Solar Power Helped Keep the Lights On in India

By David Biello | August 1, 2012 |
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india-overloaded-gridEvery day, at least 400 million Indians lack access to electricity. Another nearly 700 million Indians joined their fellows in energy poverty over the course of the last few days, or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population.

Oddly enough, some of the formerly energy poor—rural villagers throughout the subcontinent—found themselves better off than their middle-class compatriots during the recent blackouts, thanks to village homes outfitted with photovoltaic panels. In fact, solar power helped keep some electric pumps supplying water for fields parched by an erratic monsoon this year.

That monsoon is partly to blame for the blackouts as well. A lack of rain has meant a reduction in power from India’s hydroelectric dams. Pair that with problems with the supply of coal to burn and the northern half of India found itself with not enough electricity supply to meet demand. One ironic anecdote illustrates this conundrum nicely: coal miners in northern India were trapped when their electric lifts failed as a result of the blackout exacerbated by a lack of coal.

The thirst for electricity stems from burgeoning demand from India’s middle class, which has embraced everything from air conditioning and the electric-powered subway trains of New Delhi. India also enjoys some of the highest rates of what is known in the trade as “non-technical losses,” i.e. people hijacking electric supplies and not paying for it (as opposed to “technical losses,” like the amount of electricity lost via the physics of transmission itself and the like.) And then there are the politically popular programs like providing free power to farmers for irrigation pumps.

Such politics no doubt played a role. Tensions between state governments, the national government and power suppliers are legion, including some areas that take more electricity than they are supposed to at times. That’s the reason the energy minister, newly promoted to minister for home affairs for his stellar performance, gave for the first day of blackouts. And politics have prevented the kind of investment in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that can prevent things like power lines sagging in the heat andshorting out via untrimmed trees. Wait, does that sound familiar?

The root cause of the massive back-to-back blackouts won’t be known for a while. It took three months to definitively trace the root cause of the 2003 blackout that shut down the U.S. Northeast along with parts of Canada to the aforementioned. But one root cause is already obvious: a crippling indifference to the basic needs of electrical infrastructure (the Indian government has declined to invest in an upgrade to the country’s aging grid)—and people. That kind of sounds familiar too.

Rotating blackouts, brownouts and power cuts are all too common in India thanks to a shortfall of electricity, so much so that it is taken as the normal state of affairs and major companies like Wipro build their own micro-grids to cope. As is the fact that those 400 million Indians—and the more than 1 billion people around the world like them—still lack access to modern energy.

Image: mckaysavage /

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.More »