Friday, 15 November 2013

India 2013: Tamil Nadu - Power crisis!

The two main sources of electricity generated in Tamil Nadu are Mettur Hydel Project and thermal plants at the Neyveli Lignite Corporation.

In addition there are multiple thermal power plants of much lower capacity, some operating on diesel, some operating on coal - all of which have little or no indigenous supply of fuel.

Kalpakkam, the first Fast Breeder Reactor (FBR) powers areas in the state capital of Chennai and has already been upgraded close to 1.25 MW peak capacity with an additional reactor. This was designed to be a contingency and research operation to support state capitals in times of grave emergency. Our complete reliance on Kalpakkam for Chennai (and surrounding areas) is already stressing out the production from this plant.

Wind power generation has dropped 85% between 2012 and 2013. This is from 30% of projected peak wind power capacity to 5% of projected wind power plant capacity.

Kudankulam's revised nuclear power technology reactor output is sketchy at best, one can assume that it feeds 500MW (peak: 750MW) of power into the grid if it is operational - despite the fact that it's capacity is much higher. This is more a naval facility than a civilian power production plant, particularly due to its location and is manned by very few civilians.

Read on to see data, alternatives, and where we must try to go from here ...

The story of Wind Power is abysmal. We've seen huge GE or Suzlon manufactured turbines or fans being transported to locations for installation. I would think that it was both an act of desperation and profit-making that had no strong basis in research.

Here are the power production figures in MW (source: Indian Wind Turbine Manufacturers Association) - which I can tell you is the optimistic number and may not be the actual metric of power fed into the grid.

In 2012 the total output [during the supposedly windly season] was 140.35MW for Tamil Nadu.
  1. APR 26.95
  2. MAY 27.75
  3. JUN 30.15
  4. JUL 28.00
  5. AUG 27.50
In 2013 the total output [in the same period] was 64.25MW
  1. APR 0
  2. MAY 8.2
  3. JUN 20.6
  4. JUL 13.3
  5. AUG 22.15

This is an 85% drop in production. The 140.35MW was in itself less than 30% of the actual peak projected capacity - assuming our weather/climate research and regional setup of the plants.

In Tamil Nadu the mistake seems to be huge investments through private sector for Wind Power plants (they occupy lots of space and are unpredictable in terms of average output.) Although everyone keeps talking about "clean" energy, in years where weather models and climate models have become most unpredictable, wind-power production cannot be relied upon. This would mean investment in Solar power too is a risk, if we were to get perennial tropical rains - unless we model climate. The investment for tidal power plants is too high although the guarantees of maintenance of them are equally sketchy.

The result is Tamil Nadu spiraling into a power deficit like never before.

While I write this I know that District headquarters like Thanjavur (my hometown) has between 5 and 7 hrs of power cuts distributed across 3 or 4 instances between 1-3hrs each. I have listened to villagers from nearby that there is no electricity even at night as the acute power shortage crisis looms.

Tamil Nadu is just an illustration of a once power-surplus state within India becoming a state with huge deficit. There are other states in India which already started on a bad footing and have no more redeeming chances with the older solutions. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh invested heavily (either through private or public sector or shared investments) on Wind Power. This too is the biggest sunk investment we've ever seen.

Global Solutions that have been Reliable

In order to solve the power crisis, we can no longer continue to rely on centralized power production plants. We will have to invest in unconventional distributed power plants. There were even models of miniature nuclear subterranean plants completely fused, that could serve entire towns. These have not been approved yet as the technology, cost and safety measures for such a distributed system are found lacking. 

Solar power production relies on low-life-span solar-energy-collectors. Their power conversion is between 20% and 30% as hybrid solar cells that can give close to 40% of power are almost 3x or 4x the cost of the existing ones. Unlike the USA who has deserts like Nevada that are completely unpopulated where they have a 6GW solar power facility, our population density would advise us against trying such an exercise. 

Singapore (where per capita power consumption is technically much higher than the figure for India) uses submarine Gas powered plants. Japan has no option but to opt for Nuclear power with their plants back in operation despite having shut them down after public protests following the Fukushima catastrophe.

The Impossibility of Frugal Disruption

Reducing power consumption is by no means the solution to the lack of an exponential rise in power requirements. This is in part supported by battery technology vendors as the capacity of batteries has reached a peak and therefore any other high power capacitor or power storage device is too costly and too short-lived to replace the existing battery banks. There were proposed solutions of trying to use fuel cells to combat this, but they have also proved too costly and too short-lived.

With such a crisis we cannot run cars on electricity (that is not saving on power) because you don't have enough electricity for existing usage in the first place. That is where the automobile industry wants to step into with hybrid electric, gas and gasoline hybrids. This too is a short-lived intermediate solution. 

Tidal Power?

Here's the new buzz in the industry - Tidal power plants. Before we take the plunge into Tidal power, we must know that they are equally disruptive of marine ecosystems. Ocean currents are much like weather and their patterns have been subject to severe changes resulting in actual weather changes. Ocean currents began changing in 2004 and are now being remodeled. That would mean, relying on such a power source (kits inside water as sails to produce power or hydel-type reactors on beach fronts) would be equally risky. Hydro electric power has already succumbed to the unpredictable weather/climate alterations. The trouble with climate/weather is that nothing you do will produce any "instant" change in the system. You cannot grow trees in a day hoping that within a month, you will have restored a more predictable normalized weather system - despite the fact that we may have the technology to do that. The reason is simple, we don't have enough real estate to plant any trees anywhere.

The only solution that will work before we plunge into the age of no energy

We need entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists in India to innovate and come up with better ideas. If you're starting up, do not fall in the lap of a multinational, but instead think of how power can be entirely decentralized and cost lesser to manufacture. After this, production is the other area where India cannot quickly innovate (from my experience in seeing lead-free PCBs and PCBs greater than 21 layers not manufactured en masse ever in India - we go to contract manufacturers elsewhere in the world) as investment in new technology is almost always at a stand still.

We are at the tipping point of the current 'peak' of human civilization. We will fall. It is how we handle this fall that will help us. Another World War will merely accelerate the chain of events that will lead to the fall. There are no peaceful means by which we have succeeded to increase production in the past. German industrial production, USA's industrial production, India's industrial production, Russian industrial production were on an unprecedented maximum during World-War-2 as people worked hard to "end the war." Some have even considered such an approach to try and increase production, but we all know that wars cause more damage than help and do not want to fall into the abyss.

The Bad News: The oncoming "Age of No Energy"

If you have data in digital media, now would be a good time to make hard-copies of whatever is useful, as a lack of power would mean an unprecedented impossibility to access them ever again. Our chief concern would be food/shelter/clothing/security which would all need immediate attention.

Hence today's huge investment in 'information technology' and 'communication technology' as export while necessities like food are being imported is seriously not paying back in the long-term scenario of an energy blackout.

How many companies, colleges are working on 'Communication', 'Aeronautics', 'Avionics' - when these are not going to independently help us feed ourselves. Why have we forgotten the "Need hierarchy pyramid"? All civilizations are chiefly agricultural, whether they like to admit it or not. The fall-back plan is to become hunters with a violent and devastating swing to it.

This is a call to arms or a request for all-hands-on-deck. It's not the political race that we should be worried about, it is total human extinction that is looming around the corner. It may just not happen within our life-span, but definitely our grand-children will witness it unless we take steps to stop it.

Next time you think about buying that new iPhone or Android based Tablet with awesome movie-watching features - remember what is coming is the age of no energy (we aren't merely talking electricity here.)

Back to Electricity

In the following years we might see acute shortages over periods of multiple months with a short rainy season or monsoon helping in just balancing power production. The move to CCFL, LED lighting will slowly teach us lessons about their long-term reliability. Air conditioning/Climate-control would suffice to over consume power in its present design and needs a huge work-over. Batteries will run out sooner every year as equipment consume more power for more features until things try to get back to the basics. By 2020 we might just get back into the dark ages unless we start doing something on a war footing right now.