India plunges into blackout: how best to bring power to 600 million people?

I remember the great eastern North American blackout of August 14 2003. It occurred at around 4 p.m. on a hot Thursday afternoon, and caused major disruption. My entire hometown, Ottawa Ontario, went black, along with every other town in southern Ontario and the northeastern U.S. The high-rise where I lived had a gasoline-powered backup generator capable of running water pumps or the elevators but not both. The building manager decided on the elevators. That worked for me; I lived on the 19th floor. I remember showering in the pitch dark, hot water only—gravity-fed, because the hot water tank for the building was on the roof.

The building manager had to drive across the Ottawa River to Quebec to fetch gasoline, because the electric-powered gas pumps in Ontario were obviously out of commission (Quebec was not affected by the blackout).

All in all, it was a brief episode for me and most others. By next morning, the southern Ontario grid was operational again: the mammoth 4,000-megawatt Nanticoke coal-fired plant on Lake Erie kicked into action, as did the 2,000+-MW coal plants at Sarnia and Mississauga; the nuclear stations slowly powered up too.

While it may have been a brief episode for me and most others, it was a fatal, tragic event. One fellow, a recent burn victim in Toronto, died because of the blackout. He needed air conditioning to regulate his body temperature. When the grid failed, so did the City of Toronto. It was mid-afternoon, with no traffic lights, and the electric-powered subways, having quit mid-track, were packed with commuters. The guy’s father fought his way through the chaos to rescue him, and didn’t make it. It was a heartbreaking story that is seared into my memory.

This just goes to show how essential electricity is to modern life. I can only imagine how people in India are coping with the current blackout, which is already being called the greatest blackout in history. We are certainly going to hear about fatalities; apparently more than half a billion people—more than the entire population of North America—are affected.

And it should be pointed out that, severe as this blackout is, it pales in comparison to another fact about India. That is that around a third of that country’s citizens (i.e., around 400 million human beings, or 500 million according to a 2009 KPMG report) have no electricity even when India’s power grids function normally.

Think of that for a second. Between 400 million and 500 million people, more than the combined populations of the United States and Canada, live in a permanent electricity blackout.

So the debate over how to power India has just intensified. India has the same three choices as every other jurisdiction: coal, natural gas, or nuclear. Which of these is the best choice for keeping the lights on?

Clearly it’s nuclear. Only the atom has proven itself capable of cranking out cheap, clean, reliable power on which to base a modern economy. India must power its future with carbon-free energy. Only nuclear can do that job.

India’s grids failed because of skyrocketing demand, as the poor people in that enormous country emerge from centuries of extreme poverty and begin tasting the amenities of modern life. India is a hot country, so much of the growing electrical load is from refrigeration and air conditioning. Should that load be met by carbon-heavy fossil fuels like coal and gas? Using carbon-emitting fossil fuels to meet the demand for air conditioning brought on by higher temperatures due to carbon emissions would be like putting out a fire with gasoline.

Here in most of North America we are experiencing hotter-and-dryer-than-usual weather. Sometimes during hot, dry spells, nuclear plants that use river water for cooling are forced to ease up on the throttle and reduce power so as to avoid putting warmer water back into the river.

Anti-nuclear lobbyists point to this as a shortcoming of nuclear power. That is a silly criticism. Nuclear plants equipped with cooling towers do not have this problem. For example, the Browns Ferry nuclear station on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama uses cooling towers. One of them was taken out of service yesterday because of some kind of damage. All three reactors are currently running at full power.

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It is true that India is a hot country and thus air conditioner is almost a necessity for people here which consumes a lot of power.