North India Blackout: Waking up powerless

By : |July 30, 2012 0

RAJASTHAN: Even as I start typing this article, I am silently chanting away some prayers in my mind, hoping that the power here will last till I finish the last line.

Surprise, surprise, I am not the only one navigating through a day in India when a whole grid has gone out of kilter since this midnight.

As a citizen, it’s my right to complain, crib and find faults in the system.

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But when I try to do that today, what I get is some serious issues to ponder over, rather than the cliché ‘the system sucks’.

Like: The virtues of preventive scheduling, stricter SLAs and even penalties for grids, balancing demand-supply loads, addressing gaps in error detection, better surveillance helicopters and a full-proof back-up plan. And how can I forget this one— a different, better, faster way of fault isolation.

Trying to isolate the faults instead of a brutal dissection here are some expert voices who tell us what could have gone wrong and what could have gone right. Prasenjit Mukherjee, GM-IT, Reliance ADA simplifies the whole black-out as a situation that could not be avoided but could definitely be controlled.

As he explains the outage was more of a cascading effect. What happened is not much of a guess-making at this point.

A fault in the Northern grid, which is under the purview of Power Grid Corporation emerged around 2.30 am today. It affected a lot of states straight away apart from bringing the Capital to a halt – Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh etc. While the ripples spread, the fault was traced at Agra early morning. Delhi meanwhile, tried to pull in some power from nearby points like Badarpur station, NTPC stations etc, but soon they conked off too due to overloading.

At around 6.45 am the rest of the system running from Badarpur snapped too, thanks to the overhaul, Prasenjit explains. It took a few more hours till Delhi and other North Indian regions could restore normal.

Now India has five electric grids – North, North Eastern, South, Western and Eastern. Except for the South one, rest of them are interconnected and are run by Power Grid Corporation.

Government claimed that there was a technical fault in power transmission and due to adaptability issues, an outage of this massive scale hit the Capital and nearby states, highlights Jaslene Bawa, a research analyst with deep experience in covering Energy and Power sectors from ValueNotes research firm.

She adds that the interconnected grids suffered the outage while the Southern one remained relatively insular. "Now that fifty per cent of transmission has been restored, yet a number of NTPC plants point to 8000 MW of underutilised capacity due to the grid collapse. What happened? Well, just like a trip situation at our houses, but of course at a very large scale." she elaborates, noting how power demand and supply balance could have been the real reason to upset the system today.

So if this is what really happened, what could have been done, that was not done, or not done to the degree or at the speed required?

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Prasenjit answers this one without too much pondering. "The transmission arm of Delhi should have routed power from Dadri plant probably. At least the capital with all its water system, metros, traffic etc under an outage would not have been that severely affected."

Preventive maintenance is not an exceptional incident. Technical problems keep arising, specially in two seasons – during rains and winters (thanks to fog), he adds. But having a rigorous infrastructure is critical, so that even if one area snaps, other ones can stay out of the spiral.

What he interestingly also highlights is the reasonable lack of SLAs and may be even penalties in such contracts. India can incorporate situations like a downtime or an outage of this scale when sourcing power from utilities.

I pipe in with my own angle here. Are our grids smart enough then? "There’s definitely a lot of room for improvement," Jaslene concurs. It can not be done overnight, it has to happen in a stepwise fashion, gradually.

Like having a strong back-up plan, which was not seen today; or being proactive to such fiascos rather than reactive responses etc.

"We have a lot to cover as a lot of areas are still under manual intervention. Proper planning is another area of acute inadequacy." Prasenjit comments. The sheer time that it took between 2.30 to 9.30 am to restore power in Delhi says more than enough.

It happens in India or it happens only in India, as many cynics would argue. What about other countries? Do they ever face an outage?

Yes they very much do, argues Jaslene.

"Blackouts happen in Western countries too. It’s something that can not be helped." But effects can be cushioned better. Theoretically, back-up for individual areas can be done. "I do not know how practical though can this be" she adds.

But the more smart our grids become, the more they can be vulnerable to attacks, threats and technology loopholes, a fear that has been underscored by a recent McAfee report. Using IT to make the system more self-sustaining, glitch-free and agile when it does conk off; is a good idea. Then there’s the other side too.

"IT components do make the system vulnerable," Jaslene agrees. "But there are two sides to every coin. The more sophisticated a system, the more secure it is bound to be. Like the Central Control system in US which takes control and shuts off the entire set up if hacking is detected in one point. Right now, we are not that advanced."

What we have seen today, in fact, is a wake up call that even a small fault can bring the whole system to a halt. What if someone hacks in and sabotages the system, warns Prasenjit. Think of all the traffic jams and mayhem.

Talking of wake-up calls, today has been an alarm loud enough. But it went off at the same scale in the past too, when in 2001, grid snapped in the Capital due to fog, Prasenjit wonders. "It’s alarming to see how this has happened again and how it has taken so many hours to isolate the fault."

"If you do not have a proper rerouting mechanism, then a proper drill is required, specially before rainy and winter seasons. Also, even though Power Grid uses helicopters with infra red scans to isolate faults, better technologies will help to do the same faster enough. Look abroad for that. That might help. " Recommends Prasenjit. In Jaslene’s conclusion, the outage is not that eventful given the loadshedding that Indians are living up with daily. Power generation is a bigger problem. The capacity issues have to be tackled first. Solar power being expensive, and Wind power slowly rising up on the feasibility curve, still leaves us with electricity grids of the present avatars.

The outage may have come and gone, but as she rightly said, the blackout is still a grey area we live in every day. Still, hopefully it was a night that wakes us up for better mornings.

For now, not bad! I finished this piece without any power glitches.

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