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It may take some time to pinpoint the exact cause of India's massive blackouts last week, but the underlying issue for India and many other parts of the developing world is that supply is struggling to keep up with the growing demand for power — an imbalance that can affect the reliability of electric grids.
Power grids have a tough job. They need to detect how much electricity is needed on a second-by-second basis and match that with just the right amount of power from widely scattered generating stations.
"We are dealing with one of the most complex systems created by mankind, and it's actually pretty reliable," says Marcelino Madrigal, who works on transmission grid projects at the World Bank.
Madrigal says power grids around the world are up and running more than 99.9 percent of the time. That may not ring true to anyone who has traveled to the developing world where power outages are a common nuisance. But Madrigal says that's almost never because the transmission system has failed; it's because there isn't enough power to go around. The grid operators have to decide who will go without. That's a familiar struggle for grid operators in India. Individual places may go without power frequently, but usually the grid itself is OK.
"We know India's growing a lot. They are trying to keep up investments to be adequate to supply the needs of the strong economy," Madrigal says. "So it's actually astounding that they had a grid that was so reliable."
Power grids all around the world suffer from growing pains like India's, as these nations try to build modern economies.
Jesse Ausubel, who heads the program for the human environment at the Rockefeller University, says one challenge is to make sure that the power plants and power lines all grow at the right rate.
"One hopes that each time one adds a new piece, whether it's for generation or transmission, that it will be done in such a way that the integration is successful and the reliability will increase," Ausubel says. "But it may not."
These days electricity is so important to industrial society that providing adequate power isn't good enough. For example, businesses that rely on the Internet simply can't afford to be without power, even for a minute. Sure, it was a nuisance for Indian commuters on electric trains to get stranded. But, Ausubel says, the risk to our interconnected world runs much deeper.
"It's not just the railroads stopping, it really is the signal that if you want to be in the 21st century economy, you need to be very, very good at electricity," he says.
There's also a growing demand to make power supplies 100 percent reliable.
"A phrase that people sometimes use now is perfect power," Ausubel says. "People want perfect power."
That involves not only tweaking the grid, but also installing more backup power supplies, to cope with the inevitable moments when catastrophic weather and other events bring down even a well-managed grid.
Many of the world's poorest nations aren't ready to think about perfect power just yet. They need a basic supply, to provide reading light at night and to attract industry.
"What happened in India to me was a sign of a much larger problem," says Nigel Purvis, who runs a consulting company called Climate Advisers in Washington, D.C. "In the world, 1 out of 3 people don't have access to either electricity or reliable electricity."
Some 1.4 billion people have no electricity at all, and even more can't count on their lights to go on when they flip the switch. Purvis says this isn't a technical problem; it's a failure of policy and financing.
"We have all of these people who are really eager to have access to electricity and a whole bunch of investors both in their countries and globally who are eager to invest in commercial ventures that will provide a healthy return on investment," he says. "And what we don't have is the political and policy conditions right that can match that willing money with that willing investor."
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon tried to make this issue the centerpiece of the recent sustainable development conference in Rio de Janeiro, but his pitch fell utterly flat.
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