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Indian blackout highlights need for critical power back-up

Fri, 11/16/2012 - 17:36 -- Ruth Williams

3-7aThe world’s largest power blackout in history occurred in India on July 30 and 31, highlighting the country’s dependence on diesel generators as back-up power supplies.

The blackout, stretching from New Delhi to Kolkata, was caused by failure of India’s northern power grid system and left nearly 700 million people – twice the population of the USA - without electricity. The grid failed because of a mismanagement of power sales and its emergency back-up system, according to a government inquiry. 

At the time of the blackout, India was enduring its driest monsoon season since 2009, forcing farmers in northern India to increase their dependence on electrified irrigation pumps. When a link in north India failed while transferring about 4 000 MW from India’s western grid to its northern network to meet demand, national transmission system operator Power Grid was conducting scheduled maintenance of its back-up lines, triggering the region-wide blackout.

The blackouts forced countless shops and businesses to fall back on diesel-powered generators, causing a temporary surge in use of the fuel at a time when demand was already high. On a normal day, consumers on the periphery of Delhi can expect between 2 and 6 hours without mains electricity, time when they rely on diesel-fired back-up systems to generate power at twice the cost of mains power.

The World Bank estimates that two-thirds of Indian companies have back-up or independent power supplies. The Indian Captive Power Producers Association estimates about 15% of the country’s 205 GW generation capacity comes from on-site plants of 1 MW or over, including coal, diesel and other sources. The organisation estimates another 40 GW comes from small back-up generators.

India’s diesel use rose 13.7% on year in June and a “dieselisation of the economy” is becoming more pronounced as it is substituting not only fuel oil and gasoline, but also natural gas, the government said in a recent report.

Those shortages have been an opportunity for genset manufacturers such as Cummins. Cummins generates US$2.2 billion a year in India, and will ramp up annual investment in the country to US$150 million for the next two years from US$100 million in 2012, said Rajiv Batra, chief financial officer of the Indian operations.

“We are going straight ahead with our plans, because we believe this current slowdown is going to get sorted out over the next 12-14 months. And if we slow down at this stage then we’ll be short of capacity when demand comes back,” he said.

3-7bIndia plans to spend 13.73 trillion rupees (US$302 billion) to expand and upgrade its power systems in the next five years. Power Grid’s most urgent project aims to connect two portions of India’s network: the northern grid which accounts for 75% of the country’s power capacity, to its system in southern India. Linking the two will allow the south to transfer surplus power to supply deficient states in the north, where the grid collapse occurred.

However, India has missed every annual target to add electricity production capacity since 1951, resulting in a peak demand deficit of nearly 10%. Power cuts are common across swathes of country, which the Indian government says shaves about 1.2% off annual economic growth.