Lessons from the blackout

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India’s cities are facing the heat, quite literally. The country experienced one of the most severe power cuts in its history last week, as three out of five of its regional electricity transmission grids collapsed. The blackout affected some 700 million people, left businesses in gridlock for two days, and citizens sweating in the absence of air-conditioning.

The system failure was a simple fact of demand for energy outstripping supply. In an economy that continues to expand rapidly, a poor monsoon season and scorching summer temperatures have all conspired to sharply raise India’s energy consumption—until the switch went off from overload.

New Delhi, India’s capital, was the hardest hit. The effects were wide-ranging: its water supply was cut off, government hospitals ran out of back-up power, the underground transport system stalled and the city streets ground to a halt as traffic management systems shut down.

This incident underlines the challenges that cities in high-growth countries face, as they rapidly urbanise. It also raises a bigger question on what they are doing to meet their ever growing energy demands.

In order to stop the India’s capital from coming to a grinding halt again, Delhi needs to first replicate actions taken within Mumbai and Kolkata, to decentralise electricity generation systems. This has helped ensure the city’s power supplies are isolated in the event of a grid failure. The government will now surely get tough on those who overdraw, as well as implement strict controls around distribution. But to ensure sustainable growth over the long term, local decision-makers need to look at policy reforms and to develop a cohesive energy strategy like that of China.

In the absence of that, many Indian cities are looking to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. The western state of Gujarat is setting up a 20MW wind power plant, dedicated to helping power trains and utilities. The government is trying to set an example by resorting to solar power for three of its municipal buildings and using energy-saving street lights to help conserve electricity. Another facet of this will surely be to look more closely at smart grid technologies, which might have helped cut the strain on an ageing power network.

India is not along in looking to diversify. China, one of the world’s highest consumers of coal, has also been seeking to go on diet. As part of its 12th Five Year Plan, the country is aggressively pushing energy efficiency measures within its cities, while developing a range of clean energy projects. In Sydney, the local council has taken steps to promote sustainable energy sources, and is preparing to install Australia’s first major “trigeneration” network, which runs on natural or renewable gases to supply city owned and private buildings with low-carbon electricity, heating and cooling.

But such transitions are not always easy. Just ask political leaders in Michigan, who’re trying to wean residents in Detroit and other cities off their coal addiction. Everyone likes the notion in principle, but the reality is that the often higher electricity costs are a tough pill to swallow, not least when unemployment is touching on record highs. Perhaps they could ring and get the views of a few of Delhi’s citizens.


(Image courtesy of India Blackout)


  1. Devika says:

    Fabulous article

  2. Jagmohan says:

    Well written. More than the increasing demand for power in India, it is the abject lack of planning, as well as proper utilisation of existing capacity that had led to the sudden collapse.


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