Hydropower offers a cheap, fast and sustainable solution to meet peak demand given the low variable cost and the availability of many perennial rivers
As ecological concerns arise, developing hydropower projects has increasingly become difficult
The human and ecological tragedy in the aftermath of a glacier burst near Raini village above Rishi Ganga river in Uttarakhand has once again raised the spectre of hydropower projects in the ecologically-fragile and earthquake-prone Himalayan region. Mint explores the rationale behind India’s energy planners’ dependence on hydropower in India’s energy mix.
Experts say this trade-off can’t be an either-or scenario because growth and environment protection needs to be balanced, as India works towards bridging its energy poverty.
India, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, plans to add 45 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity to its energy basket. Unless low-cost grid scale battery storage solutions are available, hydropower projects are ideal to meet peak load compared to thermal power plants because of their ability to provide electricity to the grid within three to five minutes from being switched on. These plants can be swiftly turned on and off, compared to thermal power plants, which take around four hours to be brought online if the boilers are lit and a day in the event of a cold start. In comparison, gas-fuelled projects take around 30 minutes to come online. Also, India does not have large natural gas production capacity.
“As long as any other viable means of generation with faster ramp rate is not available hydropower would be necessary for stabilization of the grid. The efforts to reduce the technical minimum operation level for thermal projects to say 30% or less may reduce this dependence to some extent , subject to its commercial viability. With the infusion of solar energy coming in a big way in near future, the grid would need a backup power of a quality that only hydropower can provide," said Balraj Joshi, former chairman and managing director of state-run NHPC Ltd, India’s largest hydropower generator.
Such a flexibility helps the national power grid withstand fluctuations caused by intermittent supplies from solar and wind. Also, in such a scenario, storage holds the key to providing on-demand electricity from wind and solar projects. With hydropower being green to the extent that it does not cause emissions, India is increasingly looking at hydro pump storage schemes for utility-scale projects to solve its energy storage problems. The idea is to use cheap green power during off-peak hours to raise water to a height and then release it into a lower reservoir to generate electricity. This has gained traction as hydropower is seasonal, with the river flow impacted during winters.
This assumes importance given the country has a 450GW renewable energy target by 2030 to help reduce its carbon footprint by 33-35% from the 2005 levels as part of its commitments to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopted by 195 countries in Paris in 2015. An investment of ₹4.7 trillion has already been made in India’s renewable energy space in the last six years, with an expected ₹1 trillion investment opportunity annually till 2030.
Then comes the strategic imperative wherein the control on river water flow acts as a force-multiplier during times of aggression. In what is becoming increasingly evident, with an eye on Pakistan, India is expediting strategically important hydropower projects in Jammu and Kashmir following the reorganization of the terror-hit state. India plans to fully-utilize its share of water under the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960 and the task is seen as strategically vital in the context of China developing the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the region.
India is also grappling with the issue of China’s ambitious $62 billion south-north water diversion scheme of the rivers that feed downstream into the Brahmaputra, known in China as the Yarlung Tsangpo. With hydropower set to play a key role in the development and integration of India’s north-east region with the mainland, the Union government has been trying to pull out all stops for projects in Arunachal Pradesh to pre-empt threats caused by Chinese plans, by establishing its prior use claim over the waters.
“Then is the socioeconomic impact of the hydropower projects that are situated in far off remote places with no other development activity there," said Joshi.
Of the 2,880km length of the river Brahmaputra, 1,625km is in Tibet, 918km in India, and 337km in Bangladesh. Of the eight river basins in Arunachal Pradesh, Subansiri, Lohit, and Siang are of strategic importance as they are closer to the border with China.
Environmentalists, on their part, have maintained that efforts to raise the bogey of “national security" could result in irreversible environmental damage.
A case in point is the 900MW Nyamjang Chhu hydroelectric project in the Zemithang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, which is home to the endangered black-necked crane (Grus nigricollis). It spends its winters in Zemithang, where the local Monpa tribe reveres it as the embodiment of the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, a Monpa. The area is also the habitat of the red panda, the Himalayan black bear, the musk deer, and medicinal plants and rare orchids.
With the average number of extreme weather events seeing a sharp spike each year, concerns are valid and haven’t been properly addressed. Also, as ecological and social sensitivity increases, developing hydropower projects is increasingly becoming difficult, with large multilateral lenders being averse to such projects.
“Hydropower remains a valuable and clean energy resource for the grid provided its ecological and social challenges are reliably addressed. It provides flexible balancing power, helps accommodate higher levels of variable renewable energy and has long operating life over which its costs decline," said Shubhranshu Patnaik, senior director at Deloitte.
Hydropower has long been a subject of controversy in states such as Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh. The Sunday incident also comes in the backdrop of the Sikkim earthquake in September 2011 and the Uttarakhand floods in 2013, which had raised questions about India’s hydropower development.
Uttarakhand nestles in the ecologically fragile and earthquake-prone Himalayan region but at the same time, it has unleashed a rapid phase of development, much of it driven by hydropower projects. In Uttarakhand, around 70 hydro projects, including existing, under-construction and proposed dams, are located on two river basins alone, the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda.
Around 100GW of electricity potential in India’s rivers is lying untapped because of high tariffs. At present, hydropower tariff is more expensive than other sources. Discoms are reluctant to sign power purchase agreements (PPAs) for hydropower because of higher tariff, particularly, in the initial years. They are driven by the logic that the average tariff from NHPC’s hydropower projects is around ₹3.34 per kilowatt-hour (kWh). In comparison, wind and solar power tariffs have plunged to record lows of ₹2.43 per unit and ₹1.99 per unit respectively.
Also, hydropower projects come with their own set of problems. Executing them is time-consuming and tedious and construction requires thorough survey and investigation, detailed project reports, specialized technology and design, besides environmental clearances. It is easier to construct hydro projects in the lower reaches that are ecologically stable compared to higher altitudes.
“Hydropower could be a solution for the evening peak given the low variable cost and availability of many perennial rivers within the Indian subcontinent, provided we are able to adequately address three key challenges. These are environmental issues such as impact on flora and fauna and project-affected people, high capital costs, which is upwards of $1 million per MW and long gestation period of well over seven years," said Rajesh Ivaturi, partner, power and utilities at EY India.