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Category: Indian infrastructure

Power outages in Northern California and Northeast India

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There are two places I have lived on planet Earth where power outages are a common occurrence: Northeast India and Northern California. More specifically, outages are common in the East Garo Hills (now North Garo Hills) district of Meghalaya, where I spent a year as a volunteer schoolteacher eleven years ago, and the hills of Napa County, where I live now. Although outages are common in both places, the reason for and character of the outages are different for each.

When I refer to power outages, I am not talking about emergency outages caused by, say, a tree limb falling on a powerline (or for that matter, powerlines burning down in a cataclysmic wildfire). Emergency outages are definitely more common in the Garo Hills and Napa County than other places I’ve lived, but they happen everywhere. The outages I’m talking about here are planned outages, when the electric utility turns the power off on purpose.

In Meghalaya, the state electric utility isn’t always able to generate enough power to supply all of its customers. This is especially the case in the hot months, when reservoir levels of the hydroelectric projects are low and power demand is high because everyone is running their electric fans at full-blast. In times like this, the state electric utility will selectively turn off power to certain areas based on a predetermined schedule. This is known as load shedding. The power will go off for a couple of hours in the morning and a couple more hours in the afternoon, say from 10:00 AM to noon and again from 2:00 to 5:00 PM. Load shedding is annoying and inconvenient to be sure, but it’s not the worst that can happen. Since the individual outages are not very long and are predictable, it isn’t too hard to adapt to load shedding.

In California, not having enough capacity is almost never the issue. Only very rarely (and I mean once in every twenty years rarely) does the electric utility PG&E not have enough electricity to supply all of its customers. Instead, what makes PG&E turn power off is a red flag warning, or fire weather.

Fire season in California strikes in the late summer and fall. The most dangerous weather pattern in fire season is a windstorm with very low humidity. In these conditions, any fire that starts can spread uncontrollably. When this type of weather is in the forecast, the National Weather Service issues a red flag warning. Since power transmission equipment is a risk factor for starting fires, PG&E has taken to shutting off power preemptively during red flag warnings in order to avoid setting a fire and being held responsible for it.

I should point out here that while power transmission equipment has started several fires in recent years, PG&E is not the only starter of fires. Other ignition sources include fireworks, ill-advised campfires, and something that is legally considered an act of God: lightning. Most notoriously, PG&E equipment started the Camp Fire two years ago, which destroyed the town of Paradise in Butte County and killed 85 people. Although it seems to me that a poor alert system is partly to blame for the tragedy, PG&E has taken all the blame for it. Thus, when PG&E shuts off the power during red flag warnings, it does so as much for legal reasons as for humanitarian reasons of protecting lives and property.

Enter the PSPS, the Public Safety Power Shutoff. After the weather service issues a red flag warning, PG&E will announce a potential PSPS, giving details on the affected area and expected times for power shutoff and restoration. And then we are on our own to prep for the coming mini-apocalypse. We get out our flashlights, candles, and oil lamps. We take hasty showers and fill up jugs of water, because no electricity means there will be no power for the pump on the well. Those of us who have generators make sure they have enough gasoline. We wolf down leftovers from the fridge and get out dried food. And we wait for the lights to go out.

When the power goes out, the lights flicker off and the hum of the refrigerator dies down, to be replaced in short order by the rumble of the neighbors’ generators.

The average PSPS lasts about 48 hours, give or take. The power goes out in the evening before the windstorm strikes, and all that night the wind howls through the trees. The next morning, fallen leaves and branches are everywhere, and the neighborhood is a-rumble with the sound of generators. The power is off for the entire day, and it remains off throughout the night and into the morning and afternoon of the third day. The power comes back on in the late afternoon or early evening of the third day, as much as two full days after it went off.

Everyone who lives in a PSPS-affected area has learned tricks for how to survive the outages. I bake bread before outages and set aside backpacking food to eat for supper. Before the power goes out, I fill up a bucket of water to use for a bucket-bath on the day without any power at all. I’m lucky that my gas stove works without power (I just have to light it manually), and the thermostat in the gas furnace has a battery, so it works as well. I also have an office that gets power from an on-campus generator and cogeneration plant.

Despite the tricks, every PSPS is an ordeal. A two-day PSPS in Napa County is so much harder to manage than a load-shedding event of a couple hours’ duration in the Garo Hills. The interminable length of every PSPS is of course a factor, as is the stress of wondering where the next fire will start and when you will have to evacuate your house. Probably the most serious factor, though, is the industrialized culture of productivity in the United States. We set very high expectations for ourselves, and in order to meet them we have to be productive all the time. Thus it is stressful or infuriating when the power is out at night and we can’t catch up on emails or grading or whatever else we have to do. A culture less obsessed with productivity would make PSPS events more tolerable.

Fire season in California ends in November when the rains come. It is always a relief when the rain arrives at last.

Umiam Dam (part 2)

Although originally scheduled for completion in early 1963, the Barapani (or Umiam) Hydroelectric Project did not come online until June 1965. The dam was built by a combination of hand labor and imported American heavy machinery, such as bulldozers and backhoes. An American loan of $2.5 million covered the foreign exchange costs of the project, for the purchase of construction machinery as well as the turbines. The in-country costs of the project were $13.1 million, which were also covered by an American loan.1

The Barapani project was the second hydroelectric project undertaken after independence in Assam. The first was the Umtru Hydel Project, lower down in the Khasi Hills. The project, completed in 1957, was financed by Canadian capital from the Colombo plan. A run-of-river project, the dam relied on the flow of the Umtru River to turn its turbines for producing electricity.2 Umtru Dam was not capable of producing consistent levels of power throughout the year, because the flow of the Umtru River varied seasonally. Since snow never falls in the Khasi Hills, the area’s rivers rely entirely on rainfall. During the rainy season months, from around April to October, the rivers run high with heavy rainfall. But during the dry season, with no rain to feed them, the rivers sink and slow considerably.

The Barapani project offered a solution for the rivers’ unreliability. The project’s one concrete dam and two earthen dams plugged the bottom of the Umiam River’s gorge, creating a reservoir that could store water during the dry winter months. The power station was not located within the dam itself, but farther downhill, at an elevation 560 feet lower than the water intakes in the reservoir. A 1.5-mile conduit piped the water down to the power station. This arrangement provided greater head (pressure) for the turbines. After passing through the imported Japanese turbines of the first stage of the Umiam project, the water was diverted into the Sumer Stream, a tributary of the Umtru River. The Umiam reservoir thus provided a consistent water supply for both the Umiam and Umtru hydroelectric projects.3

The Umiam Hydroelectric Project was included in India’s Second Five-Year Plan, and it was overseen by the Assam state government. This project—like the scores of other projects included in Nehruvian India’s Plans—was imposed from the top by elites. Although the project was located in a rural area, most of the local population had little stake in it besides serving as laborers during construction. The primary customers of the project were not the rural inhabitants of the Meghalaya Plateau, but the mills and factories that were also a part of India’s top-down development plans. Most of the sources I have found on the dam mention only the use of electricity for industry. So far, I have found just one source that even mentions the prospect of rural electrification.4

Fifty years after its construction, the Umiam Dam still stands in its ravine high in the Khasi Hills. A series of additional stages to the project have added further generating stations downhill. Despite the increased generating capacity, the Umiam project has not been able to keep up with rising demand. At times of peak power demand, particularly in the summer months, the Meghalaya state electric utility must selectively cut power. These scheduled blackouts have become a fact of life in areas served by power from Umiam Dam. The project provided power to an under-served part of India, but it could not keep up with increased demand due to population and industrial growth.

Aerial view of Umiam Reservoir in January 2010.

Aerial view of Umiam Reservoir in January 2010.

  1. Agency for International Development, Program and Project Data Related to Propose Programs – FY 1965: Near East and South Asia (Washington, DC, 1964), 84; USAID Mission to India, The United States Contribution to Indian Development (New Delhi, 1966), 34. []
  2. “Canada and the Colombo Plan: The Umtru Project,” External Affairs 9 (1957), 241-43. []
  3. Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Indian Railway Gazette 62, no. 9 (1964), 239. []
  4. The source that mentions rural electrification is “State Electricity Board and Its Work,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []

Umiam Dam (part 1)

On January 8, 1960, at the town of Aswan in southern Egypt, President Gamal Abdel Nassar of the United Arab Republic formally initiated construction of the Aswan High Dam. In front of a crowd of foreign dignitaries flown in from Cairo for the occasion, Nassar pushed a button to trigger charges of dynamite along the river half a mile away. The resulting explosions began to open the first diversion canal for the waters of the Nile. The Soviet Union, which had financed the construction of the dam with a starting loan of $93 million, was represented at the festivities by Ignati T. Novakov, the Soviet Minister of Electric Power Station Construction. The total cost for the 12,500-ft dam was then estimated at $1 billion.1

The next day, 3600 miles away, a similar scene played out in the Khasi Hills of northeast India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, on a three-day tour of the northeastern state of Assam, dedicated the construction of the Barapani Hydroelectric Project on the Umiam River. Like Nasser, Nehru pushed a button to set off the first explosive charge of the project. Scheduled for completion in 1963, the project included a 580-ft concrete dam and two earthen dams designed to create a reservoir in a ravine of the Umiam River.2

The Aswan High Dam justifiably attracted international attention from the project’s inception in the 1950s. Nasser promoted the dam as a symbol of postcolonial Egypt’s entry into the modern age. The project was—and still is—famous as a major engineering work; modern technology had finally gained the ability to tame the ancient caprices of the Nile. The project also gained notoriety for displacing local populations by flooding their homelands, and for inundating ancient Egyptian cultural sites. UNESCO launched a publicized, and ultimately successful, attempt to cut apart and relocate the monument of Abu Simbel, but other unexplored cultural sites were lost under the Nile.

By comparison, the Barapani or Umiam project received mostly local attention, as it was just one of scores of dam projects initiated during Nehru’s tenure as prime minister. The river Umiam was little-known outside of northeast India, and the project was comparatively small. Nevertheless, the Umiam project reveals much about its time period. The project brings together many recurring themes of the industrialization of India during the Nehru era. These include transfer of technological artifacts from highly-developed nations (in this case, the United States and Japan) to India; transfer of technological expertise to India; displacement of local populations by development projects imposed by societal elites; and the need for foreign funds to build the dam. Unlike Aswan High Dam, Umiam Dam was financed almost completely by American capital, in the form of PL-480 and DLF loans. (These were later consolidated under USAID – the United States Agency for International Development.) The Umiam project was one of the first Indian development projects financed to such a large degree by American capital. The Barapani Hydroelectric Project illustrates how development projects in Nehru’s India used foreign capital and equipment to create new Indian technologies.

(In the next post I will describe the Umiam project in detail.)

  1. “Nasser Starts Construction of Aswan Dam on the Nile,” New York Times, January 9, 1960. []
  2. “Nehru Envisages Assam’s Great Future; Umiam Hydel Project Inaugurated,” Assam Tribune, January 10, 1960; “Umiam Hydel Project,” Assam Tribune, January 9, 1960. []

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