The only good thing about India’s daily blackouts is that when there’s a truly massive power outage, people are prepared for it.

Thus, when the power went out across eight northern Indian states early Monday morning, leaving some 370 million people in the dark, most of the critical facilities -- Delhi’s international airport, hospitals and police stations, large-scale commercial and industrial power users and higher-end homes and apartments -- were ready to go with backup generators.

But everyday people were stuck with no light, no heat, and no public transportation. Traffic jams snarled thoroughfares without traffic lights, rail commuters were stuck in stalled electric trains, and small businesses had to close.

Then, on Tuesday, things got worse, with a 20-state blackout that cut power for anywhere between 620 million and 680 million people -- about half of India’s population, or twice the number of people now living in the United States. This time around, some hospitals lost power, and coal miners were trapped by stalled equipment. Only about 40 percent of power was back up by mid-afternoon.

And while Monday’s outage was tied to demand outstripping supply, the government was still “absolutely clueless why this has happened again,” Shakti Sinha, principal secretary in the power department of the Delhi government, told The Washington Post of Tuesday’s outage. Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde blamed the new crisis on states taking more than their allotted share of electricity, and other officials said grid faults were likely to blame, but didn’t know where they were or how many may have occurred.

India’s Grid in Dire Need of Repair

Could smart grid technologies help solve the problems that caused these blackouts? We’ll have to wait for the official inquiry to come up with what went wrong before we can start answering that question -- though it’s likely that more grid monitors and sensors could make that fault detection task easier.

Beyond that, however, there’s a world of work to do. India’s grid is a mess, with money-losing economics, daily power outages, and technical and non-technical power losses (i.e., inefficiency and theft) that add up to 20 percent to 50 percent of all power generated, compared to the United States' (almost all technical) losses of 7 percent or so.

Like the United States and China, more than half of India’s power comes from coal-fired power plants, but in India’s case, it hasn’t been able to get enough coal lately, which has driven up prices. Meanwhile, a lack of rain has left the country’s hydroelectric dams -- some 19 percent of its generation mix -- without the water they need to generate power. Overall, India’s peak power demand has been outstripping supply by about 9 percent during the latest summer peaks, when air conditioning, a mark of an upwardly mobile lifestyle, starts to kick in.

All of that inefficiency and waste has a price. The Wall Street Journal reports that India’s poor infrastructure consistently shaves about 2 percent from its annual GDP growth. India’s fast-growing technology sector has had to build its own power plants, essentially, to make sure facilities don’t break down or sit idle. Most of that backup power comes from diesel generators, which are inefficient and pollute the neighborhoods they run in.

Smart Grid From the Bottom Up

But at the same time, all that backup power could be one key to unlocking India’s smart grid potential. Indeed, microgrids -- islands of power generation and consumption that can run themselves, or maybe help the grid when it’s stressed -- are how India’s grid is going to get smart, at least in the short term.

Microgrids can range from showcase technical campuses like Cisco and Wipro's Lavasa City “e-city” project outside Mumbai, to commercial-scale business offerings like the one Echelon is doing in a high-end residential development in Hyderabad. Most of India’s commercial and industrial buildings have backup power of some kind. Adding metering and control capabilities could help justify drawing that power more often -- perhaps preemptively to avoid stress during peak demand times.

It’s important to remember that the level of organization of projects like these is strictly 'behind the meter.' The economics of backup power require customers to worry about their own reliability first. Using them to help the grid solve its problems is, for now, awaiting more development on the utility side of the smart grid, Varun Nagaraj, Echelon’s senior vice president of product management, told me earlier this year.

Right now the mood is cautious for the grid giants working in India. IBM launched a big smart grid planning analytics system for the government’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency last year, and Guru Banavar, CTO of IBM’s Global Public Sector unit, told me this week that IBM is working with utilities in Delhi and elsewhere in India.

Still, “we’ve not reached the front where there’s a big information technology breakthrough,” he said. That’s mainly because the grid is so old and decrepit that it needs a massive government-led investment to get it up to speed. “At a campus level, there’s a lot more action going on,” he said, with IBM taking part in “Smart City” developments with a host of Indian governments.

Some grid projects are underway. In March, Siemens announced an 18.5 million euro ($24.3 million) contract to provide SCADA and distribution management systems for eight cities in the Indian state of Maharashtra, including Mumbai. The idea is to give the grid sensors and communications to detect faults, direct outage repairs and spot power theft, among other functions. Indian IT giants like Wipro, Infosys, HCL and TCS are deploying technology to support solar power arrays, campus-wide microgrids and the like.

But a grand-scale (read: billions of dollars) effort to tie India’s six grids together hasn’t been forthcoming, despite the formation of various central government forums and task forces. In March, a government consortium announced plans for $100 million in grants for smart grid projects. But since then, the government has scaled back its promise for $1 trillion in general infrastructure improvements, leaving the fate of the smart grid funding unclear.

Solar Power to the Rescue?

In the meantime, India’s potential to become the next hot solar power market may be cut short by an inadequate grid infrastructure. Dr. Murray Cameron, COO of Phoenix Solar AG, told us in May that India’s high-voltage grid was relatively stable, making large-scale solar farm integration tenable. But the "low-voltage grid is in a sad state [and] the medium-voltage grid is shaky,” he said. 

Perhaps solar-equipped microgrids could help solve the problem. India is emerging as a hotbed for off-grid solar power, with the potential for installing more than 1 gigawatt per year by 2016, according to GTM Research and Bridge to India. More than a third of the country lacks electricity at all, making rural micropower projects a big target.

But hospitals, factories, government buildings and apartment blocks could also generate their own power to help shave a portion of their power use, and thus cut down on peak overloads like the one suspected of causing this week’s disaster. Adding solar to a mix of generation, demand response and energy storage systems could make those systems self-supporting.

India’s government wants to boost solar power from today’s 1,000 megawatts to 20,000 megawatts by 2022. Still, solar’s economics face challenges in India, including a split between state government incentives for power and the prices that power is actually bought and sold at on the nation’s grid system, as The Economist pointed out in an April article. Whether solar power as a microgrid backup, rather than a grid resource, can make the economics work is a more difficult question to answer.