Living Without Electricity

The reports this past week of the widespread blackouts in India have me fondly remembering my time there.  For most of my stay, electricity was spotty. It depended on where I was, what time of the day it was, and whether there was a generator nearby.  Going about a day’s normal activities, required a different mindset. I would plan to do the things that needed steady electricity during times when experience taught me I had a good chance of having that electricity. It was always a bit of a guessing game though.
This week, 600 million people — half the country’s population — were deprived of electricity and transportation networks for hours.

The first power grid collapse, on Monday, was the country’s worst blackout in a decade. It affected seven states in northern India that are home to more than 350 million people.

Tuesday’s failure was even larger, hitting eastern and northeastern areas as well. Both back outs cut power in the capital, New Delhi, where residents sweltered.

Then, as now, the problem isn’t so much that the grid is damaged or broken. The grid is fine, there’s just more demand than generation. Power grids require a delicate balance between the two, and when demand gets too large, power companies shed loads. You don’t get to decide when your block looses power, someone you don’t know gets to make that call.

Can you imagine someone making the call to deprive 600 million Americans of power? There would be rioting in the streets. People would die by the thousands of exposure, burns, food poisoning, you know where I’m going with this. Most Americans don’t have systems in place to be without power for any length of time. (Yes, yes, there are only 300 million Americans, I know.)

When I was in India, many of the places I stayed in used various forms of indigenous architecture to make the buildings more comfortable without relying on fans or air conditioners.  In the dry heat of the central south there were usually vents along the top of all the exterior walls, light colored roofs and high ceilings. In the more humid areas trees were used to move moisture heavy air and block the intense sun.  Neem trees were what we saw most often. Amazing trees, I’ll never forget waking up and breaking off a twig for a toothbrush.

People had ways of cooking that didn’t rely on grid-backed electricity. Natural gas is used pretty commonly, as is wood. I even stayed at one place that used a small methane collector powered by animal poop to supply the stove. There were the tandoori ovens, and small sturdy grills.

Shopkeepers could usually be relied on to have a generator running, if only to save the frozen and chilled goods. The World Bank estimates that two-thirds of Indian companies have back-up or independent power supplies. Added to about a third of the 1.2 billion population that never has electricity, this means total grid failure in India is less of a disaster than in the United States or Europe.

There are lessons to be learned there I think.

– Calamity Jane