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India's Record-Breaking Blackout Eclipses Solar Milestone

Meredith Connolly

Posted August 1, 2012

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Hundreds of trains stalled, traffic snarled, businesses ground to a halt, and stranded commuters walked home in the rain across North India as three electricity grids failed yesterday. The world’s biggest power outage in history left more than 680 million people without electricity across the country. As one blogger Paul Woodward commented, “That’s like the lights going out from Anchorage in Alaska all the way down to Caracas in Venezuela.”

This massive blackout eclipsed a significant announcement for India’s burgeoning solar market – solar photovoltaic power installed in India has exceeded the 1 gigawatt (GW) benchmark. In 2010, as a part of India’s National Solar Mission, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) had set an ambitious target of at least 1,000 megawatts of installed grid-connected solar energy by 2013. Solar is fast becoming an accessible and cheap energy source across India, but more can be done to foster this promising local resource. Achieving this milestone ahead of schedule should boost confidence in the nascent industry’s growing ability to contribute to India’s power supply at a critical juncture in the country’s energy planning.

Delhi Electric Wires Close up

Tangled electrical wires over Delhi, March 2012 (Photo credit: Meredith Connolly)

In addition to adopting energy efficiency measures in buildings and appliances, the Indian government can build on its early success to expand renewable energy sources, particularly solar and wind power. As we assess in an NRDC report Laying the Foundation for a Bright Future, co-authored with our partner, the Council on Energy, Environment and Water, the National Solar Mission has made promising headway in India, but many obstacles to widespread installation remain. Measures should be adopted to incentivize off-grid solar projects in rural villages and to encourage cheaper domestic financing from risk-averse banks. Fostering innovative renewable technologies with storage potential, such as new solar thermal projects, could address base load grid issues and decrease India’s current dependency on insufficient and dirty coal plants.

Rapidly increasing electricity demand – fueled in part by an exploding market for high-energy appliances like air conditioners and water pumps – is exacerbating India’s long-standing struggle to provide the booming country with enough power. Although the root causes of this most recent power failure are still being determined, the blackout’s harmful impact on economic development highlights the urgent need for new long-term energy solutions in India.

Could this be India’s pivotal Cuyahoga River moment? Just like when the polluted Ohio river caught on fire in June 1969, sparking America’s modern environmental movement, perhaps this devastating blackout can propel India’s national energy decisions out of the dark – this crisis could catalyze a national commitment to truly incorporate clean energy solutions into its plans to improve national infrastructure.

Securing India’s energy future on a sustainable path calls for strong investment in its emerging clean energy market and widespread adoption of energy efficiency measures. The rapid and vast investments in infrastructure required to alleviate stress on the antiquated grid should plan to accommodate the integration of renewable energy. This historic blackout is a wake-up call for the Indian government to flip the switch onto a bright and clean energy future. 

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jonesyAug 2 2012 12:48 PM

Why do you think you sitting in USA have a solution to India's problems.

Solar is expensive than coal and nuclear.

So its coal and nuclear just like what India is doing today.

Meredith ConnollyAug 2 2012 06:25 PM

Jonesy - Thank you for reading my blog. Your comments are a useful contribution to the ongoing discussion about India’s energy market.

As a policy analyst working on renewable energy issues internationally – with particular focuses in California and India – the real on-the-ground innovative solutions developing across energy markets are impressive and can be shared to solve our global energy crisis. During my recent visit to Delhi, I was particularly encouraged by discussions on the National Solar Mission’s early progress with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy as well as business and civil society groups. As with all of NRDC’s projects, we work closely with local partners to develop solutions jointly, such as our recent solar report.

To add some more context to the debate, solar already costs less than diesel back-up generators used so frequently during blackouts. With the current energy deficit hovering around 10%, it is clear the status quo dependence solely on coal and nuclear is not sufficient nor sustainable. As is true internationally, increasing India’s mix of energy sources to include homegrown clean resources like solar and wind reduces the strain on the infrastructure and increases energy security in a sustainable way.

For more information about the economic ramifications of the current dependence on coal:

For more information on the off grid solar opportunity:

For more information about NRDC’s India initiative:

Prashanth ShivannaAug 7 2012 07:33 AM

Dear Meredith,

I am a power sector analyst in India and I still see off grid solar applications expensive even after incentives from government. India's income to fall under poverty line is Rs.35/day ( roughly 60 US cents). It cost 15,000 rupees to install a solar lighting (to light 4 15W CFL bulbs) and 30,000 rupees for a 100 liter solar water heater. So majority Indian's are still far from affording clean energy by themselves. And talking about Solar grid connected capacity, yes they reached their first phase target of 1GW by 2013, but still far behind reaching their 20GW target by 2022.

Recent power grid failure was a result of overdrawing power from grid by multiple states. So irrespective of type of energy, unless enough power is generated, grid failure are bound to repeat. India has tapped most of its hydro resources by west and southern Indian states but cant do the same in north and east India due to boundary and water sharing issues with neighboring countries. So I feel till then India doesn't have much option than going for coal plants, which are highly polluting or nuclear plants which can be hazardous. And finally not to forget that power plays a big role politically and power price revisions seldom happen, power pilferage and inefficient transmission systems have rendered the generation, distribution companies to near bankruptcy. Still I agree to your statement that a country like India should move to clean and safe energy at the earliest.

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