#5 - The unsung heroes of disaster response

In conversation with the weather and energy bosses who keep the lights on during cyclones and eclipses

#5 - The unsung heroes of disaster response

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories on energy and climate change in South Asia.

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Today I want to look at this week’s big story, Cyclone Nisarga, through a different lens. When natural disasters strike, we dread the chaos they bring. But backstage, a silent army of scientists expertly navigates that chaos so that our key infrastructure doesn’t collapse. Despite being in the thick of it on the day the storm made landfall, two top names agreed to walk me through their work - and share their views of the future.

India’s annus horribilis

  • India’s power planners are rarely praised for their efforts, but their sophisticated models keep the country going in times of need
  • Power distribution needs accurate weather forecasts to work, but will scientists keep up with an increasingly erratic climate?

If 2020 has been a testing year for pretty much everyone on the planet, India was dealt a particularly bad deck of cards. Starting with the spread of coronavirus that led to the world’s biggest lockdown, this year has seen unseasonal locust incursions and a super cyclone that crashed through the Bay of Bengal killing more than 80 people and displacing hundreds of thousands. Just three weeks later, another cyclone has made land on the west coast, where the state of Maharashtra is still under strict lockdown due to having the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country.

Monsoon rains in Mumbai - Wikimedia commons

Providing food, shelter and medical care to the victims have been the main priorities under these concurrent emergencies. But much of this would not be possible, or would have been immensely harder, had the backbone of any urban infrastructure - the power network - collapsed. No power means no phones and no signal to connect to the internet, which makes it difficult to dispatch aid. It means no air conditioning, no electricity for key machinery in hospitals, and no lights at night, at home or on the streets, which means they are less safe.

I’ve already looked at how the grid dealt with an unprecedented fall in demand during the lockdown, but today I wanted to hear how those who keep it running will see us through future crises like the ones we have seen in the past few weeks. I asked two bosses of the power and weather sector how they work together to keep the lights on.

Inside the forecast machine

It’s easy to think of a national grid like a network of cables: once they are connected you turn on the tap at the generation point and electricity flows ahead. But it’s not like that - an electricity grid needs to maintain stability, so whatever happens in a remote corner may mess things up for the whole system.

“We have a full model of the Indian grid”, says Sushil Kumar Soonee, a senior adviser at the Power System Operation Corporation (POSOCO), “and depending on the kind of situation we expect, we do a very exhaustive analysis,” mapping out the system down to the most remote line and generator. Power operators also keep an archive of past events that have challenged the grid’s stability - including cyclones and solar eclipses such as the one expected on June 21.

India has 29 states and hundreds of power generation and transmission companies that must be able to work as one, particularly at times of disturbance. “We talk to each one of them, check if our modelled scenarios and assumptions are OK or not,” Soonee says. “Based on this, we issue our advisories.” These are super detailed instructions on how to manage the grid as well as power plants, which may include shutting a certain line or giving preferential access to a certain type of energy. For example, during an eclipse, there has to be a back up ready for when solar power suddenly declines.

In preparation for the arrival of Cyclone Nisarga, the department has been working for weeks and back to back for the four days prior to the storm, to anticipate anything that may go wrong - for example if a power station is damaged, Soonee says.

All of this is very complex and takes time - grid operators could not respond on time without accurate predictions. Lucky for us, even the most erratic weather event can be predicted well in advance - provided the right systems are in place.

Tracking weather, adapting to the climate

The fluctuation of power demand and supply is constantly influenced by the weather, not just when extreme events occur, says Mrutyunjay Mohapatra, Director General of Meteorology at the India Meteorological Department (IMD). In fact, weather information helps run the country in many ways.

For example, if you want to plan for power distribution during monsoon season you will be interested to know whether this year’s monsoon will be standard or not, he says. “If the monsoon doesn’t bring much rain you will have hotter, more humid days,” he says, and people will need more energy for cooling. If the rains are plentiful, demand generally goes down, because homes will be cooler and more importantly fields won’t need artificial irrigation.

Forecasters can plan for both the long and short term, and when an extreme event comes they can predict its arrival long ahead, and zoom in to reveal how it will behave hour by hour as it approaches, Mohapatra says.

Surviving climate change

But what happens when climate change is thrown in the mix? We know for example that storms like Amphan, that intensify very rapidly, pose a big challenge to forecasters, and we are likely to see more of them in future. Scientists have even discovered that the ‘fingerprint’ of climate change is detectable even in day to day weather forecasts, something that seems to defy the mainstream distinction between weather and climate.

While we can’t be sure we will always be able to keep up with sudden changes in our weather, Soonee says, the meteorological infrastructure is more advanced and resilient than we think. “India keeps adding new monitoring equipment, including Doppler radars” which are used to detect precipitation with precision, “and collaborates with neighbouring countries, exchanging data and knowledge.” He says that as the climate changes, project and design criteria evolve with it - even the materials used for things like wind towers.

Climate change is an unsettling threat even for seasoned forecasters and power planners who have dealt with nationwide emergencies for decades. But maybe because uncertainty has been a familiar presence throughout their professional lives, they trust the systems they helped set up to be adaptive and responsive enough to challenges that are unthinkable today.

Hot in the region

For Developing Countries, More Solar Power– and More Lead Contamination - Anuradha Varanasi, The Wire

An important piece exploring the flip side of poorly managed development. In India, rooftop solar panels cannot be easily connected to the grid and need lead acid batteries to store power. But because there isn’t a disposal system in place, the discarded batteries end up in the open, polluting the ground with lead.

Govt launches real-time electricity market; here’s how it will change power landscape forever - Samrat Sharma, Financial Express

A brand new energy marketplace enables buyers and sellers across India to meet their energy requirements closer to a real-time operation. This new experiment is also meant to facilitate the circulation of clean energy as India inches towards its Paris renewable targets.

Hot from the world

Air pollution in China back to pre-Covid levels and Europe may follow - Damian Carrington and Niko Kommenda, The Guardian

The brief respite from air pollution we enjoyed during the lockdown has come to an end. Research shows that in China, the first to exit the lockdown after the national epidemic subsided, levels of fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide are back to what they were pre-Covid. Who’s next?

Putin declares emergency over 20,000 ton diesel spill - Mary Ilyushina, CNN

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a state of emergency in the Siberian city of Norilsk, after 20,000 tons of fuel spilled into a nearby river from a power station. A first appraisal of the disaster suggests that thawing permafrost linked to climate change may have played a part.

Black Environmentalists Talk About Climate and Anti-Racism - Somini Sengupta, New York Times.

It’s impossible to live sustainably without tackling inequality. As protests over the murder of George Floyd rage on in the US and beyond, the climate community reflects on why racism cannot be ignored when fighting environmental battles. See also Emily Atkin’s newsletter HEATED for more on this debate (and subscribe, it’s so good).

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