Blackout in India: Back to Lantern: Civil Services Mentor Magazine September 2012

Blackout in India: Back to Lantern

India witnessed its biggest ever power blackout on 31 July 2012. Post the
collapse of the northern power grid twenty states in India were left with no
electricity till late evening. This is the second time that the country saw a
power failure of a huge margin; interestingly both the failures happened in a
time frame of over twenty four hours. The collapse happened at around one o
clock in the noon, when the northern grid tripped, which then immediately led to
a similar effect on the eastern and north-eastern grids, as the two are
connected as a common grid.

The problem was compounded as several states had removed the under frequency
relays that island their systems when grid disruptions occur. Among the states
affected were Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, West Bengal, Punjab, Jammu &
Kashmir, Orissa, Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Assam, meaning that the power
trip covered more than half of the country’s population. Amongst the worst hit
were the two hundred coal miners trapped in West Bengal and Jharkhand as their
shafts remained closed.

Amongst the railways, almost three hundred trains remained stranded, also the
Delhi Metro, which is a life line to many, came to a stop leaving the traffic
situation in the state a tizzy. During the peak hour the supply stood less than
40,000 MW against the demand of 130,000 MW. The situation came back to control
later by evening on 31 July 2012, forty percent of the system was operating
normally again and power was eventually restored over the states. The first
power cut of this kind happened just few hours back on the night of 30 July

Asia’s third-largest economy — INDIA — was hit by three more huge power grid
failures, one day after a similar, but smaller power failure covered half the
country — leaving more than 650 million people without electricity in the
world’s biggest blackout according to the ATCA Research & Analysis Wing. More
than half the population of India has been affected, which is roughly 10% of the
world’s population and bigger than the entire population of the European Union
or the United States, Russia and Brazil combined. In parallel, hours of power
outage in the scorching summer sparked protest in most parts of Pakistan and
angry protesters attacked offices of power supply departments in some areas. The
massive power outage highlights a central challenge faced by the nation of 1.2
billion and raises questions about whether the country has so far allocated
sufficient resources to building its power grid. India has experienced
unparalleled economic development and a growing middle class and, as a result,
significant increases in the demand for electricity. In March, demand exceeded
supply by 10.2 percent, as government statistics revealed.

Stranded in the Dark

India has five electricity grids, northern, eastern, north-eastern, southern
and western; all are interconnected except for the southern one. In the past two
days, twenty of the country’s twentyeight states experienced power cuts, leaving
government workers, police, barbers, students and countless others to rely on
candles. Thousands of train passengers have been stranded on the busiest train
system in the world (and also in train stations), massive traffic jams have
occurred with traffic lights not functioning and nurses at a hospital outside
Delhi had to manually operate equipment after backup generators failed.


Solar Flare or Coronal Mass Ejection (CME)? Is a “Solar Flare” partially
responsible for India and Pakistan’s massive power outage? Could it have been a
Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) since most of Pakistan, along with northern India,
also suffered long blackouts? Given that rains had arrived, temperature was down
in north India so there was less requirement for a power overdraw. For example,
the temperature in New Delhi on 31st July was 25.4 degrees Celsius, more than
ten degrees below what it had been during the peak of the summer heat. If
electricity overuse was the sole cause of the power failure, because of too many
people drawing power, this would have happened before.

Solar Coincidence

A medium-size solar flare erupted from the sun this weekend, hurling a cloud
of plasma and charged particles towards Earth on a cosmic path that was expected
to deliver a glancing blow to our planet on July 31st, according to space
weather forecasters, the day the massive power outage took place across India
and Pakistan. The M6-class solar flare exploded from the sun on Saturday — July
28th — unleashing a wave of plasma and charged particles, called a coronal mass
ejection (CME), into space. “This is a slowmoving CME.”

Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) and Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)

The most dangerous type of solar flares for humanity are the Coronal Mass
Ejections (CMEs) that occur during the most active period of the sun’s 11-year
cycles. This time, the zenith of CMEs is set for 2012 as the solar cycle #24
reaches a crescendo. A CME happens when gas erupts from the solar corona —
“crown” of outer atmosphere surrounding the sun — and carries a massive amount
of radioactive material that can reach earth in three to five days. One
potentially catastrophic disruption humanity is not prepared for is an
Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) or a burst of electromagnetic radiation from a
major Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) from the sun. This would create a sudden,
massive fluctuation in the earth’s electromagnetic field similar to the
detonation of a High-altitude Electro-Magnetic Pulse (HEMP) nuclear device. The
resulting electric and magnetic fields would then couple with electrical grid
systems to produce damaging current and voltage surges. [Ref ATCA 5000: Could
Super Solar Flares Take Us Back To 5000 BC? 17th June 2010]

Disaster Movie in Real Time

The colossal power cuts across 2,000 miles — from the border with Burma in
the East to the border with Pakistan in the West — in such a widespread area of
the world’s second most populous nation appeared to have been like a disaster
movie unfolding in real time with every aspect of modern life grinding to a
sudden halt. They hurt India’s pride given that the country aspires to become a
regional economic superpower.

Cascading Failure

In cases when demand outstrips the power supply, the system of circuit
breakers must be activated, often manually, to reduce some of the load in what
are known as rolling blackouts. But if workers cannot trip those breakers —
because their immediate masters won’t let them — a set of small failures can
cascade into a much larger blackout. Rabindra Nath Nayak — chairman of the
state-run Power Grid of India — said, “tripping at several interconnectivity
points of the [northern] grid could have had a cascading effect.” It is
difficult to say whether this was a manmade disaster compounded by natural
phenomena. The truth is that India has failed to build up enough power capacity
to meet soaring demand as its GDP has grown at a break-neck 8 to 9 percent in
recent years. As a result, India’s demand for electricity has soared along with
its economy, but utilities have been unable to meet the growing needs. India’s
“Central Electricity Authority” reported power deficits of between 8% and 10% in
recent months, which are dragging on the country’s economic growth. This despite
the fact that between 25 percent and 40 percent of Indians are not connected to
the national grid at all.

Outdated Infrastructure

This power outage, unusual in its reach, raises serious concerns about
India’s outdated infrastructure and the government’s inability to meet India’s
huge appetite for energy although its impact was softened by Indians’
familiarity with frequent blackouts and the widespread use of backup generators
for major businesses and essential services. PM Manmohan Singh had vowed to
fast-track stalled power and infrastructure projects as well as introduce free
market reforms aimed at reviving India’s flagging economy. Power Minister
Sushilkumar Shinde conveniently blamed the systemic power collapse on some
states drawing more than their share of electricity from the over-burdened grid.
Uttar Pradesh’s top civil servant for energy responded by stating that outdated
transmission lines were at fault.


We all know that blackouts happen in India and Pakistan somewhat regularly,
but not on this massive scale. Is such an unprecedented regional blackout down
to increased use only? It is interesting to note that a medium class “Solar
Storm” was expected to hit Earth on Tuesday, 31st July, the day of the massive
power outage in India. This colossal power outage is a stark reminder of the
intractable problems still plaguing India:

What are the chances that we could have a repeat of the Carrington event or
something larger? Actually, the chances are pretty good. NASA claims that solar
cycle 24 will reach its maximum in 2013, when we could experience the mother of
all solar flares. Furthermore, remote viewer, Major Ed Dames says, he has seen
it; and he calls it, quite morbidly, “The Kill Shot.”

What can we do to prepare? Well, on a governmental level, the electrical
system needs to be “reinforced” to withstand CMEs. On an individual level,
people can store clean drinking water and food. Since most water is pumped by
electric pumping systems, you may not have water when the electrical grid goes
down. Keep a little stash of cash for emergency, because you won’t be able to
get any money out of the bank. Have a family emergency plan in place. Have a
special meeting place for your family. Have extra blankets and sleeping bags for
winter. Lastly, think about how you will cook your food. Perhaps a camp stove or
barbeque pit would be nice to have. Good luck, fellow globizens.

Sandeep Dogra

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