In India, a massive power outage has left an estimated 670 million people – 10 percent of the world's population – without power. It's the second outage affecting hundreds of millions of people within just two days, events that are far and away the largest power outages ever seen. And yet, within hours, the problems had mostly been solved.
When the first outage hit on Monday, it was being called the biggest power outage to occur in India in about a decade. Not history. Not the last 50 years. But just over the last 10 years or so. That a cataclysmic power outage could happen so frequently is a pretty damning reality for the public utilities of India. And, indeed, power outages are common in India, though they're typically much smaller. On Tuesday, the northern grid collapsed, cutting power for hundreds of millions of people, grinding to a halt activity in places as densely populated as New Delhi. But despite the relative frequency of such large-scale outages, it's also interesting to note how relatively quickly these problems have also been resolved – especially so close on the heels of recent power outages in the U.S. that left many people without power for more than a week.
More than 2 million people were left without power when storms struck the Mid-Atlantic region in late June. Though several utility companies took heat for the prolonged outages, Washington, D.C.'s Potomac Electric Power Company, or Pepco, felt the brunt of the outrage. The storms hit on June 29, but Pepco wasn't able to restore power to all of its nearly 450,000 customers until 10 days later, on July 8.
That's 10 days for less than half a million people compared to about 6 hours for most of the power to be restored to the roughly 350 million affected by the outage Monday, or compared to the 6 hours it's taken Tuesday to restore power to 75 percent of the more than 670 million people affected by this latest outage. The Times of India notes that the last major outage – in 2001, affecting a region home to 230 million people – was resolved in 16 hours.
The difference here is mainly that the Mid-Atlantic blackouts were caused by physical destruction as a result of strong storms, while India's problems are associated with surges in demand. Lifting broken trees off power lines takes more effort than (to grossly simplify) replacing a blown fuse. And, to be clear, a blown fuse affecting more than half a billion people is a pretty big deal.
But, according to The New York Times, it's still not entirely clear what exactly caused the two major outages in India.
While massive storms and falling trees may not happen all that often, the surging electricity demands of a fast-urbanizing country are likely to recur. Some are hopeful that opportunity will be found in this crisis; high-profile problems like these major outages could put pressure on the government and the state-owned power utility to make improvements to the country's infrastructure, as Jeff Glekin at Reuters suggests. In the meantime, it would not be too surprising to see more of these large-scale outages in the near future. Maybe even tomorrow.