[Podcast] GigaWhat: Upgrading the backbone of India’s power sector

Transmission lines near a windfarm in Tamil Nadu. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

Transmission lines near a windfarm in Tamil Nadu. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

  • India will need to upgrade and expand its transmission infrastructure to evacuate the power generated at the solar and wind farms and feed it into the national electricity grid.
  • To reach 450 GW of renewable energy capacity and install the associated transmission infrastructure by the end of this decade, India needs an additional investment of about Rs. 17 lakh crores or 17 trillion rupees. The transmission infrastructure itself needs two trillion rupees.
  • Experts say that fixing issues like lack of coordination between the Central and state governments and finding solutions for local challenges, will help upgrade the transmission infrastructure – which is the backbone of India’s power sector.

The transmission infrastructure is the backbone of India’s power sector as the power generated from different plants, passes through the transmission structures to reach the consumers. India’s transmission infrastructure is vast and wide-spread. However, to meet the 450 gigawatt (GW) renewable energy target by 2030, as committed by India at the climate conference COP26 in Glasgow last year, the transmission infrastructure would need significant upgrades. This also requires huge investments.

With solar and wind farms expanding and new farms coming up in different parts of the country, it is crucial to pay attention to the transmission networks. Without adequate transmission infrastructure to evacuate the generated power, a solar park or a wind farm can turn loss-making. And if the available transmission system cannot absorb the renewable power generated for any reason, it again leads to the loss of numerous resources and investments.

In this episode of GigaWhat, Mongabay-India Contributing Editor and the podcast host, Mayank Aggarwal, speaks with Balwant Joshi (Managing Director of Idam Infra) and Deepak Krishnan (Associate Director for WRI India’s Energy Program) to learn about India’s transmission infrastructure.

Listen here:

Full transcript:

You are listening to Everything Environment by Mongabay-India

Mayank Aggarwal (MA): We are all familiar with this buzzing sound. It’s the kind you hear from high-voltage power lines connecting large transmission towers spread across our landscapes.

Power generated from coal power plants, solar parks, wind farms, dams and other sources passes through these transmission networks and substations to eventually reach the end users. This whole transmission infrastructure can be seen as the backbone of our energy system. Day-by-day, the share of renewable power entering this system is increasing. If all goes according to the plan, 50 percent of India’s power capacity by 2030 will be met by non-fossil fuel sources.

However, the solar and wind farms coming up or expanding to meet this renewable energy goal are largely concentrated within a few states. To evacuate the power generated here and feed it into the national electricity grid, to be distributed across all regions, India will need to upgrade and expand its transmission infrastructure. Renewable energy will have to flow within each state and also through multiple states. Solar power generated in Rajasthan could contribute to the energy demand of an industry near Delhi and the wind power emerging from Tamil Nadu could power Hyderabad.

But to reach 450 GW of renewable energy capacity and install the associated transmission infrastructure by the end of this decade, India needs an additional investment of about Rs. 17 lakh crores or 17 trillion rupees. The transmission infrastructure itself needs two trillion rupees! That’s two, followed by 12 zeros. But there isn’t enough money flowing for the development of transmission infrastructure, according to a parliamentary committee.

Without adequate transmission systems in place, renewable energy plants can turn into stranded assets. And that’s a fear for project developers and investors.

In this episode of GigaWhat, we’ll hear about the role of transmission infrastructure, the need to strengthen this backbone of the energy sector and some of the pain points.

I’m Mayank Aggarwal, Contributing Editor at Mongabay-India. We are an online publication dedicated to bringing you stories on science and the environment in India.

In our special podcast series, GigaWhat, we’ll explore some of the biggest questions, challenges, and opportunities in India’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources.

Balwant Joshi (BJ): You see those large overhead lines, tall overhead lines, those are typically transmission lines. And the transmission lines could be anywhere from 33 KV to 66 kV to 765 KV, 1000 kV, so, which are very, very high voltage transmission lines that are constructed.

Balwant Joshi is the Managing Director of Idam Infra, who has over 25 years of experience in the energy, utilities and infrastructure sectors.

BJ: If you’re passing below that, you can hear a very typical noise while passing by. These are cross-country lines, some of the lines you will see running from, say, in Maharashtra Chandrapur to Mumbai. There could be lies that would run from Bhutan, that is outside the country, to Delhi or cross country lines between the big eastern regions to the northern regions. And so, these are the lines which carry a large quantum of power through the overhead lines at a very, very high voltage you can’t think of going anywhere near those conductors, transmission lines. So, this is the network of such transmission lines that are used to carry a large quantum of power from the generating stations to the load centers.

BJ: Once the line is constructed, any parallel infrastructure you’re trying to create is going to create inefficiencies and going to increase the overall cost. Once it is structured, once it is constructed, it’s going to be there and we have to make the best possible use of that particular infrastructure. So, that’s a very peculiarity of any network, network infrastructure – be it power transmission, be it roads, be it water, be it a gas pipeline.

MA: Hence, the transmission business is considered a ‘natural monopoly.’

India has one national grid connecting five regions: the north, the south, the east, the west and the northeast. All power generators – coal-powered plants, solar parks and so on feed power to this grid. Balwant says that India has a robust transmission network that has allowed electricity to reach most parts of the country.

We also spoke to Deepak Krishnan, Associate Director for WRI India’s Energy Program to know more about transmission infrastructures.

Deepak Krishnan (DK): Transmission also fulfils certain key roles, particularly in ensuring the reliability of the network. Now, let’s say you are located in one part of the country and you have a set of generators to whom you have contracted to, if one of them developed some problems. If you are part of a larger transmission network, you will always have additional generators that can be called into service to meet immediate needs.

DK: The advantage of transmission is the flexibility needed, which in the context of renewable energy, it’s very crucial. Particularly, if the spread of your network is across a very large area, you can take advantage of time differences, where renewables are active in one part of the particular region.

MA: Transmission lines also connect India to its neighbours – Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. The Green Grid Initiative announced by India and the United Kingdom at the UN climate conference COP26, last year, further aims to connect about 80 countries. So, even if the Sun has set in one country, the grid can be powered by solar, because the Sun is up somewhere else.

Clearly, as the amount of renewable energy produced increases, the need to absorb all this new power efficiently into the transmission network becomes integral.

A map of the proposed and under-construction power lines of India well illustrates the requirement. These power lines are concentrated in parts of Rajasthan, Rann of Kutch and some regions in south India such as Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. These are the states that have the most solar and wind potential. The lines are also dense in the northeastern states due to the hydropower projects in the pipeline. You can get a link to this map in the show notes.

BJ: So the overall robustness of the transmission infrastructure in my view, that exists. The specific challenge is the evacuation of power lines. There is a connectivity issue on the generation side, especially the renewable energy generating plants, which are coming up in the nook and corner of the country and for whom there is no easy connectivity available.

MA: Without adequate transmission infrastructure to evacuate the generated power, a solar park or a wind farm can turn loss-making. And if the available transmission system cannot absorb the renewable power generated for any reason, it again leads to the loss of numerous resources and investments.

BJ: As far as the RE project is concerned, it can be constructed both solar and wind within 18 to 24 months. The time required for a gestation period, what we call – the construction of the transmission line, is longer.

MA: It can range anywhere from three years and beyond.

BJ: The reason is the transmission line has to acquire ‘right of way.’ So, they have to acquire small parcels of land to construct transmission towers, to be able to carry the transmission lines.

MA: Currently, renewable energy occupies 40 percent of India’s installed power capacity. This large share of power can be transported to different states through inter-state power lines for meeting the energy demands of the country and for full utilisation of the resources. But according to the International Energy Agency, one of the significant barriers hindering a large increase in the interstate trade of power is the lack of transmission capacity.

The increasing transmission investments translate into increasing transmission charges which also puts pressure on end-user electricity tariffs.

MA: Transmission infrastructure is installed across long distances and often cuts through areas with rich wildlife and plantlife or lands that support peoples’ livelihoods. The time and investments needed to build these can be higher.

DK: If you ask a developer, they will definitely say that environmental concerns are hampering the building of these lines. And I’m sure both of us and our listeners would keep the great Indian bustard rulings by the Supreme Court in mind.

Read more: A new study from Karnataka evidences the impact of windfarms on biodiversity

MA: One of the looming threats for the roughly 150 remaining Great Indian Bustards in India is the rapidly increasing energy infrastructure. The birds collide and die due to the high-voltage transmission lines crisscrossing through their habitats.

You can hear more about this bird and the threat it faces from the clean energy sector in our third episode, Renewables Go Reckless.

In April 2021, India’s Supreme Court directed the governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat to consider laying all power lines underground in the birds’ existing and potential habitats. Power developers and even the Centre resisted this order.

DK: If you take a look at projects within a city, for instance, where there is an extra flyover that needs to be built or some elevated section of the metro, then people are actually willing to realign, or change from overhead to underground. And all those modifications they are willing to do as far as transmission lines are concerned.  But when it comes to biodiversity, the hard infrastructure, the tangible value is not being perceived.

People seem to be taking this argument that it adds to the cost of renewable energy projects, and therefore, it’s hampering the growth of renewable energy. I don’t think that is a valid excuse anymore just because we are not able to evaluate or put numbers to what biodiversity means on a balance sheet, that doesn’t mean that those considerations need to be whisked away. I think some amount of cost needs to be added on if it has to be added on, then we’ll have to find some ways to pay for it.

MA: In order to strengthen intra-state transmission and evacuate large-scale renewable energy, the central government started the Green Energy Corridor project in 2015-16.

Under Phase-I of this scheme, that’ll end in 2022, the target was to set up approximately 9,700 circuit kilometres (ckm) of transmission lines for the evacuation of about 24 GW of renewable energy in eight states: Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. With over Rs. 100 billion sanctioned, the projects are under various stages of completion.

In January 2022, Phase-II of this scheme was approved for setting up another 10,750 circuit kilometres (ckm) of transmission lines for the evacuation of 20 GW of renewable power in seven states – Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh.

While the schemes are ongoing, Balwant and Deepak emphasise that there’s often a lack of coordination and planning at the state level to build the infrastructure.

BJ: I think the challenge that is facing the industry  – both RE industry and the transmission industry is a little bit of lack of coordination. The planning philosophy has to change, the old planning philosophy of planning thermal projects, hydro projects and long transmission lines to give away to a very nimble planning framework for transmission.

Especially given that the gestation period for renewable energy projects is short (it’s 18 months to 24 months). So, the transmission has to keep pace with it. So as to ensure that there are neither stranded RE assets nor stranded transmission assets. And so, what is the main initiative that is required from the government side is a new planning framework, new planning philosophy and if required, new institutional structures. This issue is not as grave at the central level as it is grave at the state level.

BJ: So, we have to remember that there is something called the Central Electricity Authority at the national level, which does planning. Who does planning at the state level? there is no counterparty of the CEA at the state level. So, as a result of that, the planning is a little haphazard at the state level, we need a planning body at the state level which should coordinate with CEA which should coordinate with the state transmission utility and thus planning for transmission infrastructure in the state.

MA: Since renewable energy centres and the areas of demand can be far off, Balwant says that there are some ways to navigate issues related to long-distance transmissions.

BJ:  We are a large country. What we have been trying to do is that we are trying to develop one size fit all solutions for issues like transmission. What we need to do is that we need to identify the solutions which are specific to the local issues. Now, let’s take the case of the Andaman Nicobar Islands or the Lakshadweep Islands. You can’t have the transmission infrastructure as a solution. What we need to do is for renewable energy, we need to have good storage solutions – island-specific storage solutions and for which some benefit needs to be given.

Similarly, there are remote areas. Again, the transmission may not be the best solution. So, the solution would be to have some kind of off grid infrastructure that would help provide reliable power but at a lower cost. So, this is the challenge for the expanding renewable energy footprint across the country.

Also, what we need to do is that, we have a couple of states – look at Ladakh. One of the best solar resources exists in Ladakh, but most of the energy that is used in Ladakh is diesel. Similarly, what if you are able to figure out a way to bring that power to the northern states, that will be really helpful in balancing the grid. You don’t have to power the entire network through only Rajasthan or some of the western states, which are also developed. And as a result of that, the cost of the land is also very high over there. So, I think some compromises would be required in terms of how we look at a transmission expansion and how we look at solutions for transmission.

BJ: Second initiative that is required is enabling funding. While I talked about tariff-based competitive bidding.

MA: Under the tariff-based competitive bidding norms, the centre aims to encourage competition in the public and private sector for the development of transmission projects.

BJ: So, there are certain guidelines issued by the central government, but those have not been implemented at the state level. Many states have not declared that the tariff-based competitive bidding will be mandatory. I think that is something that needs to be done, which would enable creation of the transmission infrastructure in a faster way, in a competitive way and in the most economical way.

MA: Another issue for efficient transmission is that many states lack real-time solar and wind generation data, which results in either overproduction or underproduction of power.

The Centre created 11 Renewable Energy Management Centres and equipped them with advanced forecasting and visualisation tools to help grid operators.

DK: Renewable Energy Management Centres (REMCs) – so, these are units that would take data to demand from the users, what are the weather conditions and therefore make the projection on how much renewable energy is going to be available in a grid at a particular point of time. So that your grid operation is much more accurate. You don’t have sudden drops of renewable energy or for which you don’t have a contingency plan

So, I think that’s something which should have already happened, we are quite delayed on that.

DK: What is also missing, I feel, is including climate resilience while doing this planning. Of course, I’m not saying it has not happened at all. For instance, a lot of transmission infrastructure, in the cyclone-prone regions across, during the Northeast monsoon;  I believe that some amount of additional resilience is built in while constructing those towers.  But that’s something that needs to be mainstreamed a little bit more. So that all infrastructure related to transmission, and the overall grid becomes much more resilient.

MA: A resilient and robust transmission infrastructure will be the backbone of India’s clean energy dreams. So, it’s a crucial component of our goals to reduce carbon emissions too.

Please share this episode with your friends and family or on social media. This show was produced and scripted by my colleague Kartik Chandramouli. Edited and mixed by Tejas Dayananda Sagar. Copy edits by Priyanka Shankar. We got production assistance from Ayushi Kothari. And the GigaWhat artwork is by Pooja Gupta.

We’ll be out with another episode of GigaWhat soon. Take care.

Read more: Repowering Tamil Nadu’s aging wind farms to meet clean energy targets

Banner image: Transmission lines near a windfarm in Tamil Nadu. Photo by Priyanka Shankar/Mongabay.

Exit mobile version