Blog Post

India’s blackout exposes choice between water & electricity

Let’s take a snapshot of India right now.

  1. In India, there is a drought. This year’s poor monsoon is likely to lead to the third drought in 10 years. But two-thirds of the water India receives is wasted because of inadequate storage and management.
  2. India just had a power outage affecting 650 million people, a population twice as large at the U.S.  Most cities in the state of Punjab faced an acute water shortage due to lack of proper co-ordination between the power and the municipal corporations.
  3. Water tensions are increasing between countries like India and Pakistan.
  4. Before the power grid outage India was “staring at a water drinking shortage.”
  5. There is a race to tap India’s coal resources to fuel a whopping 519 GW – nearly 500 power plants – leaving behind massive deforestation and water contamination that could have a ripple effect on the environment and health inside the world’s second most-populous country and neighboring Bangladesh.  Despite places like coal mining in the Jaintia Hills of India being one of the wettest places on earth, much of the water from the Ummutha River that flows through it is no longer drinkable.

According to Andrew Revkin, The New York Times blogger: “It’d be great to think that renewable energy sources and distributed electricity generation could solve such problems, and they’re great where they work. (And India is ramping up an ambitious effort to expand solar energy.) But the reality is that grids and central power plants are a mainstay of increasingly urbanized economies. In India, that means coal will be an economic keystone for decades.”

Leaving aside the flat out failure of grid extension in India, let’s focus on a more stark reality.  The World Bank estimates that 21 percent of communicable diseases in India are water related. In India, diarrhea alone causes more than 1,600 deaths daily.

So, India’s power outage underscores a larger problem facing us.  If you had to choose between power and water, what would you choose?

Revkin’s blog might suggest he chooses power. I would choose water. But, instead, can’t we deploy solutions where we have both?

Albert Einstein said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Power grid Old Delhi

The most amazing part of the Indian blackout story is that the country’s infrastructure did not grind to a halt. A key reason is that most of India’s most important infrastructure is backed up by diesel generators – at a cost of over US$0.45/kWh (4X what most Indian’s pay for electricity). This is by definition distributed generation. India citizens depend upon diesel because the Indian central grid is a failure. The added problem is that diesel-distributed generation is very expensive, noisy, and bad for people’s health.  Most importantly diesel subsidies in India are expected to cost the country over $24 billion this year.

This choice for distributed generation is simply the only solution that individual consumers can choose without relying on the oft-maligned Indian bureaucracy.  In the past, Indian consumers chose diesel because of their low upfront costs.   But today, the improvements in financing are allowing consumers to switch to clean energy —  gasified biomass, wind, solar and other distributed approaches at a 50 percent discount to the cost of diesel.

Regarding coal as a solution, it was reported this year that India has overtaken China as the World’s largest importer of coal.  India is building coal generation facilities as fast as it can.   But, if history is any guide, India never meets its goals on coal generation.  This is not because Indians don’t know how to build coal or because they can’t afford new coal (though costs are skyrocketing); it’s because building large new infrastructure is hard in India based on topography alone. So Andrew Revkin and others insist on poking India in the eye when they suggest that India’s solution to the recent blackouts are new coal plants.

But clearly, Revkin also misses the point on water. Water is literally killing India.

The power grid in Old Delhi

In India, like in the United States, the power sector is the single largest user of water – more than agriculture. Presuming that India could solve its problems and build more coal, they would run out of fresh water even faster.

Ten years from now, writers like Revkin will be publishing an article about how climate change and coal led to water shortages in India.  As a result, India needs to buy expensive desalinization plants. In fact, today, The World Resources Institute has a report on growing water scarcity and declining water quality, on thermal and hydroelectric power generation plants in Asia.

The sad reality is that “Utility 1.0” is more than 100 years old.  The model was a good one and gave us the economy that we enjoy today, but it has its problems. Coal is much more expensive today than it was 20 years ago, so much so that Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata companies, recently admitted that new coal power from the proposed Tata Mundra project is coming in at roughly the same cost as new solar today in India.

Worse the Tata Mundra project is in such bad shape financially from skyrocketing coal costs, he has described it as a ‘non performing asset.’ Plus, practically speaking, India simply cannot afford to pay for the infrastructure necessary to provide 100 percent household electrification using the command and control practices of the last 100 years.

Revkin is using 20th century thinking to solve 21st century problems. If India, and other industrialized countries had a comprehensive energy plan that included installing the least cost renewables, perhaps our choice will not come down to water or electricity.  I think we could have water and electricity – but that is not that plan that is being executed.  Others are suggesting that India execute a plan that could execute itself.

Jigar Shah is CEO of Jigar Shah Consulting and a partner with Inerjys. Shah founded SunEdison in 2003 with a new business model, the solar power services agreement business (SPSA). SunEdison now has more solar energy systems and megawatts under management than any other company.

20 Responses to “India’s blackout exposes choice between water & electricity”

  1. Dont you all think that the wastage of power and water and the extravaganza of people need to be reduced across the world and populous countries like India?….

    Farmer, Industry, Domestic, Hospital, Pub, Pools which are the priority and where do we need an immediate cutoff

  2. it is interesting to read the article and comments. As Hollis mentioned, Nuclear is going to be future. India is not an exception. I am a core solar person. I have also worked on Hydro and biomass gasifiers. These are my feedbacks
    1. Hydro runs only for 6 months to 9months based on a location.
    2. Solar works only on day time with higher capital cost
    3. Biomass gassifier has biggest challenge of keeping it running du to supply chain issues, and weather condition and raw material availability. Well managed one can run for 9 months.

    All these are bubble source of energy. we need some source which is core and form core for GRID. That could be coal / Very large Hydro and nuclear. So these guys are like whole sale dealors and others are retail dealors. both will sustain, but if whole sale guy is very easy to approach, small dealors will have tough time to live.

    We need government to step in and make mandate to use these renewable and there should be a system to check the % power fed to grid.

    But whatever we say, nuclear energy is cheaper and one day it will kill all other energy souces..

  3. Gurpreet

    I totally agree water is more pressing issue in India. Relying on energy sources that are going to deplete the fresh water sources will be a major mistake. Good thing about Indians is they are very much used to power cuts. I am currently in Hyderabad and there is scheduled power cuts and I don’t mind to schedule my day around it. But if any fixation to eradicate power shortage is undertaken at the cost of water supply, it will have dire consequences.

  4. Ravi Bhatia

    How do you feel about distributed generation via natural gas microturbine at single- and multi-family residential locations? It would seem to simulataneously provide localized generation for the household and contribute back into the grid. Distributed, micro generation provides more energy per square foot as there are spatial limitations to sizing solar arrays. I’m doubtful that there would be the associated supply-side reductions at a coal plant (at least not in the short-term). I see the a future with similar systemic failures in the US. Ravi K. Bhatia, California. USA.

  5. smishra2010


    Since irrigation water by running electric pumps have been listed as one of the main causes of grid failure, I wanted to mention the state of Gujarat which is able to control electricity provided to electric tube-well through a central feeder system (refer to Jyotigram Yojna). Intelligent rationing of electricity through a separate central feeder system is also able to conserve ground water overdraft.

    In Bihar, we are installing replacing diesel powered and non-operational tube-wells to run on solar. No stress on the grid as its stand-alone. Solar irrigation pumps have a data/SIM card that allow remote monitoring and control (similar to what Katie had mentioned in one of her earlier posts). Our solution enables implementing varous irrigation schemes depending on crop type, water need, etc. The important thing is that the state government is able to achieve water conservation in times of drought using the remote control mechanism and there is electricity generation at point of use at prices cheaper than diesel powered. We have installed 70 solar irrigation tube wells in Bihar alone. During this period of drought and power grid failure, these farmers in Bihar had no problems and are set to have a great harvest this year when others in the country struggled.

    You can check us out at

    Your advise, help, comments are always helpful. Please feel free to reach me at [email protected].

    Katie, I wanted to share information about our work if there is interest at GigaOm.


  6. As more data emerges from the recent power failure in India, it is becoming evident that the leadership saw this coming and they turned blind eye to all the warnings. I assert that the inability to prevent this event from happening has more to do with political situation in India. And here is why:

    1) Historically, the organization that operates power grid and the power ministry knew exactly that this is time when if dry weather prevails and the monsoon is less than adequate, there will be dip in hydro power production and farmers are going to kick-start their electricity based water pumps to irrigate their fields.

    2) Weeks before the actual power grid failure there were all indications to who the culprit states would be. But no action was taken to reprimand them. While there are penalties for perpetrators, they are joke as they not enforceable.

    And the lack of Power Ministry ability to do anything about this problem, stems from the fact that the government at the center is an Alliance of various parties. One of the key alliance party happens to be from the state that caused the grid collapse. The central government could not have done anything because it would destabilized the government.

  7. Nuclear is the only solution. Cleanest, safe and cost effective. They will eventually be the biggest player of nuclear in the world or they will fold.

  8. When it comes to solving problems, there are some problems that are man-made and then there are problems created by mother nature.

    Water table problem is going to hit India for a sixer if Indians are not careful. Over irrigation, high concentration of agricultural pesticides, are rendering water problem too mammoth to solve. And mother nature playing its tricks could create another Mohanjedaro/Harappan civilization like extinction if North India does not heed to changes in nature.

    While the power problem is also equally grave, I think it falls in the realms of man-made/engineering challenge that can be solved in due course. As Uban mentioned, it will be prudent to wait and watch for the final conclusion on the reasons for North Indian Grid Problem. For all we know, it might have been caused by a Punjabi or Haryanvi peeing on the grid after getting drunk on thuraa (local liquor).

    It is Economics stupid. Once the infrastructure has been rolled out, it does not matter whether other technology is more valid/reliable/efficient. It is easier for one to tie megawatt gas fired generators to the existing grid to produce power in US, while similar logic applies in India. Solar has its advantages and disadvantages. Currently, thermal plants are probably priced at 1/3 to 1/4th the value of Solar Plants, which includes CapEx and OpEx.

    With dropping price in solar panels, and BOP, I see opportunity for solar in India. There is opportunity for other technologies as well, as the Wind industry data from India will suggest. There is money here and people are looking for better life. So let the enterprising bring the solutions and let the market pick and choose the winner.



    • Hello,

      I am glad people are excited about solar generation but there is a capacity problem at two levels.

      Firstly – you can’t generate enough electricity with solar. This limits its use to non-critical applications which are low power. I am all for people being intelligent about how they power up various loads but if I want to run my factory or my pump set – I need that line power.

      Secondly – there is a limited capacity to produce solar cell technology. The current price of solar cells is dictated by the economics of making the cells in China. As China has lax environmental laws, they can make solar cells cheaper right now. This won’t last for long – I venture one large environmental tragedy in China and attitudes on such matters will shift drastically. China is not a third world country anymore and people in China will demand more by way of ecological care. Other cleaner tech is available but not in quantity. This means the price point will shift higher.

      If one is left with no choice but to deal with line power – then the grid management has to be super efficient.

      That I fear is where we are falling short and immediate corrective actions are badly needed

      Uban Singh

      • Dear Uban,

        I agree with your keen insight….and I dare to elaborate on some of your points:

        1) Improve the utilization of existing resources. This you mentioned is super important because bringing any additional resources on line takes time in Power Business. Therefore could not agree more with the making the existing grid more efficient by using better controls, clear rules and top-notch execution.

        2) Look for alternative power generation. The reality is that as per capita income increases the power consumption will also increase. Any nation, especially India, has to make decision based on short-term economic sense and long-term national security. China has been doing this very well in my mind. They have diversified their power generation and continue to do so. It will be very short-sighted to continue to have 86% of India’s power coming from coal and hydro. All technologies need to be explored and deployed, not just limited to solar/wind/nuclear. I think Nuclear is a clear winner from base loading point of view.

        3) Reduce energy foot-print. We have to make a conscious effort to ensure that our energy consumption does not shoot through the roof as we become wealthy. California, under the tutelage of Arthur Rosenfeld, has demonstrated that energy consumption can be kept flat even with rising prosperity. This comes via developing newer more efficient technologies, i.e. LED lighting, Cars with better mileage, and then using rules and regulations to force manufacturers to bring the new technology to the masses.

        As far as China problem goes. As a smart businessman/woman, I will leverage the existing situation to build out energy portfolio. We will find alternative to rising costs in China, when we get to the bridge.

        Best Regards,


  9. Usingh1980


    The blackout is being misdiagnosed as a lack of adequate generation.

    The deeper problem here one that came out in the Haryana Power Secretary’s comments – i.e. the lack of frequency stability on the grid.

    Absent a stable grid frequency, it is difficult to interpret the fluctuations in the grid frequency as being due to load alone. Without a proper gauge of the load – there can be no early warning or corrective measures.

    There is a fact-finding committee at work currently but the lack of adequate synchronisation may be why one had a repeating cascading failure.

    I caution against using the blackout to advocate more coal based generation. A simpler fix may be to enforce more rigid grid discipline on frequency stability.

    Distributed generation for non-critical applications is always desirable, especially if it is not diesel based. The more eco-friendly it is – the better it is.

    But the problem of higher quality grid management is not resolved by this kind distributed solution. If anything it may make matters more difficult.

    I am sorry but in my opinion this is not an easy thing to solve.

    Uban Singh

  10. Jigar Shah

    I appreciate the clarification and sorry I misread it (along with 40 other emails I received). But after our industry (renewables) has reached over $200B last year alone we still get treated by your blog as an industry that can’t provide meaningful solutions to tough problems. Until that changes, your underestimation of what we could accomplish to solve this problem is the same as pushing for coal.

    • Does this mean that you retain the benefit of not having to prove that the renewables CAN or HAVE provided a meaningful solution to an actual ‘tough’ problem?

      It’s not a slam dunk to claim that decompacting the grid infrastructure at a parity of cost (to solar, etc.) for intermittent energy at current deployed technology levels will sell at the local NIMBY level and be any less prone to outage than the current system despite any gains you make in water usage, especially considering a continuing trend for more power demands without resorting to the oft-lame requests by enviro-types that citizens should just deal with less energy.

      As it is, a solution might as well be to print money and build those desalinization plants. “Expensiveness” then becomes a by-word, as any Paul Krugman acolyte would readily acknowledge that mass spending on this sort of infrastructure only generates positive returns, especially when you control your own currency.

      • Jigar Shah

        Today there is over 650,000 MW of operating ‘diesel’ plants (some HFO, EFO, etc). Probably 20% are operating in India. Even the most optimized ones are generating power at $0.35/kWh. Most are closer to $0.65/kWh. I can assure you that solar, gasified biomass, small wind, small hydro, etc can do this cheaper than this. This is a minimum of a $1 Trillion market. I am happy to prove to you (and am through profitable business investments) that this is ready to be deployed now…what we are lacking here is vision from the leadership.

      • Really… And you really think you can just side-step all the NIMBY concerns that have plagued every new energy infrastructure deployment in a non-communist country in the last 10 years?

        You’re advocating replacing 500 plants with 5,000 different set-ups of 5-6 different types of energy, all attempting to connect to a new grid that must become larger and more complex to accomodate all of it– and accomodate an ever increasing power draw. It’s not just lacking vision from leadership, it’s also the inability to seize land via fiat and insta deploy technology without public comment/participation/due process. In the US, check out the “Energy Justice Network” … tell me how they’re going to work with you on your massive deployment (it doesn’t matter how ‘ready’ it is to be deployed).

        You should realize that at least some in your audience are not living in wonderland.

      • Jigar Shah

        Sorry, thought we were talking about India not the USA, one country at a time. In India folks have already realized how expensive diesel is and companies are working to replace the generators. Here is a press release from today: grid

        I get that change is hard, but don’t get discouraged. It is hard to imagine what you cannot see. Like mobile phones before us, we will invest about $2 Trillion between now and 2020. Question is whether you are joining our industry now or when the dinosaurs finally join.

    • I believe you are indeed at “Imagining what you cannot see” when it comes to the actual play-out of your solution to what you should admit is more than just a “change is hard” problem.

      Time will tell I suppose.

      My feeling is that until environmentalists are actually willing to put their homes where their beliefs are (and, for example, choose to live right next to a biomass facility because they get/agree with/support green energy), none of this stuff is going to get off the ground. A country like India is simply not going to be able to pull it off with just “good times” solar and wind power.

  11. Andy Revkin

    Jigar, you read that piece as me advocating for coal, when in fact it was me describing India’s realities. As you were writing, I was posting this followup piece, which describes the treadmill relationship (in an agricultural context) between electricity and water. The piece focuses on the wise approach of Harish Hande to energy — which is to begin with what people need, in a particular place and context, and build outward from that need. As he says, the grid is only one channel to fill a need. It is a store. Energy services are the product.