On Tuesday, India was hit with its second large blackout in two days. When the northern grid went dark Monday at around 2:30 am local time, more than 300 million people were left without electricity for several hours. The Power Systems Operation Corp. reported that New Delhi was completely restored by 1:00 pm, as well as 70 percent of the rest of the region. But the problems weren't over.

"The northern grid has failed again," Arvinder Singh Bakshi, the chairman of the Central Electricity Authority, told Reuters this afternoon. Today's outage affected nearly 600 million people, according to estimates

India's power system is composed of five regional grids. In 2007, all but one of the regional grids were synchronized so that power-rich regions could transfer power to areas that needed it. Yesterday, the eastern and northeastern grids provided power to restore the northern grid, but today, they also collapsed. Both New Delhi and Kolkata, in the eastern region, were left without power.

According to a senior electricity official, who was not willing to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly, "Apparently, North was drawing 1300 MW from West and 0 MW from East when West-North connectivity failed, putting the entire load on East-North connectors. That also collapsed and North was plunged into darkness. Apparently deficit in Northern Region was 21 to 26 percent. With start-up power from West and East, North was limping back to normalcy and now that has gone again. A high level enquiry committee has been set up and no one is prepared to say anything."

A peculiarity of the Monday failure is that the first outage happened in the middle of the night—not when most people would expect the grid to be at peak load. "Common sense says at 2:30 AM, the power drawn should not be so high," says Sivaji Chakravorti, an electrical engineering professor at Jadavpur University in Kolkata. But energy policies in India have created a different type of demand, he explains. During the day, industrial customers can only draw a limited amount of power. But after 10pm, the restriction is withdrawn, and they're allowed to draw as much as they want. "At midnight, when the demand should have been lower, it is higher," says Chakravorti.

While the exact cause of the collapse will emerge in the next few weeks, it's clear that these outages were due to the basic mismatch of supply and demand. Large power outages can happen anywhere, of course, but India is unique in its dependence on seasonal rainfall.

This year's monsoon season, especially in Northern India, hasn't provided the water that the region's farmers need for their crops. Less rain means that farmers need to pump more water from deep boreholes, using highly subsidized electricity. Haroon Yusuf, Delhi's Power Minister was quick to blame neighboring agricultural states for drawing more power than they were allotted. 

Grid regulators were certainly aware that the overdraw was a problem. According to Zee News

in May this year, the Central Electricity Regulatory Authority (CERC) had issued notices to the state load dispatch centres (SLDCs) of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana asking them to halt overdrawing power from the Northern Grid. 

While the CERC had asked these SLDCs to be prepared to buy additional power to meet the anticipated demand during summer/monsoon, the states failed to take notice and did not maintain the grid discipline. 

Even more recently, in a 26 July hearing, CERC brought up the issue again. For the week of 10 July, the state of Uttar Pradesh overdrew an average of 26 gigawatt hours per day, according to CERC documents. After yesterday's blackout, the Central Electricity Authority has projected a peak power deficit of 8 to 12 percent.

Less monsoon rain also causes water levels to drop and hydropower production to slow. The northern grid is particularly reliant on hydropower, which accounts for 28 percent of the region's installed capacity [PDF]. Nationally, hydropower accounts for less than 20 percent.

So where can India get the power it needs to keep up with ever increasing demand? One potential solution is from hydropower plants that aren't monsoon dependent. Yesterday, much of the power that brought New Delhi back online (albeit temporarily), came all the way from dams in Bhutan. Over the last few years, India has provided funding to build several large hydroelectric plants and transmission lines in Bhutan, such as the 1 gigawatt Tala project. The government of India has promised to purchase at least 10 gigawatts of power from Bhutan by 2020

There are also plans in the works to link the Indian grid to other regional neighbors like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. The events of the past two days may give such projects even more political momentum.

Additional reporting by Saswato R. Das

See IEEE Spectrum's 2010 special report on the critical links between water and energy.

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

The number of charging stations in Utrecht has risen sharply over the past decade.

“People are buying more and more electric cars,” says Eerenberg, the alderman. City officials noticed a surge in such purchases in recent years, only to hear complaints from Utrechters that they then had to go through a long application process to have a charger installed where they could use it. Eerenberg, a computer scientist by training, is still working to unwind these knots. He realizes that the city has to go faster if it is to meet the Dutch government’s mandate for all new cars to be zero-emission in eight years.

The amount of energy being used to charge EVs in Utrecht has skyrocketed in recent years.

Although similar mandates to put more zero-emission vehicles on the road in New York and California failed in the past, the pressure for vehicle electrification is higher now. And Utrecht city officials want to get ahead of demand for greener transportation solutions. This is a city that just built a central underground parking garage for 12,500 bicycles and spent years digging up a freeway that ran through the center of town, replacing it with a canal in the name of clean air and healthy urban living.

A driving force in shaping these changes is Matthijs Kok, the city’s energy-transition manager. He took me on a tour—by bicycle, naturally—of Utrecht’s new green infrastructure, pointing to some recent additions, like a stationary battery designed to store solar energy from the many panels slated for installation at a local public housing development.

This map of Utrecht shows the city’s EV-charging infrastructure. Orange dots are the locations of existing charging stations; red dots denote charging stations under development. Green dots are possible sites for future charging stations.

“This is why we all do it,” Kok says, stepping away from his propped-up bike and pointing to a brick shed that houses a 400-kilowatt transformer. These transformers are the final link in the chain that runs from the power-generating plant to high-tension wires to medium-voltage substations to low-voltage transformers to people’s kitchens.

There are thousands of these transformers in a typical city. But if too many electric cars in one area need charging, transformers like this can easily become overloaded. Bidirectional charging promises to ease such problems.

Kok works with others in city government to compile data and create maps, dividing the city into neighborhoods. Each one is annotated with data on population, types of households, vehicles, and other data. Together with a contracted data-science group, and with input from ordinary citizens, they developed a policy-driven algorithm to help pick the best locations for new charging stations. The city also included incentives for deploying bidirectional chargers in its 10-year contracts with vehicle charge-station operators. So, in these chargers went.

Experts expect bidirectional charging to work particularly well for vehicles that are part of a fleet whose movements are predictable. In such cases, an operator can readily program when to charge and discharge a car’s battery.

We Drive Solar earns credit by sending battery power from its fleet to the local grid during times of peak demand and charges the cars’ batteries back up during off-peak hours. If it does that well, drivers don’t lose any range they might need when they pick up their cars. And these daily energy trades help to keep prices down for subscribers.

Encouraging car-sharing schemes like We Drive Solar appeals to Utrecht officials because of the struggle with parking—a chronic ailment common to most growing cities. A huge construction site near the Utrecht city center will soon add 10,000 new apartments. Additional housing is welcome, but 10,000 additional cars would not be. Planners want the ratio to be more like one car for every 10 households—and the amount of dedicated public parking in the new neighborhoods will reflect that goal.

This photograph shows four parked vehicles, each with the words \u201cWe Drive Solar\u201d prominently displayed, and each plugged into a charge point.Some of the cars available from We Drive Solar, including these Hyundai Ioniq 5s, are capable of bidirectional charging.We Drive Solar

Projections for the large-scale electrification of transportation in Europe are daunting. According to a Eurelectric/Deloitte report, there could be 50 million to 70 million electric vehicles in Europe by 2030, requiring several million new charging points, bidirectional or otherwise. Power-distribution grids will need hundreds of billions of euros in investment to support these new stations.

The morning before Eerenberg sat down with me at city hall to explain Utrecht’s charge-station planning algorithm, war broke out in Ukraine. Energy prices now strain many households to the breaking point. Gasoline has reached $6 a gallon (if not more) in some places in the United States. In Germany in mid-June, the driver of a modest VW Golf had to pay about €100 (more than $100) to fill the tank. In the U.K., utility bills shot up on average by more than 50 percent on the first of April.

The war upended energy policies across the European continent and around the world, focusing people’s attention on energy independence and security, and reinforcing policies already in motion, such as the creation of emission-free zones in city centers and the replacement of conventional cars with electric ones. How best to bring about the needed changes is often unclear, but modeling can help.

Nico Brinkel, who is working on his doctorate in Wilfried van Sark’s photovoltaics-integration lab at Utrecht University, focuses his models at the local level. In his calculations, he figures that, in and around Utrecht, low-voltage grid reinforcements cost about €17,000 per transformer and about €100,000 per kilometer of replacement cable. “If we are moving to a fully electrical system, if we’re adding a lot of wind energy, a lot of solar, a lot of heat pumps, a lot of electric vehicles…,” his voice trails off. “Our grid was not designed for this.”

But the electrical infrastructure will have to keep up. One of Brinkel’s studies suggests that if a good fraction of the EV chargers are bidirectional, such costs could be spread out in a more manageable way. “Ideally, I think it would be best if all of the new chargers were bidirectional,” he says. “The extra costs are not that high.”

Berg doesn’t need convincing. He has been thinking about what bidirectional charging offers the whole of the Netherlands. He figures that 1.5 million EVs with bidirectional capabilities—in a country of 8 million cars—would balance the national grid. “You could do anything with renewable energy then,” he says.

Seeing that his country is starting with just hundreds of cars capable of bidirectional charging, 1.5 million is a big number. But one day, the Dutch might actually get there.

This article appears in the August 2022 print issue as “A Road Test for Vehicle-to-Grid Tech.”

Keep Reading ↓Show less