Sunday, January 24, 2010

Retrofit Technology

A friend asked me how modern-day high-tech India works in an infrastructure which remains kind of shaky. The key to the coexistence of these worlds is a strategy of local patches to fill gaps in the infrastructure.

The result is a sort of retrofit technology, that seems to work, at least for some people. Cellphones are the perfect example, of course. Cell phone coverage here in India is excellent. In the US, when the population density is too low, cell phone companies don't bother providing coverage. Of course, the residences and businesses in those areas have excellent landlines, put in place long before cell phones were invented. Here in India, cell phone coverage extends to regions of much lower population density, and provides coverage to regions that never had thorough landline coverage (and now, in all likelihood, never will have it). Prepaid cellphone plans are ubiquitous and cheap: you don't need to have credit to have a cell phone. To my mind, this is a particularly successful application of retrofit technology. Other aspects of RT work less well.

Take, for example, drinking water. The retrofit solution to problem of the drinking water not being pure enough for drinking is that most middle-class kitchens have a big water-cooler type jug of filtered water balanced on a dispenser on the kitchen counter. That's great, if you are middle-class.

How about power outages? Five-minute-long failures occur multiple times per day, and are symptoms of supply not being able to keep up with minor local peaks in demand. How can you do business, or research, in an environment like that? The main work-around is the Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS). Basically, a UPS is a rechargeable battery, with a dc-ac inverter built in. Plug something into a UPS, and it can ride out a power failure, at least if it doesn't last more than a few minutes. In the US, a UPS is a ultra-high-tech talisman, a pricey little bauble you buy only to hang around the neck of some awesomely important gadget. Here in India, UPS's are ubiquitous. Our apartment complex boasts a small gym with two electrically powered treadmills. Imagine jogging along on a treadmill and suddenly being plunged into blackness at the same time as the motor on the treadmill ground to a halt. No problem where we live: each treadmill is plugged into its very own UPS box. The other main retrofit work-around is the diesel "genset", a small diesel motor mounted together with a generator and a power conditioner on a pallet for easy transport. The electricity produced this way is very expensive per kwh, and generates a lot of emissions, but it is considerably more reliable than utility electricity.

The village fair I walked through in West Bengal remained open late into the night. It was lit by fluorescent lights temporarily hung from trees surrounding the field that served as a fairground and those lights as well as the PA system were all wired to a diesel genset, although utility power was available. At the meeting I was attending, dinner was served each night on tables set up on the lawn in front of the hotel. On several occasions, the power went out, and we sat in complete darkness except for the glow coming through the trees from the fairground. If anything, the music blaring from the PA systems (a mixture of devotional music specific to the Goddess to whom the fair was dedicated and dance numbers from Hindi musical movies) seemed to get louder during the power outages.

Big hightech companies in Bangalore will have two completely separate sets of power wiring in their buildings. One is an ordinary circuit, connected directly to the city utility lines, and one is the UPS circuits, backed up by batteries for the first few seconds of a power failure and by a many kW diesel generator that kicks in soon after. Computer infrastructure, telephone switchoards, and all fragile electronics are plugged into the UPS sockets. Of the office lighting in the ceiling, about one lamp in twenty is wired to the UPS, so it gets darker but not really black when the power goes out. One can basically work right through a power outage. OK, you can't make xerox copies, and over time you start to notice the lack of ventilation and AC, but failures rarely last long enough for there to be much inconvenience. I've yet to find out if the elevators are UPS wired.

The problem as I see it with all these work-around retro-fixes is that once someone or some company has made the investment, bought the UPS, the cell phone, the filtered water, those people stop providing the political pressure to get central infrastructure improved. If you can't afford a big bottle of water for your kitchen counter, or if you can't afford a kitchen counter -- many people live in shacks and get their water from public taps located here and there -- then you are out of luck.

I'll close this piece with a description of the single piece of technology I've found most striking since we came to India. In the Bengal village there is a long, low warehouse build along the river just before it reaches the sea. The fishing fleet offloads its catch here. Some of the catch is dried (odiferously) on racks by the beach, but some of of is stored under refrigeration in the warehouse. Out behind the warehouse is an enormous set of evaporator coils, open to the air, perhaps ten meters on a side and almost as tall. A circulating pump draws water out of the river and sprays it across the top layer of tubes in the evaporator. The water trickles down in a sort of 3-d waterfall, splattering noisly down, bouncing off and thoroughly wetting the outside of tube in the extensive network of coils, and cascades out the bottom to collect in a little pond there then flows back into river. Basically, it's a wet cooling tower, except without the tower (without the concrete shell around the outside). The rack supporting the condenser coils look homemade, in some cases reinforced with diagonal braces made of bamboo. The whole effect reminded me a little of the technology in the movie Mad Max.

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