Tragedy of the Commons: Massive India Blackout Edition

From the NYT:  Half of India Crippled by Second Day of Power Failures

Multiple jurisdictions drawing against a regional or national power supply is a clear case of the Tragedy of the Commons.

Surendra Rao, who was the chairman of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission in 2001, when the nation’s last major blackout occurred, said that a fairly sophisticated system of circuit breakers should have prevented the failures on Monday and Tuesday. But, he said, the people manning the circuit breakers are bureaucrats beholden to state government officials, who are loath to have the power in their locality shut off — the usual prescription when power surges threaten the national grid.

It’s similar to the situation for a flooding river.  Breaching a levee somewhere would lower the crest and reduce the risks everywhere, but why be the one to make the sacrifice when you can hold out and hope it happens somewhere else first?

Surely every one of these technicians and bureaucrats had a vigorous explanation why it would be completely unfair if their state were the one to shut down, saving the national grid.  And so almost 10% of the world’s population is now in a power blackout, the largest ever.

A Scientist Wonders: since India burns a lot of coal will the air in northern India be noticeably clearer while this continues?

A Prediction:  It will takes days (or longer) to restore power everywhere, following lots of shouting, sackings, finger-pointing and responsibility avoidance.  Since the elites and businesses that rely on power have already established their own emergency generating systems, follow through on any promises of improvement to the grid will be minimal. Everyone will agree it’s a tragedy of lost opportunity, but quickly go back to shrugging their shoulders when the lights flicker.

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