It made the news here, but not for long — ten percent of the world’s population lost electric power in a single event.
Reasons it wasn’t a major news story? It was on the other side of the earth (India), a lot of the people affected weren’t affected all that much (their electricity not ordinarily being particularly reliable), and power was relatively quickly restored.
What interested me was that the blackout was caused by a mismatch between electrical supply and demand, and that both of those were driven by climate change (realistically, if not scientifically). Supply was down because a lot of northern India’s generation capacity is large-scale hydro but there’s been a drought and stream flows are down. Demand was up because there’s been a drought, so more and more farmers are having to run electric pumps for more and more hours to irrigate their crops.
I was wondering just how to tell this tale when, over the last couple of days, two things happened. First, I got an email from GreenBiz.com, touting an article about whether India’s blackout was a sign of a need for more renewable energy. Second, my nearest neighbor hired a guy with a really (really!) big backhoe.
By any strict definition of “renewable”, much hydro-electricity is. Large-scale hydro projects may not be particularly ecologically sensitive, but that depends on the setting. The higher the mountains, the steeper the cliffs, the rockier the terrain, the less environmental impact. My image of northern India is that it offers lots of good locations for hydro-generation. (Of course, I could well be wrong. I’ve never been to India.) I don’t think the problem is one of renewability (or the lack thereof), I think it’s one of command and control. I think it’s one of social (and, resultingly, mechanical) structure. India’s electrical industry is highly centralized; its infrastructure has been growing rapidly over the past decades; it covers a huge and challenging geographic area; it’s financially constrained; it’s under constant pressure to grow more, faster; as a result, it doesn’t incorporate much in the way of redundancy or other reliability enhancing features.
Closer to home, my neighbor bought his farm only a couple of years ago. He milks about 65 cows, and he’s in the process of converting them from primarily grain-fed to entirely grass-fed (pasture and hay). As part of that conversion, he hired the excavator to dig out a hillside spring, run a tile line down to the flat, and build him a pond.
In an abstract sense, my neighbor and the electricity administrators in India are doing the same thing — using the presence of water and gravity in one location to put water on the ground in another. The differences, of course, are scale and technology.
There are lots of things that can go wrong with a system that involves heavy machinery at both ends, multiple forms of energy transformation, long distances and complex control structures. There’s much less that can go wrong with a system with only one moving part (the water), no explicit energy inputs (unless you count the gravity), short distances, and no control mechanism other than a spill-gate.
It’s here that I think the real lesson lies. Not so much renewable vs un-. (Although I’m hardly arguing for use of non-renewable energy sources.) Rather, resilient vs un-. Simple vs un-. Local vs un-. Human-scale vs un-. Low-tech whenever possible. Because, when push comes to shove, it’s the machine with the fewest moving parts that’s most reliable.