What The Blackouts In India Tell Us About Our Electricity Grid
On Monday, July 30th around 360 million people in India lost their electricity. That’s more than the number of people that live in the United States. Even in India, where they are used to spotty electric service, this was an extraordinary event, as it was the largest blackout in history. But that record was broken that very next day when the grid that provides power to Northern India crashed again. This time the failure cascaded to two neighboring grids, resulting in a loss of power to 620 million people. That’s larger than the population of the United States, Mexico, and Canada combined.
If Americans think this is something that could never happen here they should think again. The fundamental issue at the heart India’s power problem is increasing becoming a concern for North America’s electricity grids. India is dealing with a demand for power that is taxing available supply, and at times overwhelms the country’s infrastructure.
Certainly some of India’s problems are uniquely Indian. It is common practice in India to bribe local technicians to hook up illegal connections to siphon free power from the grid. In some places theft from illegally spliced lines account for a 50% loss in electrical power between the power plant and the legitimate end users.
Electricity grids can be fragile. A balance must be maintained between power going in to the grid and power going out. Trying to maintain both a legitimate and black market for electricity on the same backbone exacerbates India’s problems.
Thankfully, electricity pirates aren’t a big concern in the US. But, like India, the US does have an electricity supply and demand problem. India has simply not been able to build power plants fast enough to accommodate the runaway demand for electricity. For different reasons North America is having the same problem.
In so called “power to choose” or deregulated parts of the US such as Texas, a big part of the supply shortfall comes down to lack of incentive for the private sector to invest in new power plants. Cheap natural gas has driven down wholesale electricity rates in recent years, making it harder for privately owned producers of electricity to sell their product at a profit. On the retail side, however, rates have not fallen in proportion to the decline in fuel prices. In the northeast in places like New York, electricity rates are up in the last year despite the fact that natural gas prices have fallen over that same period.Continued on the next page