31 Jul 2012

World’s biggest blackout leaves India reeling

The lights go out from the Himalayas to the deserts of Rajasthan as India’s creaking electricity grid collapses, leaving more than half the country’s 1.2 billion people without power.

World's biggest blackout leaves India reeling (G)

Miners were trapped underground and traffic jammed the streets of major cities as some 670 million people were left without electricity for hours.

The second major blackout in as many days has embarrassed the Indian government, which has failed to build up enough capacity in the national grid to meet rising demand.

“Even before we could figure out the reason for yesterday’s failure, we had more grid failures today,” said R N Nayak, chairman of the state-run Power Grid Corporation.

Some 20 out of 28 states were left without power, affecting a vast area of the country stretching from Assam, near the border with China, to the Himalayas and the northwestern deserts of Rajasthan.

By the afternoon rush-hour on Tuesday, only about 40 percent of power was back up.

New Delhi traffic jam (Reuters)

Electricity had not been restored to many parts of the capital New Delhi, and streets were clogged with traffic as commuters tried to get home in the stifling afternoon heat.

Two hundred miners were stranded in three coal shafts up to 700m underground in the state of West Bengal when the electric elevators stopped working.

Eastern Coalfields Limited said workers were not in danger and were being taken out.

Train stations in Kolkata were swamped and traffic jammed the streets after government offices closed early. The power failed in some major city hospitals and office buildings had to fire up diesel generators.

Elsewhere, electric crematoria stopped working some with bodies half burnt, power officials said.

Power Minister Sushilkumar Shinde blamed the system collapse on some states drawing more than their share of electricity from the over-burdened grid, and vowed to punish wrongdoers.

Chronic weakness

But the crisis highlights the chronic weakness of India’s infrastructure. The country typically experiences a peak-hour power deficit of about 10 per cent, a shortfall that threatens to undermine the country’s ambition to become a regional economic superpower.

A weak monsoon in agricultural states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh means more farmers are resorting to electric pumps to draw water from wells.

On Monday, India was forced to buy extra power from the tiny Himalayan neighbouring kingdom of Bhutan to help it recover from the first blackout.

India blackout (Reuters)

India’s electricity distribution and transmission is mostly state run and more than half the country’s electricity is generated by coal.

Power shortages and an outdated road and rail network have weighed heavily on the country’s efforts to industrialise.

But the impact of the blackout on ordinary people is likely to have been softened by Indians’ familiarity with
frequent power outages and the widespread use of backup generators.

Biggest blackout ever

The power failure is thought to be the biggest in history, affecting more than 20 times as many people as the so-called Great Blackout, which plunged the north-eastern US into darkness in 1965.

The previous biggest ever outage is thought to have taken place in Indonesia in 2005, when around 100 million people were left in the dark for more than five hours.

Europe’s biggest blackout was probably the 2003 power line failure in Switzerland, which affected 95 per cent of Italy. Some 55 million people were left without electricity for as long as 18 hours.