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Indian grid failure offers lesson to us all

US electricity at night

A little conservation is in order. As is an upgrade to the US electrical grid. Photo: Woodley Wonder Works via Flickr.

A Washington Post story yesterday about the (so far) two-day electricity blackout that affected 600 million citizens was a study in trying to find an answer to the acute predicament facing Mother India. Numerous officials are cited in the article, mainly scratching their heads, baffled over the cause of grid collapse. Yet one paragraph stood out for its more definitive take on the problem.

Indian industry leaders blamed the incident on a large and growing gap between electricity demand and supply, something that the government has failed to tackle despite repeated pledges to do so. Some senior government officials say reform of the power sector is the greatest challenge facing Asia’s third-largest economy in the next few years.

None of this should be surprising, and not just because of India’s large population, its less than up-to-date grid, or its unwillingness to exploit coal reserves at a faster rate (environmental concerns are at least a partial check on extraction in India).

But the incident is a cautionary tale for us all.

In the US we may be staring at our own fate in India’s crisis. I’d suggest getting ready for it to come to a neighborhood near you sooner rather than later. Even the recent derecho was a reminder that, in fact, electricity doesn’t come from the switches on our walls, and that even our grid can look like spit balls and duct tape when an angry Mother Nature comes calling.

Of droughts and dry holes

According to the International Energy Agency the world hit peak oil in 2006. In his book Peak Everything: Waking Up To the Century of Declines, Post Carbon Institute senior fellow Richard Heinberg notes similar global peaks in coal (remaining stock is of a lower quality) and uranium (along with fish stocks, topsoil, fresh water and grain production). Resources are thinly stretched, though the population (and leadership) apparently hasn’t gotten the memo.

Meanwhile industry touts the merits of fracked natural gas, oil shale, and tar sands as saviors against any reputed declines. But James Howard Kunstler, author of the peak oil classic The Long Emergency, and more recently, Too Much Magic: Technology, Wishful Thinking and the Fate of the Nation* disagrees. He argues that all three of these unconventional fossil fuel sources are mostly bubbles, with far less actual energy potential than industry claims (a claim they make, incidentally, mainly to part sucker investors from their money).

The issue at stake with these unconventional fossil fuels is foremost the costs of extraction, which aren’t lessened because of the reported advances in fracking and horizontal drilling — extraction machinery with huge price tags for build out and use. The energy it takes to extract and refine the resources remains high, while the water-intensive application sucks up massive energy (whether or not it’s a drought year), and the impact on local roadways, infrastructure, and ecosystems is profound.

But in the end, for natural gas at least, the rapid rate of decline curves, the preponderance of dry holes, and the low ratio of return — not in dollars, which float independently of geological reality, but in the energy returned on energy invested or EROEI — tell the real story, making future costs prohibitive, a definitive drag on the economy. Natural gas seems dirt cheap now, but as the other factors catch up, and supply tightens, prices will rapidly increase.

Either way, accelerating global warming makes clear we can’t keep going headlong down the dirty energy path.

And all this leads us to the US’s own failing infrastructure, aged power grid, and centralization of power plants, a very vulnerable position for the so-called greatest nation on earth.

Responses, not solutions

It’s true that no amount of renewable energy will let us live at the scale we currently enjoy, with our copious consumption, brazen wastefulness, indifference to conservation, and suburban development patterns. Yet there are myriad applications for conservation and renewables (with the latter as distributed rather than centralized power) which create jobs, move money, and set the stage for a shift to an undeniably lower energy future. Aggressively moving on this front can also prompt at least a temporary stimulus to the broader economy.

It’s easy to see India’s grid collapse as India’s problem alone, what with it being a developing nation and all, and for having such a large population (twice the size of the US) — the whole demand outstripping supply thing in its most obvious presentation. But demand is outstripping supply worldwide; that is what peak oil, peak coal, and peak nuclear is all about.

Energy IS the economy, stupid

Why this topic isn’t at the center of this year’s presidential race is beyond me because, if “it’s the economy, stupid,” I can guarantee you that, in spite of the delusions of the popular form of genteel gambling known as investment banking, the entire economy rides on the primary economy. And, as neoclassical economists fail to note at our whole society’s peril, the primary economy is the economy of nature, natural resources. In our case, on 21st century Earth, that is the energy economy, which is still the fossil fuel economy. Just try pulling energy out of the equation and two seconds later enjoy an “Aha” moment.

Energy is in everything.

Energy is the conversation behind every conversation about the economy, modernity, our way of life, the culture that rides on that, women’s rights, wealth and poverty, education, international relations, war, peace, family, children and everything else.

Presidents have been pointing this out again and again for 40 years. But still we act like it’s new news.

With the derecho we only had six million without power on one side of the country. But with computers, almost everything’s linked now. What isn’t linked along a direct line is linked somewhere indirectly. The derecho was a dress rehearsal for even bigger blackouts inevitably coming in the future, and the domino effects that come in its wake.

India’s 600 million powerless for two days (so far) is a warning to us all. Time to pay heed.

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