How An Unholy Alliance of Unusual Weather and Scarce Coal Nuked India’s Power Grid

Power grids supplying both the northern and eastern parts of India went down, throwing 620 million people, or 8.9% of the world population into darkness

India’s northwestern boundary
India’s northwestern boundary with neighboring Pakistan is so brightly lit that the thin orange line tracing its path can be seen from space. NASA/EO

On Monday, 300 million people in and around the Indian capital of New Delhi in northern India lost power. The next day, at 1:05 pm local time (7:30 am GMT), the power grids supplying both the northern and eastern parts of the country—home to 620 million people, or 8.9% of the world population—went down.

The blackout, which vastly outpaced the 2003 event that killed power to the northeastern United States and Canada, caused trains to stop, trapped coal miners deep underground, and cut electrical power to anyone without a backup generator, says the Associated Press.

Ironically, the blackouts’ effects were minimized by a population accustomed to going without grid power. Bloomberg Businessweek:

With the country’s power plants and electricity grid unable to keep up with demand in the world’s second-largest country, blackouts are everyday occurrences. During peak periods, demand for electricity outstrips supply by an average of 9 percent, according to India’s Central Electricity Authority. Companies prepare themselves with backup generators for when, not if, the main supply goes down.

In fact, today’s occurrences seem to be the culmination of a long-building chasm between energy demand and energy supply. Andrew Revkin, who runs the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times and has built a round-up on this issue, points to a 2011 prediction of India’s energy woes. Global Finance notes,

One of the world’s fastest-growing economies, India could face an electricity shortage of more than 10%—and perhaps as high as 15%—in the current fiscal year, according to the Central Electricity Authority.

Indeed, the New York Times points to a dearth in imported coal as one of the possible causes for triggering the massive blackout. Another potential force that is driving energy demand and limiting supply is this year’s monsoon, the annual rainy season that supplies three-quarter’s of the country’s water. Or, rather, that this year’s monsoon never happened. The lack of monsoon rains, says Reuters, has caused energy demand to climb as farmers in northwestern India’s heavily producing  agricultural regions leaned more heavily on irrigation to water their fields. Businessweek adds,

The less-than-normal rainfall has put strains on India’s hydroelectric power supply, which accounts for 19 percent of the country’s 205 gigawatt generation capacity but has dropped nearly 20 percent in the first six months of the financial year because of the delayed monsoon rains.

Whether India’s energy infrastructure and coal imports can grow to match its blossoming demand is yet to be seen. But, as The Economist notes, the country’s monsoon may see a long-term decline  fueled by climate change. The short term solution of importing more coal could trigger longer term woes if the rains continue to fade. With so many moving parts, finding the right balance in one of the fastest growing economies in the world will be a delicate maneuver.

More on Smithsonian:

A Prayer for the Ganges
Across India, environmentalists battle a tide of troubles to clean up a river revered as the source of life

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.