Prime Minister Modi’s call for a 9-minute switching off of lights, followed by lighting candles, diyas and cell phones on Sunday (April 5) night, will provide no help in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, but will pose a real danger to the country’s electrical system. With simultaneous switching off and on of all household lighting load in a span of 9 minutes, roughly 10% to 20% of the grid’s power could suddenly drop and again come back. This would lead to a double strike against the grid, which could turn unstable leading to its collapse. We, then, have the risk of a cascading blackout in the country, as happened in July 2012, when the Northern and the Eastern Grid collapsed. At that time, the Southern Grid was independent of the National Grid and was not affected. This time, all the regional grids are connected and a part of the national grid. A collapse of one could cascade across all the regions.
We have already seen a drastic reduction of load as most of the industries, commercial establishments and passenger trains/metros are not running. The peak load on the grid has come down from 168 Giga Watts (GWs) on April 2, 2019, to 126 GWs on April 2, 2020, a drop of nearly 20%. Normally, peak load on the grid takes place around 7 PM. This means that at 9 PM on Sunday, the grid load will be around 105-115 GWs. A calculation by a colleague shows that the domestic lighting load on the system that will be taken out and brought back within these 9 minutes, will be of the order of 10% to 20% of the total grid load at that time.
The issue is not of handling a load change of this magnitude. If such a change happens gradually, meaning over a 20-30 minute period, the grid has sufficient capacity to withstand this change. The challenge to the grid operations is two-fold: first, sudden withdrawal of 10% to 20% of load on the grid sharp at 9 PM, the second, this load coming back within 9 minutes, before the grid has even stabilised. This is the double blow the grid will receive at 9 PM on Sunday.
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If there is a blackout, bringing the grid operations back to normal can take anything from 12-72 hours. This would have extremely serious consequences for our hospitals and our emergency services during this critical phase of our fight against the pandemic. The ability to maintain our hospitals, supply chain, telecommunication network, and other emergency services depend on electricity. A blackout will affect all such services, along with imposing enormous additional burden on the people already under an extended lockdown. Think of no electricity in our homes for 12-72 hours under conditions of the current lockdown!
It is also true that the grid authorities are fully aware of the danger to the grid that the PM’s call has created. They have been working day and night to take a range of measures to ride out the double strike created by the PM’s call. I am hopeful that these measures will suffice, and the electricity workers and engineers will be able to overcome the danger to the grid.
But was this crisis necessary? Don’t we have enough on our plate right now? Did the PM consult the Energy Minister before giving this call? Did the Minister or the Energy Secretary at least tell him after he had issued this call that there was a risk to the electricity grid? And does anybody even know (without Googling, which I just did) who is the Minister of Power in Modi’s cabinet?
This exercise of a 9-minute blackout while lighting candles to signal our unity is as poorly thought out. Already, there has been widespread criticism of the lack of planning in preparing for the lockdown, in not involving the state governments in this exercise, and not foreseeing the consequences for the urban poor. But at least, there was a medical argument for a lockdown, however, ill planned.
But what is the logic of artificially creating darkness and lighting candles for 9 minutes? What is the rationality behind this gesture? A grand photo op? How does such empty gestures help in fighting the pandemic? Particularly, if it risks a critical infrastructure like the national electricity grid on which we depend?
The national and state grid authorities have already warned the central and state governments of the danger to the grid. The Energy Minister of Maharashtra has also called on the PM to withdraw this call. The PM should immediately withdraw the call of a self-imposed blackout on the nation. All Chief Ministers should join the Maharashtra Energy Minister and impress on the Centre that the PM’s call could risk a possible collapse. If the grid collapses, both the governments and the people will have to face the consequences of no electricity, and no ability to fight the pandemic till power is restored. This is a risk that the country cannot take.
Also read: Blacking out Truth About the Two Black outs