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Smog fuels blackout concerns in north India

In this Nasa handout image, red outlines show the approximate locations of active burning. A multitude of fires spans more than 250km from east to west, and the smoke plume extends far to the south-east, obscuring the satellite’s view of Delhi. Although the smoke appeared to originate primarily from the agricultural fires, other factors such as urban and industrial smog may have contributed.  (In this Nasa handout image, red outlines show the approximate locations of active burning. A multitude of fires spans more than 250km from east to west, and the smoke plume extends far to the south-east, obscuring the satellite’s view of Delhi. Although the smoke appeared to originate primarily from the agricultural fires, other factors such as urban and industrial smog may have contributed. )Premium
In this Nasa handout image, red outlines show the approximate locations of active burning. A multitude of fires spans more than 250km from east to west, and the smoke plume extends far to the south-east, obscuring the satellite’s view of Delhi. Although the smoke appeared to originate primarily from the agricultural fires, other factors such as urban and industrial smog may have contributed.
(In this Nasa handout image, red outlines show the approximate locations of active burning. A multitude of fires spans more than 250km from east to west, and the smoke plume extends far to the south-east, obscuring the satellite’s view of Delhi. Although the smoke appeared to originate primarily from the agricultural fires, other factors such as urban and industrial smog may have contributed. )

Smog generated by the burning of husk by farmers in Punjab, Haryana may hit northern grid

New Delhi: Thick winter smog, an annual phenomenon in northern India blamed on vehicular pollution and worsened this year by the burning of husk by farmers in the breadbasket states of Punjab and Haryana as well as the after-effects of Cyclone Nilam, has put the region at risk of a blackout.

The states at risk of outages include Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, besides Punjab and Haryana, officials said.

India’s northern grid supplies 36,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity to these states, with the load management functions overseen by state-owned Power Grid Corp. of India Ltd (PGCIL). Several incidents of electric tripping have taken place in the past because of the smog, which has also reduced visibility in places like Delhi.

Insulators hold the key to avoid tripping. Fog and pollution can trigger blackouts. Fog makes power transmission lines moist; atmospheric pollution then sticks to the lines; over time, the lines become caked in dust, resulting in short circuits that lead to tripping. If unchecked, the result could be a collapse of the regional grid.

“We have changed insulators at our end. With the farmers in Punjab and Haryana burning husk, the northern states such as Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan should be more concerned as they haven’t changed insulators on their 220 kV (kilovolts) lines. On our end, things are fine as we have put polymer insulators," said R.N. Nayak, chairman and managing director of PGCIL.

“If the pollution is very high, it will cause problems as the lines within these states will start tripping," Nayak warned.

Grid frequency is a critical aspect of power system operations. Global standards require that grid frequency be kept close to 50 hertz (Hz), but power-short India has had a history of the frequency fluctuating from below 48Hz to above 52Hz, which led to innumerable grid collapses.

The risk of smog-related outages have surfaced in the backdrop of India’s worst blackout that left nearly 620 million people without electricity. On 31 July, the northern grid collapsed, and on 1 August, in a wider blackout, the northern, eastern and north eastern grids, too, broke down.

A spokesperson for the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said that apart from the high pollution levels, Cyclone Nilam that hit south India last week also exacerbated smog conditions.

“Such accumulation has been assisted by subsidence of air at lower levels over north-west India, light variable winds prevailing over Delhi up to 3,000-4,000m and moisture convergence from Cyclone Nilam, which crossed Tamil Nadu coast on 31 October," said S.C. Bhan, the spokesperson.

Anumita Roychowdhury of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment said that while cyclones and husk burning may have contributed to higher pollution this year, they were relatively insignificant compared to vehicular and industrial pollution generated by the capital city.

“...for over a decade, there’s been a marked increase in pollution and that’s almost entirely due to the pollution generated by the city (Delhi)," she said.

Interestingly, the four states most at risk of a blackout because of the smog were held responsible for the grid failure that was blamed on them drawing more than their share of electricity.

Load management functions are carried out by PGCIL’s subsidiary Power System Operation Corp. Ltd (Posoco). PGCIL owns and operates around 95,009 circuit km of transmission lines.

A grid collapse is the worst case scenario for any transmission utility; if this happens, states that draw power from that particular network go without power. India has five regional grids—northern, southern, eastern, north-eastern and western. All except the southern one are connected.

“We have already started the cleaning exercise on the main lines. We have a separate drill for it," said Posoco chief executive officer S.K. Soonee.

The most efficient way to clean these transmission lines is through helicopters.

“There is an explicit ban on the burning of agricultural waste. This is an enforcement issue on part of the states and apart from affecting the grid, it also has repercussions on environment, transportation among others," said Anish De, chief executive at Mercados Asia, an energy consulting firm.

However, there may be some respite with the latest forecast from IMD on 5 November stating that the smog would begin to clear soon. “Latest analysis shows an improvement of surface visibility conditions since afternoon of the 5 November, with visibility crossing 1,500m and 1,000m at 1600 IST at IGI and SFD, respectively. This analysis has been confirmed from IMD Model data and NASA satellite imageries," according to a press release from the department.

IGI refers to Indira Gandhi International Airport and SFD stands for Safdarjung Airport. NASA is the US space agency.

Jacob P. Koshy contributed to this story.

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