When half of India loses electricity, time for lessons on going local

India's electricity grid went out for 600 million people Tuesday. The historic blackout shows how nations must reconsider big, complex infrastructure like centralized electric utilities.

S.K.Yadav/AP Photo
An Indian man prepares a meal as others sit at a roadside shop on a dark street following a power outage in Allahabad, India, on Tuesday. India's energy crisis cascaded over half the country, leaving 600 million people without government-supplied electricity for several hours in, by far, the world's biggest blackout.

Countries that rely on a national infrastructure for basic needs – from electricity to roads to food – can take a lesson from India’s massive power outages. A big, complex system must have resiliency built into it from scratch – all the better to absorb disruption and recover from hardship.

On Tuesday, India’s electricity grid failed 600 million people, or half its population. And it was the second day of big blackouts. And they were on a scale that shows once again that centralized energy systems – while perhaps efficient and cost-effective – can be vulnerable to a cascade of unforeseen small mistakes.

The United States experienced a massive blackout in 2003 when some 45 million people in the Northeast and Midwest were in the dark for hours. The trigger was a few overgrown trees hitting power lines on a hot summer day.

India is still probing the cause of its blackouts – perhaps not enough water in hydroelectric dams or state governments taking more than their share of power. Whatever the reason, such a disruption in a nation’s basic supplies would occur less often if such systems were decentralized into networks of local, smaller suppliers – similar to how the Internet is structured.

Resiliency in systems is much like in people. The ability to bounce back depends on having deep connections to others, such as family, friends, or those who hold similar moral views. Collaboration with a diversity of sources creates a better capacity to absorb shocks.

One reason for the 2008 financial crisis in the US was a high dependency on a few large banks that were all involved in the same, complex business of trading in dubious home mortgages. Few people really know how that system worked or how vulnerable it was. Regulators were caught unaware.

A greater reliance on smaller banks and more diversity in financial investments might have lessened the impact of the bursting of the housing-market bubble. Even Sandy Weill, the former chief executive who built Citigroup into a global financial institution, now favors banks that won’t “risk the taxpayer dollars” and that aren’t “too big to fail.”

Nations with big electric utilities rely on a model begun in 1882 by Thomas Edison. Today, the US has about 6,000 power plants that require 450,000 miles of transmission lines. Entire regions can go dark at a moment’s notice. Former Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson says the US is “a superpower with a third-world grid.”

It’s a top-down, complex system vulnerable to bad weather, cyberattacks, solar flares, and human mistakes. And the US will need to spend about $75 billion a year to upgrade it for future electricity needs, according to a 2011 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. Otherwise, the report states, a “combination of aging equipment and capacity bottlenecks” will lead to “a greater incidence of electricity interruptions.”

And a new report called “Powering America’s Energy Resilience” from the Center for National Policy finds: “Disruptive risks to the critical foundations of US national power and prosperity are likely to grow in frequency and intensity in the 21st Century.” The report suggests that the US rethink the role of infrastructure in supporting daily life.

India’s blackouts point to the need for a new kind of resiliency in power supplies, one that relies on local, self-contained energy producers tied together by microgrids. Many US cities are trying this approach, especially with “green” energy such as solar. Much like the “local economy” and “local food” movements, perhaps nations can also move toward “local energy” as a way to ensure reliability.

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