Redesigning the conventional power grid

The massive power outage yesterday blacked out seven states of Northern India for over 15 hours. The Capital city itself was chaotic, with traffic jams and commuter chaos due to the shutting down of the metro, and water supply failures because of all seven water recycling plants ceasing operations for about a day. In times like these, when the conventional power grid fails to be not only sustainable but also proves unreliable, the need for a better designed grid becomes more pronounced.

Over the last century, the country has relied on centralized power generation, but over the past few years, increasingly more state governments are investing in mini-grid power plants to distribute and utilize electricity in a more intelligent and effective manner. These smart grids are generate power from a diverse range of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) such as solar Photo Voltaic cells, micro-hydro power plants, wind turbines, biomass, and small conventional generators.

Solar energy, especially, has been taken up by a number of states in recent times. For example, I had posted a blog last week about the Assam government encouraging the use of solar energy in rural villages. A similar article in The Hindu lauds State Bank’s ‘Green ATM’ initiative, under which it has installed solar power systems to provide back-up power supply to five automated teller machines (ATMs) in the city of Tiruchi. Yet another article speaks of the Gujarat government’s efforts to promote solar energy by mandating by their respective State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs) to procure at least 0.25 per cent of their power requirements from solar power as part of their solar renewable purchase obligations (RPO).

While these efforts are laudable, the cost of alternative energy solutions still remains prohibitively high and out of the reach of a majority of the people who require it most. As we examine the power situation and its near crises in large parts of India, we need to look at both technological and systemic innovations that can make affordable electricity widely available. This may mean looking to alternate sources of power generation, designing a back-up system that provides a buffer in the event of a grid collapse, and looking at smaller, community-generated grids and power systems that would not allow for such widespread breakdown.

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