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U.S Drought and India's Blackouts: Here's the Connection

It seems that everyone has had something to say this summer on the subject of drought, with much of it devoted to the idea of “connecting the dots” -- meaning that more and more people are finally making the link between global warming, extreme weather, and our energy choices. But let me try to join up another set of dots, those that connect the disaster in the Midwest to last week's catastrophic blackouts in India, the worst in history, which left more than 600 million people across the northern part of the country without power. (Not that half of them had it in the first place, of course; as the Onion put it, in my favorite headline of the week: “300 Million Without Electricity in India After Restoration of Power Grid.”)

To tease out the commonalities, let’s start with this chart [gif] from the government’s National Climatic Data Center. As it makes clear, the drought that’s hammering Midwestern farmers and triggering fires in the Rockies is part of a worldwide phenomenon. In a broad band north of the equator, from the Arctic across central and Southern Europe and much of Russia, down to the blacked-out areas of northern India, average temperatures this June were between 3 and 5˚C (roughly 5 to 9˚F) higher than the 30-year average from 1961 to 1990.

Summer is never a good time to visit India, with triple-digit temperatures and torrential monsoon rains that start usually around June 1. Except that this year they didn’t, and the accompanying temperatures have been off the charts -- 115˚F in Delhi, 120˚F in the major cities of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which, with its 200 million people, is the heart of India’s rice belt. India is now in the throes of its second serious drought in four years. Monsoon rainfall so far is 17 percent below normal. In the state of Punjab, India’s largest producer of wheat, it’s down by an astonishing 70 percent. Commentators are evoking the specter of the infamous drought of 1918, the worst in the country’s history.

These conditions trigger a pernicious series of chain reactions. Here are just four:

  • When temperatures soar, people run their air conditioners around the clock, and with urban India’s growing affluence, air conditioner use has already been growing by about 15 percent a year.
  • If fields are dry, farmers delay the planting of their summer crops and/or run their irrigation pumps harder, putting greater stress on the grid supply. (Indian farmers receive electricity free of charge.)
  • When agricultural production plummets, the government may be tempted to bar food exports, which threatens to exacerbate the already ballooning crisis in global food prices. The World Bank reported last week that largely as a result of simultaneous droughts in the United States, Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, world prices for corn have risen by 45 percent since June, and for wheat by 50 percent. The last time food prices jumped like this, in 2007-2008, there were riots around the world.
  • If rainfall is down, hydropower (which accounts for about a quarter of India’s energy mix) suffers, and the clamor for coal (which accounts for close to two-thirds) increases.

Air conditioners and irrigation pumps didn’t merit more than a line or two in the coverage of the Indian blackouts. The conventional wisdom was that the grid wasn’t getting enough juice, and that said juice could only come from one place. As the Economist put it, “Not enough coal is being dug up by the state monopolist, Coal India.” Reuters further explained the problem in terms of the bureaucratic delays, conflicts over land acquisition, and environmental concerns that stand in the way of opening new coal mines and coal-fired power plants (India, by the way, approved 173 new plants in 2010).

The conventionally wise then served up their solutions: break up the Indian government’s monopoly on coal mining, remove those pesky environmental roadblocks, and import more coal. The Indian government, notwithstanding its ambitious National Solar Mission, shares this coal fixation. The country is now looking to meet more than half its coal demand through imports and is set to overtake China this year as the world’s biggest coal importer.

Only a handful of environmentalists pointed out the obvious: that India’s centralized electricity grid has never worked, and in all likelihood, with the country’s rampaging demand for energy, it never will. India’s grid is a 20th century solution to a 21st century problem, a creaking paradigm of inefficiency (a McKinsey report [pdf] estimates that modernizing the grid, which loses 30 percent of its power in the course of transmission, would cost $110 billion), and the answer is to focus instead on distributed energy from solar, wind, biomass, and other renewables.

There was a good deal of conventional wisdom on this point, too. Distributed, off-the-grid energy may be a lovely idea, but it will never fill the gap. The simple rebuttal to this argument came from the Indian entrepreneur and solar pioneer Jigar Shah: it already does -- by means of expensive, noisy, filthy, and unhealthy diesel generators, which provide power to tens of millions, from small rural shopkeepers to residents of urban apartment buildings. So shut off government subsidies to diesel (which cost $24 billion a year), and spend the money instead on solar panels and windmills.

This leads me to the final connection between events in India and events here, and it’s a bitterly ironic one. The United States too is faced with the challenge of designing a 21st century grid and choosing the energy sources that will power it. And coal right now is the big loser, unable to compete with natural gas, with its lower prices and lower emissions. But never mind, say the titans of the industry, like Peabody Energy: Americans may have soured on coal, but look at those demand numbers from India! (You have to love Peabody for its sheer chutzpah: the company’s latest PR campaign is called e-COAL-ogy, with CEO Gregory H. Boyce boasting that “no other fuel has the track record of reliability, abundance, low cost, and environmental improvement.”) The problem from India’s point of view, however, is the bit about “low cost.” The high price of coal on the world market means that Peabody’s anticipated gain would be India’s loss, relieving one problem in its overstressed energy sector only to create another.

Drought, food, coal. So many dots to connect. But connect them we must.

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OnEarth's executive editor has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19... READ MORE >
Great points. I think this article could be broken into four or five more. What I get from the article is that the "heat wave" is forcing most of the world to use more power to cool off, and no power grid, much less the ones in place, can keep up with the demand. American coal mines may have a new customer base to target, India (wonder about Southern Russia and Europe?), but even with 123 new power plants, it hasn't really kept up with the growing demand for electricity in India. The problem seems to stem from an electrical grid that loses 30% of its power during transmission. We have a huge supply of more efficient natural gas in the US, but the same lack luster electrical grid problem. In related articles that I have read lately, the north eastern US electrical companies did a study about making their lines more efficient and possibly burying to prevent blackouts due to "acts of nature" (including: snowstorms, tornadoes, thunderstorms, hurricanes) and responded it would take years to do and cost well over 300 billion. Yet, as in India, the occurring blackouts are incurring billions of dollars of loss and 100's of deaths with each occurrence. You could even argue that it will eventually have to be done, and will never cost less. A point or two about encouraging individuals to set up their own solar panels, small wind turbines, and to install natural gas generators, to take the burden off of the grid temporarily, while governments and utilities attempt to bury, ground, modernize and make our present grids more efficient would have probably seemed too radical, sigh. We need jobs, we need new infrastructure, we need a resource management that is both short and long sighted, blind to private profiting concerns. Profit will be made as the work progresses. Instead of looking at business plans projected costs of doing something, we need to look at the loss of life and financial devastation which will occur if we keep ignoring our growing infrastructure and resource availability problems. No matter what is causing these heat waves, heat waves and cold spells occur and have occurred since the beginning of the world. We need to repair what we can and survive the changes, not worry about who is to blame at this point. While repairing the system, we can also lower are production of "greenhouse gases", so things should get better all around. Food production and distribution are other sore points for civilizations throughout history. Global marketing of food is a very good idea, as it spreads food around where it is needed, but local sources still need to thrive to provide "natural disaster" relief at each affect locality. We can not continue to base all decisions on financial economy. We need to worry about the economy of surviving as well. Financial disasters seem to parallel natural and man made disasters, so planning and implementing plans on how to avoid the pitfalls of each disaster, should increase everyone's profits and chances for survival.