Mumbai Walks a Fine Line for Power

India's on-again-off-again economy is back on again. Fed by the outsourcing boom, India's largest city, Mumbai, is flourishing and growing skyward. A new megacity is rising from the rubble of an ancient capital--with all the modern amenities. This means that Mumbai's planners have a lot to cope with these days. Chief among their responsibilities is keeping the lights on, literally. As we learn from Senior Editor Harry Goldstein, that task is a high-wire balancing act in which the experts are performing some nimble acrobatics to keep the power up and running. Reporting back from the city once called Bombay by westerners, Goldstein analyzes the nature of the problem in this month's feature "How to Blackout-Proof a City".

With some 18 million consumers, Mumbai's electric power grid is one of the most insatiable systems in the world. It is hardly one of the most robust, however. In periods of peak demand, local authorities told Goldstein, managing the load is a precarious venture. It is a bit of irony that, just as India is poised to become an economic superpower, the utilities in the country's showcase city have launched their own public-service campaign urging Mumbai's citizens to conserve energy or face extensive planned outages this summer for the first time ever.

"The load is rising a lot faster than anybody realizes," said Gerry F. Grove-White, executive director and chief operating officer of India's Tata power utility. "I look out my flat and every tower crane I see, I see increased load. And the investment in generation has not kept pace. Last year we scraped by. This year the jury is out when summer comes."

Mumbai has long been blessed with abundant power, delivered chiefly from local hydroelectric projects that have been running since colonial times. The problem today is matching the rate of growth of the 21st Century version of the city. Increasing the availability, reliability, and quality of electricity is a long-term goal that will be met only with tens of thousands more megawatts of generation capacity. In the near term, administrators and engineers from Mumbai's power companies, along with government regulators, are doing their best to stave off planned brownouts, not to mention even worse conditions.

"We're going to have to take a big deep breath and say, we're going to invest," Grove-White told Goldstein regarding Tata's planning. "We know what we need to do, and we will sell this output ultimately."

In the meantime, with the peak demand period of the summer month's looming, Mumbai's utilities and local government have mounted an all-out public awareness campaign to use energy wisely. The message from the power companies is clear, Goldstein writes. To get through the tropical season without significant load shedding or blackouts, Mumbai's consumers will have to sacrifice a few of the conveniences they've come to enjoy over the past few years.

Should that advice fail to reach receptive listeners, what has now been turned on could just as easily be turned back off again, no matter how nimble its providers skillfully perform.

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