Earlier this year, the world's largest blackout – The Great Indian Outage, stretching from New Delhi to Kolkata – occurred. The blackout, caused by a northern power grid failure, left nearly 700 million people – twice the population of the US – without electricity.
A grid failure on such a scale has served only to throw light onto India's massive demand for power, together with its struggle to generate as much power as it needs. India is aiming to expand its power-generation capacity by 44% over the next five years but recent problems indicate the scale of the challenge. Even before the blackout, in June of this year, the country's power generation fell short by 5.8% when confronted with a peak-hour demand for 128GW, according to Government data.
Why did the grid fail?
India is divided into five regional grids, which are all interconnected – except for the southern grid. All the grids are run by Power Grid, which operates more than 100,000km of electricity transmission lines.
Government officials concluded that “the grid failed because of the overloading of power.” In other words, “many states” tried to take more power than they were allotted from the grid.
This has again brought serious concerns into the open about the country's growing infrastructure, and resulting inability to meet its energy needs.
A way forward for India
The country's lack of energy security is a major constraint in its ability to generate power. The slow pace of tariff reforms is hindering infrastructure investment at the state level in most parts of the country. And the centralised model of power generation, transmission and distribution is growing more and more costly to maintain at current levels, as well as not allowing the flexibility required to meet growing energy needs. It is safe to say that India's shortage of power is hampering its economic growth, not to mention its capacity for growth.
So what can the world's biggest democracy do to help eliminate such wide-ranging outages in the future?
The Government needs to make an assessment of how best to address the power needs to meet the future growth and prevent such massive power failures. India's power blackout could be seen as an opportunity to develop sustainable energy solutions.
For economic as well as environmental reasons India needs to shift to non-polluting renewable sources of energy. Renewable energy is the most attractive investment because it will provide long-term economic growth for India.
In addition, decentralised off-grid renewable distributed generation sources like solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, biogas, geothermal energy, hydrogen energy and fuel cells are all potential parts of the solution that need to be explored. These sources have the advantage of permitting and empowering people at the grassroots level, while requiring less need for distribution and transmission – with little to no emissions.
All new energy generation in India could be renewable (and all pre-existing energy production could be converted to 100% renewable energy by 2050) while maintaining a reliable power supply, if all the available renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydro, biomass and biogas were properly developed and utilised.
India needs to consider developing targets for electrification, which includes renewable off-grid options and/or renewable energy-powered mini-grids. This will take the substantial electrical load off the existing power grid while at the same time reducing the need for installing additional transmission and distribution systems.
The deployment of large-scale solar and wind projects need to continue at pace to effect the smooth transition from fossil fuels. This is happening already, but more rapid project development is required going forward.
Solar and wind: silver bullet for India?
Solar is the prime free source of inexhaustible energy available to all. And India is one of the sun's most favoured nations, blessed with about 5000TWh of solar insolation every year.
Even if a tenth of this potential was utilised, it could mark the end of India's power problems – by using the country's deserts and farm land to construct solar plants.
Furthermore, solar energy has the potential to re-energise India's economy by creating millions of new jobs, allowing the country to achieve energy independence, reduce its trade deficits and propel it forward as a “Green Nation.” In short, solar offers too many benefits for India to ignore, or delay development.
Wind energy, too, is another viable energy source in India, and has the potential to produce over 100GW by 2030.
But for India to tap these vast resource requires smart business models and favourable policies to be developed and implemented nationwide – as quickly as possible.
India's present generation capacity is about 186GW. The country could potentially increase grid-connected solar power generation capacity for example to over 200GW by 2030, if the right resources (and more importantly, the policies) were developed.
More needs to be done
The Government of India is taking many measurable steps toward improving infrastructure and power reliability, including the development of renewable energy from solar and wind.
But clearly more needs to be done, and fast. One step in the right direction was the establishment of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) in late 2009.
However, the present JNNSM target of producing 10% of its energy from solar − 20GW – by 2022 is inadequate. JNNSM needs to take bold steps, with the help of central and state Governments, in order to play a greater role in realising India's solar energy potential.
India needs a plan with the same spirit, boldness and the imagination of the Apollo programme that put astronauts on the moon.
One step toward achieving this goal would be to start a nationwide solar initiative, to facilitate large scale deployment of 100 million solar roofs (and large utility-scale generation installations) within the next 20 years. India could become a major player and international leader in the solar energy for years to come.
Solar and wind energy especially represent a bright spot on India's economic future. If India made the massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to solar energy, it is possible that 70% of India's electricity and 35% of its total energy could be solar-powered by 2030.
Excess daytime energy could be stored in various forms such as molten or liquid salt (a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate); compressed air; pumped hydro; hydrogen, battery storage, etc. This stored energy could then be used during nighttime hours.
India can ramp up its efforts to develop and implement large utility-scale solar energy farms to meet the country's economic development goals, while creating energy independence and bringing potentially enormous environmental benefits. Both issues have a direct influence on national security and the health of the Indian economy.
India needs a radical transformation of its energy system to the use of renewable energy, especially solar, to end the “massive power grid outages.”
About: Darshan Goswami has over 35 years of experience in the energy field and is currently working for the United States Department of Energy (DoE) as a Project Manager in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. He previously worked as Chief of Energy Forecasting and Renewable Energy from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and are not intended to represent the views or policies of the United States Department of Energy (or Renewable Energy Focus magazine). The article was not prepared as part of the writer's official duties at the United States Department of Energy.