Microgrids and Solar Power, the Answer to India's Power Crisis

As India experienced its worst power failure ever last week, leaving 600 million people without electricity, disrupting the operation of hospitals and public services and shutting down transportation in key regions vital to the country’s economy, New Delhi will have to face up to some critical power realities.

On one level, increasing demand for electricity as a result of increasing demand for consumer electronics, particularly air conditioners, caused the crash. On another level, the entire power grid collapsed as a result of one or more states overdrawing power to meet excess demand.


This post origionally ran at Oilprice.com.

There are two main problems here that represent a mixture of policy and technology: First of all, India, already the sixth-largest electricity consumer in the world, depends almost entirely on hydro-electricity, which is not sufficient to supply its growing demand. Secondly, the grid is outdated, under-managed, abused and dangerously centralized. 

Let’s start with the grid. As Carl Pope points out in a commentary for the Huffington Post, “the fundamental social contract surrounding electricity has broken down in India”.  According to Pope, in the event of summer power shortages, system operators begin arbitrarily cutting off power to certain neighborhoods but in reality have no idea how much power these cuts are saving. This ad-hoc system is negatively compounded by the fact that there is a high incidence of illegal connections and unmetered users as well as business users who wastefully convert grid power to battery power during shortages when the quality of power is compromised and threatens to short out electronic equipment.  The bottom line, Pope writes, is that electricity has been “radically individualized” and “every user is acting in their own short-term self interest, because the power system forces them to.”

MIT’s Technology Review recommends microgrids, reasoning that disruptions would be less frequent and less damaging with a decentralized system of local networks and smaller suppliers. These local networks would be linked together by microgrids, which Technology Review describes as “an intermediate step between individual generators and a fully national grid,” with the ability to connect and disconnect to the national grid depending on how it is functioning.  Beyond that, microgrids can operate in part with renewable energy, from diesel power to solar and battery power.

And India is already working on some USAID-funded microgrid projects in around 50 villages, according to the Guardian.

But microgrids are a concrete solution to India’s electricity management problems, but the overall focus on hydro-power schemes in India is another serious problem. Renewable energy is urgent for India, while conventional power generation should be viewed as a back-up plan only. Certainly solar power generation would be extremely viable in sunny India where the sun has the potential to generate over 12 trillion watt-hours of energy per square mile every year.

Last week, India reached a solar milestone, 1,000MW of installation, a paltry volume in a country that gets 300 days of sun a year in most areas. (By comparison, Germany installed 4,300MW of solar in the first half of this year alone). Last year’s budget earmarked $180 million for solar energy projects, but it’s not nearly enough. India’s goal is to install 20,000 MW of grid-connected solar power by 2022, but it is far from reaching this objective at the current pace.

Even amid the worst power crisis in history, no one is really talking about solar power. Everyone seems to think that India can continue to rely on hydro-electric power. The problem is that India cannot really afford to keep building enough dams and expanding its hydro-schemes to meet its growing electricity demand. It will run out of forests, and water, and in the end this strategy will only lead to more frequent power outages.

As Pope opines, India’s grid “cannot meet the needs of its remote populations, regardless of how many tons of coal India burns; both wind and distributed solar are cheaper by far than remote coal as a power source; eliminating the enormous energy waste both on the grid and among end users could provide the nation with a huge increase in usable electricity for a tiny cost.”

One would think that solar would be in every headline since the power crisis, but it’s not. It’s still a futuristic idea, even in India, where its power could be relatively easily harnessed.

India power lines photo by Darren.