Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Too Big To Fail, in Electricity

The electricity was out in most of India for the last two days in the largest power failure in history. Three of the five regional grids were down completely, affecting 20 of the 28 states and at least 600 million people. There will be a search for the technical causes of the outage, but the fundamental problem is a supply of electricity not large enough to meet the demand.

The idea behind regional power grids is essentially the “too big to fail” concept. With electricity flowing onto the grid from so many different sources, the regional grid can never run out of power. Yet this advantage becomes a fatal flaw at times of peak power demand. The high levels of power consumption on a peak day can cause the entire region to shut down. Then power can’t be restored until some of the biggest users are unplugged.

Similar electric failures have been seen on a smaller scale on every continent. The most likely way to strengthen the power grid is to rely less on it — that is, to use less electricity and to generate more of the electricity we use close to where we use it. This reduces the stress on the electric grid in the same way that buying local and having a short commute reduce the jam-ups on the road network.