Northern India suffers massive power outage

A massive breakdown of India's electricity grid cut power to 370 million people in seven northern states, halting trains, cutting water supplies and creating commuter mayhemThis post has been updated. See the note below for details.

NEW DELHI -- A massive breakdown of India's electricity grid cut power to 370 million people in seven northern states Monday, halting trains, cutting water supplies and creating commuter mayhem.

The crisis, which hit shortly after midnight, knocked out power to the states of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh, which has more people than Brazil. By some accounts, it was the worst blackout in India since 2001.

As officials struggled to contain the damage, electricity was diverted from adjoining states and priority was given to hospitals, water-treatment plants and transport systems, including the subway system in Delhi, the national capital territory, which has the status of a state.

Many intersections throughout the capital were manned by police officers directing gridlocked traffic with flamboyant hand gestures, even as diesel engines were called in to get about 300 delayed electric trains back into service.

Much of the population was groggy Monday after sleeping without fans or air conditioning in the intense summer heat.

By early afternoon, more than half the power capacity had been restored as energy officials launched an investigation into the causes of the outage.

[Updated, 9:12 a.m. July 30: By late afternoon, the government reported that power had been restored.]

With intermittent power interruptions even at the best of times -- India has an electricity shortfall of 9% during peak usage periods, resulting in rolling blackouts known as "load shedding" -- many companies and homes have backup generators. Delhi's international airport quickly switched to diesel power, which officials said prevented flight disruptions, although air conditioning and retail lighting were affected.  

Analysts said the power failure was made worse by this year's poor monsoon, which has raised temperatures and electricity demand even as it reduced the amount of hydroelectric power available. Some officials also said states were taking more than their share of available power.

Weak infrastructure, inadequate investment and corruption remain major constraints on the Indian economy and a sore point with an increasingly affluent, expanding middle class.

Dipesh Dipu, director of energy consulting at Deloitte India, said India has added significant power-generation capacity in the last few years, but new plants struggle to secure enough domestically mined coal to fuel their plants. Natural gas, nuclear power and alternative energies are not able to make up for the shortfall, he added. "The future picture hinges on coal," he said.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a $400-billion investment in the power industry over the next five years, although the country has a history of missing annual targets aimed at meeting growing electricity demand.

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-- Mark Magnier

Photo: Commuters wait for a metro train in New Delhi on Monday after a portion of India's power grid crashed. Credit: Associated Press

 
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