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March 4, 2013

Power Grids Fueled by Innovation

Posted by Ashiss K Dash (View Profile | View All Posts) at 4:45 AM


I watched a show recently about how India is making efforts to build out its power grid to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population. What drew me in to this spot on the NewsHour television program was the anecdote told by Rajdeep Sardesai, one of the country's prominent news presenters.

He told the NewsHour reporter about what he was doing last year when India suffered another massive blackout: He was lunching with one of the nation's top government officials in charge of energy. When the official received news of the blackout, which affected half of India, the man simply continued enjoying his meal. Sardesai was amazed that the crisis left the official literally unfazed. "That in itself epitomized for me that it wasn't being treated as some kind of a national emergency, but another day in the office," he said.

Indeed, when government officials seem to take in their stride a blackout that affects more than half a billion people, surely the time is ripe for innovation and change. Amidst this backdrop in India, there are undoubtedly a lot of positive changes in the energy sector. And some of it is happening on a very local level. The NewsHour report featured a very interesting phenomenon - the development of village-based micro-grids.

According to an energy expert interviewed on the program, India set in place energy policies more than 30 years ago that it's dealing with to this day. In the 1970s and '80s, for example, the country wanted to provide electricity to farms quickly, so it offered power very cheap, or for free, to many residents of the country's rural areas. Because a lot of the energy was given away for free, there was never much of an effort made to meter it. So, over the decades, it became relatively easy for people to tap into the power grid by themselves. In an enormous country like India, all that free power is adding up. One energy expert told the NewsHour that one-third of the nation's power is illegally lifted off its grid. The government now realizes that it can't give away its electricity on a massive scale, or allow it to be lifted, especially when it needs the funds to build up a modern power infrastructure. Whereas farmers were the concern 30 years ago, India is now facing a booming middle class with increasing per capita consumption as well. 

India's demand for power is going to increase dramatically over the next two decades. One of the reasons the latest blackouts have been so massive is that the grid is already having trouble meeting this growing demand. But faced with this conundrum, entrepreneurial spirit is flourishing in India. One example is of an entrepreneur who launched a firm that takes the byproduct of one of India's largest industries - rice farming - and processes the leftover husks into a liquid fuel that runs electric turbines. The turbines aren't huge. But they're big enough to meet the modest needs of many small villages across India. Keeping shops open even an additional hour or two in the evening stimulates the local economy. And when children can cluster around a lamp to do homework into the night, they get an educational edge. Plus, the power that's produced by these local turbines helps charge up mobile phones, so another industry - telephony - gets a boost as well. Now don't dismiss this story as just another charming, small-town tale. The owner of the rice husk business estimates he will have installed 2,000 micro-grids in the next two years. In a country with the population of India, the sum of the parts is significant. There's no doubt that the nation will catch up with the growing demand and install a modern energy infrastructure. But until that's all completed, local businessmen are taking up the reins of leadership.

The NewsHour clip helped me realize that this particular story is all about the power of innovation: Businesses are popping up to meet a growing demand, agricultural waste is turned into fuel, and it's sustainable to boot. India's ingenuity is a great example, to markets around the world, of the promise of earth-friendly power generation.


Dash, great article.
As per World Bank and Indian Govt estimates the T&D losses are about 22% and if you add pilferage, it comes to 32%. While many state Govts have enacted stringent laws for pilferage, the concept of micro-grids is a great idea. One: it empowers villages and towns to produce, distribute and trade energy among themselves (most efficient micro grid will make profits), two: The pilferage can be arrested at the village level by village panchayats enforcing strict vigilance, due to community participation. While the concepts of smart grid are several years away, India needs to arrest the unacceptable levels of T&D losses, including pilferage. It is ironic to note that India has made second highest investment in Energy sector from 1991 to 2012 (as per World Bank data) yet they have one of the lowest per capita consumption of energy (616 kwh, China at 2943 kwh, Brazil at 2383 kwh, Russia at 6451 kwh) and one of the highest T&D losses.

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