNICAL report on the grid failure is 

  • Penal provisions of the Electricity Act, 2003 need to be reviewed to ensure better compliance of instructions of Load Dispatch Centers and directions of Central Commission. 

Yes, that's a technical recommendation. Now, will you be surprised if I tell you that the primary cause to the blackout was anything but technical. In fact, they did not find any unexpected behavior of any component,  sub-system or protectoin mechanism but of people. What did they find?

  • High Loading on  400 kV Bina-Gwalior-Agra link: The overdrawal by some of the Northern Region (NR) utilities, utilizing Unscheduled Interchange (UI), contributed to high loading on this tie line.

  • Inadequate response by State Load dispatch Centers (SLDC) to the instructions of Regional Load dispatch Centers (RLDC) to reduce overdrawal by the NR utilities and underdrawal/excess generation by the Western Region (WR) utilities

The people simply did not respond to orders coming from their peers in other control rooms. As simple as that. I bet they were sleeping comfortably, it was 2:30AM when all this happened! OKAY, stop blaming the Govt. of India now and start blaming Govt's of northern states!

P.S: I could go on, about delays in re-energizing the plants and the rest of the grid; I will end up with the same answer, very sluggish response of people to mission critical problems. But, I am glad that there are some wide-area data acquisition (PMU and sync frequency measurements, albeit in the distribution network) and how I wish I could touch that data!
Also see: 
  1. 10 Amazing Photos from the Massive Power Outtages in India, http://bit.ly/V1W1PT
  2. Report on the Grid Disturbance in the Northern Region on the 30th July and in Northern, Eastern and North-Eastern Region on 31st July 2012. http://bit.ly/OvzTsp
  3. IIT Bombay, Wide Area Frequency Measurement Systemhttp:// http://bit.ly/S2oc1e
  4. International Energy Outlook 2011 http://1.usa.gov/Rgi3KL
  5. Your favorite search engine


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