August 4, 2012    /    by

India Suffers Worst Power Outage in History: What Can We Learn?

Suddenly, without warning, no power. The blackout spreads. The grid goes down. What can we learn from this?

Suddenly, without warning, no power. The blackout spreads. The grid goes down. Six hundred million residents, which is one-tenth of the world’s population, left in the dark in the summer heat for a second day. That was India this past week.

Here’s one news report:

“The first power grid collapse, on Monday, was the country's worst blackout in a decade. It affected seven states in northern India that are home to more than 350 million people.

But Tuesday's failure was even larger, hitting eastern and northeastern areas as well.

Both blackouts cut power in the Indian capital, New Delhi.”

In addition to the many inconveniences faced by millions of families, the emergency had ripple effects. The Washington Post reported:

 “Tuesday’s blackout, which hit the northern and eastern parts of the country, brought more than 500 trains screeching to a halt, left thousands of passengers stuck for nearly an hour inside the capital’s Metro line and trapped more than 200 miners underground.

There was gridlock on many streets in the capital as traffic lights stopped working. Bank ATMs also failed, but airports and major industries were unaffected, switching instantly to backup generators in a country used to power outages.”

Remember the Past

If there was a positive side to this emergency situation, the blackout reminded many how far India has come. National Public Radio (NPR) reported:

“Fifty years ago, most Indians had no electricity. Power belonged — politically and financially — to the rich. As the young wife of a modestly paid U.S. civil servant, I, most improbably, was rich in comparison to the bulk of the Indian population.

And yet, most evenings, standing around at receptions or visiting friends, we'd hear a low groan, as the lights and air conditioning flickered, then died. We just chatted away to the faint clink of ice melting in our drinks. Chatting, with trickles of sweat running down our faces and fancy silk dresses and saris. We joked about the shoebox-shaped power station in town. How the guy in charge of it probably had to walk from one end to the other to flick some switch to keep the power on….”

Beyond Cause - A New Crisis?

Whenever an emergency like this occurs, the finger-pointing almost always begins and everyone wants to the know the specific cause(s) of the incident.

And yet, many infrastructure experts are calling this emergency a potential defining moment or possible turning point for India. Business Week described the problems this way:

“The proximate cause of a power outage on this scale almost always seems trivial,” said Michael Parker, an analyst in Hong Kong with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. “The blackout highlights the big underlying issue India faces in terms of infrastructure quality. To keep the lights on, India needs to add power capacity, build robust transmission and distribution systems, ensure fuel supply and transport and reform power pricing. Most of that is expensive.”

The article goes on to list the many underlying causes of the power problems and the unique challenges that India faces. Many experts say that such a similar outage in the USA is very unlikely:

“Since the Northeast blackout in 2003 — the largest in the U.S., which affected 55 million — 16,000 miles of new transmission lines have been added to the grid.

And even though some lines in the Northeast are more than 70 years old, Wellinghoff said that the chances of a blackout like India’s were very low.”

However, the same article goes on and quotes Richard Clarke, a former national security adviser who said that the US grid is still vulnerable to a cyberattack.

“The U.S. power grid is extremely vulnerable to cyberattack. The government is aware of that. Recently the government held a White House level cyberexercise in which the scenario was a cyberterrorist attack that took down the power grid.”

Lessons for Us?

The Christian Science Monitor wasted no time in proclaiming the moral of the Indian Power Outage story for countries around the world:

“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…

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….”

The article goes further and suggests smaller banks may have prevented our recent financial crisis in the USA.

Other articles describing lessons from the energy crisis suggested “India’s deep dependence on coal” was a big part of the problem. Climate groups called for new investments in renewable clean energy. And others pointed to the recent storms in the Mid-Atlantic USA and the power outages in India as proof that natural causes were more likely to cause major disruptions than cyber attacks.

Never Say Never

 What lessons do I take from this series of incidents? Here are a few thoughts:

1)      Outages will occur, so hope for the best and (truly) prepare for the worst. I never expected the NorthEast Power Outage in 2003 to hit Michigan – but it did happen. I spent four 18-hours days at our State Emergency Operations Center (SEOC) recovering from the outage, and their were many unexpected situations.

2)      We need to be doing scenario-based emergency planning for “all hazards” (whether cybersecurity issues or weather-related storms or system failures.) Ask what if?

3)      Think about the dominoes that may fall. When the power goes off, what happens next? Do you have generators?   How will other sectors be impacted? As the article above describes, are critical infrastructures resilient?

4)      Understand your partnerships and the keys to your government’s restoration - no matter what the problem or scope of the outage.

5)      Never, Never Say Never – I get wary when anyone says, “It can’t happen to us!” These global incidents always remind me that "it" absolutely can happen here. Pride comes before a fall. No doubt, the odds may be lower, the conditions different, the controls better and the infrastructure more dependable. Nevertheless, we need to be ready, just in case. Are you really prepared?

What are your thoughts on India’s recent power outages?