It has been said that the flapping of the wing of a Monarch butterfly somewhere in China has an impact on the weather in another part of the globe. This gained a whole new interpretation when a 400Kv station somewhere in the boondocks in India tripped causing an outage that first affected 330 million people in 8 states of India and then put 600 million people in 21 states in an power off mode the next day.
The power outages on two consecutive days (30th and 31st July) in India were a revelation. The first thing that struck me was that though access to technology was income driven, technology failure hit everyone equally. It was also an education of sorts for the group of haves about how approximately 289 million Indians live without access to electricity according to the IEA's 2011 World Energy Outlook.
People living in houses sealed so that AC's can work efficiently must have gone through hell.
There were 500 trains including 300 passenger trains that came to a standstill. Delhi Airport proudly stated that the load of the airport was restored in 15-60 seconds, enough time to cause a disaster.
One can only imagine the chaos that might have occurred in Rastrapati Bhavan (the Presidents residence), the Prime Minister's house, and other high security establishments. Sure they would all have power backups, but for how long? It must have been a security nightmare. The Prime Minister's home had to get power from Bhutan.
Why this demand for power?
One may ask why were states overdrawing power. Many will answer because there aren't enough power plants – but that is an answer for dummies.
The actual answer is - India is in the throes of an extended summer and a failure of monsoons – leading to a shortfall in water which not only impacts power generation but also increases demand for power.
Thus the demand for power cannot be met which forces states to draw more power than their quota which finally caused the breakdown of the Northern Grid first and then the Eastern and North Eastern Lines.
What this means is that our current power system has a major Achilles Heel. The weakest link in the grid is the grid itself – the fact that it is a centralized grid. Thus even a sneeze has a ripple effect reaching those thousands of miles away.
Problems with a centralized grid
For a country so paranoid about security, it is strange that we are putting all our eggs in one basket. A 400Kv substation tripping could also be a 400Kv substation sabotaged which could lead to scenarios as seen in the last two days. It is pointless adding more layers of security as there are may ways to put one of the thousands of substations out of commission. As we saw, a substation tripping can stop a nation.
A darkened city is not only disastrous for industries but is also a major health, occupation and safety hazard. Road accidents can increase, people can be trapped in lifts, in subterranean mines or in underground metros, thieves can have a field day in the dark.
Not to mention the risk to our vital interests which include the PM and institutions.
Loss of land including agricultural land
As most power plants are either near water sources or pit heads electricity has to be conveyed to the consumers in cities or to industries. To do this transmission lines criss-cross rural India. Right-of-Way (ROW) requirement of 765kV line is usually 85m but can be brought down to to 64m if design changes are made to the tower, as per a 2005 report titled "Transmission and Distribution in India" by Powergrid; further, for a 220 kV line the ROW is 35 metres. Thus not only does the value of land decrease but the amount of cultivable land also decreases. According to the CEA in the 12th Plan the expected transmission requirement for 765 kV is 25,000 to 30,000 cKm and for 400 KV is 50,000cKm. By the end of the Plan period the total would be between 119,000 – 126,000 cKm.
Mr. Paramjit Ahuja, an architect opposing thermal power plants coming up around the city of Nagpur, stated in an email interview with this author, that for a 400 kV line between the towns of Koradi and Wardha, a distance of 120 KM, land requirement would be 1541.92 acres.
He states that 'the size / footprint of tower is 20m x 20m (65'-6" x 65'-6"). The width of lines strung on the tower (between two extreme / opposite sides) is 26m (85'-3") with another 26m reserved as unsafe zone. Thus, no development zone under the TL is 52m'. He adds 'Only restricted agricultural activity is permitted under the TL. One cannot pursue agricultural activity of ones choice such as poultry, green house, shed net, poly house, orchard (orange / mango, etc.), teak plantation and the like under it.'
Transmission and distribution loss
One of the major problems with a centralized grid is the huge transmission and distribution losses. One of the major reasons for transmission loss is use of material with high resistance for conducting electricity. Also, people tap into the grid illegally without paying for the electricity they consumed. Thus not only do the end consumers get less power but the power producer and distributor are not fully compensated for their services. In India the amount of T&D losses is as high as 50% in some states though the official figure is 23%.
India is going to become a waste dump with noxious gases
Power generation in India is coal based mainly generating fly ash and CO2. CO2 is also generated in the use of oil and gas for power generation. Nuclear power plants generate radioactive waste with half life of thousands of years. Though there is no official figure to the amount of nuclear waste generated from the different steps involved in creating nuclear power (mining to reprocessing), an article by MV Ramana and others (Current Science, December 2001) calculates that from Reactor operations intermediate-level waste generated is 280 m3. The amount of fly ash generated is more than 100 million tonnes annually. India does not have a nuclear waste processing plant nor does it have a feasible plan to deal with the growing quantities of fly ash.
The answer is decentralization of power generation. There is not only need to shout it from the rooftops but there is need to use the rooftops to install photo-voltaic panels. According to a 2011 article authored by T.V Ramchandra (Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 2011), "58% of the geographical area potentially represent the solar hotspots in the country with more than 5 kWh/m2 /day of annual average Global insolation."
For a start lets get households off the grid, lets get common lighting off the grid, lets get schools, colleges and other institutions off the grid.
There is enough rooftops of malls, railway stations and metro stations to generate electricity for basic lighting and some non-essential services for it and places in the vicinity.
Even if some say that decentralized solar is not the answer, it can sure reduce the demand for power. It can enhance the safety of people and of the city. It can decrease our dependency on a centralized grid that can fail. More importantly it can prop up a failure prone centralized grid.
Samir Nazareth writes on environmental and socio-economic issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org . He blogs at www.onaconveyor.blogspot.com