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The Prime Minister has vowed that India will generate 175 GW through renewable energy sources by 2022 or even 2020; but those planning infrastructure to take this power to the people are only designing for 65 GW, at best

India's transmission and distribution plans proving to be a weak link in India's ambitious target of producing 175 GW by 2022 (Photo by Michael Foley)

India’s electricity grid structure is the weakest link in meeting renewable energy targets (Photo by Michael Foley)

Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, has repeatedly promised at home and abroad that the country will generate 175 GW of electricity through solar, wind and biogas by 2022, or even 2020. He has the same man, Piyush Goyal, in charge of the ministries of power (MOP) and of new and renewable energy (MNRE). Presumably, the idea is to improve coordination.

But while MNRE is going ahead to meet the ambitious 175 GW goal, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) of the MOP has transmission and distribution (T&D) plans that will take care of 65 GW of renewable energy (RE) by 2022, at best.

T&D has always been the weakest link in India’s power architecture, largely because almost all the distribution companies (Discoms) – owned by state governments – are bankrupt. Goyal’s flagship initiative Ujwal Discom Assurance Yojana (UDAY) is meant to solve this fundamental problem.

The CEA was recently asked to develop a perspective plan in two parts, one from now to 2022, and the second till 2036. In the first part, it calculated that by 2022 total generation from fossil fuel sources plus large hydropower would total 377.52 GW. But due to T&D losses, only about 210 GW of this would be available to consumers, while the peak load demand is estimated to be 239 GW.

This makes it even more imperative to use the RE sources. The CEA has considered the existing and upcoming wind farms and solar parks, and added these up to 65 GW by 2022. The plan does include a grid structure to take this power to the consumer. But it is silent on the other 110 GW that is supposed to be generated from RE sources by 2022. Where will that power go?

The CEA has not been able to include this in its plan because “states have failed to detail out their respective shares of RES for which the transmission lines have to be put up to evacuate the power,” says Pardeep Jindal of the authority.

Too much green power

In this situation, if India’s electricity grid actually gets more than 65 GW from RE sources, there will be major instability, increased by the very nature of RE. Generation from both solar and wind power goes up and down during the day, and usually that is not in sync with peak demand hours, which are 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. in India.

If there is no plan to store RE and manage the grid in a modern way, RE generation will have to be shut down at various times during the day. This is happening already. India’s Comptroller and Auditor General has pointed out that in 2014 in the southern grid alone, wind power generation companies lost INR 2,040 crore (USD 303 million) because they had to be shut down every now and then to prevent a grid collapse.

Since 2014, the government has had a 1 billion Euro (INR 7,450 crore or USD 1.1 billion) budget from the German development bank KfW to upgrade its intra-state RE grids. But only Andhra Pradesh has done any work on this, called the Green Corridor Programme. Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka have called tenders, and the rest are further behind.

Even if the programme gathers pace, the capacity being considered is far below the 175 GW goal. Realistically speaking, the programme cannot be upgraded until UDAY manages to pull the Discoms out of the red.

A technical committee of the MOP has actually pointed all this out in a report. The main problem it identifies is lack of money for T&D infrastructure development. Issues like power demand forecasting, supply scheduling and grid balancing require substantial upgradation of current practices and reforms. The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission and the Discoms have to play the major roles here, and they need huge investments.

Smart grids are already the norm in some countries, and there has been a lot of talk about them in India, but little action so far. The information technology prowess available in this country puts it in a good position to take the lead in smart grids.

New paradigm

Solar and biogas energy can be decentralised sources of electricity and can potentially do away with the need for T&D for many consumers. That is a new paradigm, and India’s policymakers do not seem ready for it yet. Till then, they need to move fast to smarten the grid if the Prime Minister’s vow is to be kept.

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