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Tuesday, July 31

System failure as the new normal: India's massive power blackout, Beijing's massive floods, Washington's massive electrical failure

From the New York Times report on India's massive blackout:
[...] India suffered the largest electrical blackout in history on Tuesday, affecting an area encompassing about 670 million people, or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population. Three of the country’s interconnected northern power grids collapsed for several hours, as blackouts extended almost 2,000 miles, from India’s eastern border with Myanmar to its western border with Pakistan.

For a country considered a rising economic power, Blackout Tuesday — which came only a day after another major power failure — was an embarrassing reminder of the intractable problems still plaguing India: inadequate infrastructure, a crippling power shortage and, many critics say, a yawning absence of governmental action and leadership.

India’s coalition government, already battered for its stewardship of a wobbling economy, again found itself on the defensive, as top ministers could not definitively explain what had caused the grid failure or why it had happened on consecutive days. Theories for the extraordinarily extensive blackout across much of northern India included excessive demands placed on the grid from certain regions, due in part to low monsoon rains that forced farmers to pump more water to their fields, and the less plausible possibility that large solar flares had set off a failure.

By Tuesday evening, power had been restored in most regions, and many people in major cities barely noticed the disruption, because localized blackouts are so common that many businesses, hospitals, offices and middle-class homes are equipped with backup diesel fuel generators.

But that did not prevent people from being furious, especially after the government chose Tuesday to announce a long-awaited cabinet reshuffle — in which the power minister was promoted to take over the home ministry, one of the country’s most important positions.

“This is a huge failure,” said Prakash Javadekar, a spokesman for the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. “It is a management failure as well as a failure of policy. It is policy paralysis in the power sector.”
Welcome to the modern era, Sri Javadekar.  He should have heard the excuses from the public utility Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company) to Washington and Maryland residents who broiled for days without power during one of Washington's worst heat waves in memory:

July 30, The Washington Post:
[...] Pepco vigorously defended itself Monday in its first self-assessments since last month’s derecho storm, saying it responded aggressively and effectively to restore power to nearly half a million customers left sweltering in the dark.

The electric company accepted limited responsibility for software glitches that affected tens of thousands of calls for service and for its inability to give customers a better sense of when their power would be restored. But it asserted in the reports, required by Maryland and District regulators, that those issues are common in utilities across the country.
The reports offered a look inside the company’s response to what it said was the most destructive storm for its network of power lines since Hurricane Isabel in 2003. But they also ignited a new round of criticism that the utility is tone-deaf to complaints from customers and politicians.

"It’s more excuse-making. They are like the failing student that blames the teacher, the course and the books — everyone but themselves,” said Del. Tom Hucker (D-Montgomery). “The problem is not the system or the expectations of customers. The problem is Pepco.”
As a survivor of the widespread electrical power failure that occurred in Washington, DC on the night of June 29 after a brief but severe freak storm tore through the Greater Washington, DC area (we were almost four days without power at our house and many didn't get their power restored for 5 or 6 days), I took special interest in Pepco's attempts to soothe furious customers. But over in China, officials had a more creative approach to deflecting criticism of the government's slow-footed response to historic flooding in Beijing. From AFP, July 24:
Beijing's propaganda chief has ordered Chinese media to stick to good-news about weekend floods, according to a report, after the death of at least 37 people sparked fierce criticism of the government.

Lu Wei told media outlets to stick to stories of "achievements worthy of praise and tears", the Beijing Times daily reported Monday, as authorities tried to stem the tide of accusations that they failed to do enough.

Residents of China's rapidly modernising capital have said some of the deaths could have been prevented if better warnings had been issued and the city's ancient drainage systems modernised.

Many took to China's popular microblogs, known as weibos, to question the official death toll of 37 issued on Sunday, although by Tuesday, censors had begun deleting critical posts from the Internet.

Residents of the worst-hit area of Fangshan, on the mountainous southwestern outskirts of China's sprawling capital, told AFP the government was doing little to help find their missing loved-ones.

"The government doesn't help at all; every family is responsible for searching for their own family members," said Wang Baoxiang, whose 30-year-old nephew had been missing since going out in Saturday's rains.

The China Daily, a state-run English-language newspaper with a predominantly foreign readership, ran an editorial on Tuesday urging Beijing authorities to improve the drainage system, which it said "leaves much to be desired".
Check: Much room for improvement.  Yet the top quote to emerge from all these mass calamities comes from India. To return to the New York Times report, which by the way is excellent:
Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian, said that the blackout was only the latest evidence of government dysfunction in India. On Monday, he noted, 32 people died in a train fire in the state of Tamil Nadu — a reminder that the nation’s railway system, like the electrical system, is underfinanced and in dire need of upgrading.

“India needs to stop strutting on the world stage like it’s a great power, Mr. Guha said, “and focus on its deep problems within.”
Sound advice, not only for India but also for all nations, including China and the United States, because they've all been caught flat-footed by the challenges that governments have been handed in the age of megapopulations.

I have now completely mind-melded with this blog. I was so going to blog about megapopulations and this topic, referencing posts here, at Zen's, and The Glittering Eye, John Robb, etc.
Madhu, I assume you've read my 2005 posts on "Governing in the Age of Megapopulations (see the Pundita sidebar)" You didn't send the text or links to comments you put up at Zenpundit et al., about megapopulations, but why don't you send me them, as text with links, in an email, and I'll publish them as a post at Pundita? Things are moving very fast right now; the new paradigm I gave a glancing mention to a few days ago is growing by leaps and bounds .....
I'm a dork, the post I am of course remembering is your 2005 post on governing megapopulations and the posts on the other sites are links to yours, I think. At least, a quick search doesn't find anything. I'll keep looking.
Hi Pundita,

As per one claim, this is due to the heavy usage of Chinese transmission products to build the electric grid....the current Home Minister who was the former Power Minister is responsible for importing cheap chinese transmission equipments with no after service provided by the chinese companies. This is the main reason for the power break down....This was done with the active connivance of the union government overlooking the possibility of national security crisis if ever the chinese companies most of which are state funded and backed by PLA refuse to send spares to India....
Hi Mayura -- Thank you for the information. Even if there were other contributing factors, the use of imported parts from China -- and with no provision for service to the parts -- for key infrastructure would indeed be a huge national security risk.

Hi Pundita,

This raises another interesting question how many defense equipments of the US contain Chinese components/parts and what is the implication of this for the US security.
Mayura -- Yes indeed! That was my first thought when I read your comment; I immediately forwarded it to a correspondent with the note that it would be interesting to learn whether the US was also importing key parts from China.

But in the case of the USA, it wouldn't be just China's exports that Americans would have to worry about. Another problem is that all the offshoring manufacturing that the USA does in China --everything that the USA uses China's factories for to build or fit and finish US products -- all of the designs, blueprints, etc. for all those products have to be shared with the Chinese factories.

By the way that's what led to the huge business in China of counterfeiting US products. Many of the factories in China that process US goods have 'ghost' factory sites that use the designs given by US manufacturers to the legit factories in order to create cheap knock-offs of the products.

That's why Donald Trump was off the mark when said that the US should demand payment from China's government for all the designs that the Chinese have stolen from the USA.

But in most cases they don't steal them, although they use them in illegal ways. The US manufacturers simply give them the designs, outright.

To return to the issue of national security, I think it's a fair guess that many of the widgets that China puts together for US companies go into parts that are used in US infrastructure.

So if the claim that you passed along about India turns out to be correct, then I doubt that India is the only country that has the problem.

In closing, just to let you know -- if you don't see your comment immediately show up on the Pundita site, that's because I have to personally review every comment before it's published. This, in an effort to block clever spammers. And often it can be several hours or even a couple days before I have a chance to review comments.

Of course that's inconvenient for readers who want to comment, but it's either that or I shut down the comment section, which I've had to do more than once to shake the spammers who are creative enough to evade Google's spam filter.

The chinese are past masters in copying stuff (in PC lingo it is "Reverse-Engineering"). There were reports that the chinese had a cruise missile shipped from Afghanistan during the initial days of attack on Al-Qaida by the bush govt. Also a recent instance of Pakistan giving access to the malfunctioned helicopter at Abbotabad (used to bump off bin laden) to chinese engineers before the US could cart it off from pakistan..This is very scary. Chinese do not have to sweat out for any innovation...they just have to steal and copy and improve on the design to match the US defence equipments..Also there was this chinese nuclear scientist who was caught stealing technical info from los alomos nuclear lab...all in all we have some interesting times ahead..

When you mentioned the manufacturing facilities of US companies in China...I am thinking what happens if the US at some point in time refuses to encash the 3 trillion treasury bonds that China holds...what if in retaliation the Chinese government nationalizes all the american factories in China...won't that be more than 3 trillion dollars in value
Mayura -- Hmmmm. I think I'm going to take our exchanges out of the comment section and publish them as a post for readers who might be missing the information you've provided in the comments. It's certainly an important topic.
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