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Simplistic assumption: a global power grid can solve all our energy problems

By Shankar Sharma* 

This has reference to an opinion piece on international power grid to optimise our solar power use, “How an International Power Grid Will Help Optimise Our Solar Power Use" . This article seems to have been based on the simplistic assumption that a global power grid can solve all our problems. It has looked at only the different international time zones as the solution, but has ignored the economics, logistics, environmental costs, credible risk of failure of such long transmission corridors, over-dependence on energy from far off places, the dilution of security/ self reliance etc.
Through the extension of such an assumption, the article seems to advocate for a global power grid, which means connecting nooks and corners of the globe to a common international grid; which basically means an enormously big and hugely complex power grid, which can witness collapse of power supply to many countries at the same time because of power outage in one country or region. There can be many reasons for such a grid collapse: electrical fault in one or more sections of the rid; physical damage to one or more elements of the grid; solar storms; terror attacks or sabotage; war link situation as is being witnessed in the gas pipeline passing through Ukraine to West Europe; sand storms or hurricane winds etc.
A high-level understanding of the modern integrated power grid should indicate that because of the increased complexity and the enormous power capacity being handled in such integrated networks, a fault in one part can spread out to other parts quickly, thereby affecting many parts, and leading to power outages for a number of hours, and even over few days as happened in the case of New Zealand in Feb. 1998 and in the US and Canada in August 2003. Under certain weather conditions such as freezing cold (as in Texas in 2021) and very hot conditions, such prolonged power outages can also mean huge loss of life and property. In the case of nuclear reactors such prolonged outages can also lead to poisoning of reactors and/or catastrophic radiation leakages, as happened in Fukushima (2011).
In recent years even an advanced economy such as the US and Europe have experienced an increasing number of annual outages, despite having a vast interconnected grid. It is reported that whereas between 1965 and 2000 there was on average one major blackout every two years in the US, between 2001 and 2011 this figure was one major blackout every six months. There have been examples of blackouts in other countries also. Chronic deficit and/ or poor management of the power demand/ supply situation in India can only aggravate such problems due to the ever increasing extent and complexity of the grid.
The advocacy on the international grid by the article also seems to have been based on the wrong perception that every load on the grid or every electricity application connected to the grid needs to have power supply 24 hours a day at the same level of reliability. There is no reason why agricultural pump-sets (which constitute about 25% of India's annual electricity consumption) need power supply during nights; or why the street lights and other public lighting need electricity during the day time. There are many such applications which will not need 24 hour supply or a very high level of reliability. One should not ignore the total cost to the society of setting up a robust and reliable international grid.
There is also the wrong perception that our societies can afford to provide for an ever increasing electricity demand on the grid. Nature's limite to cater to our needs cannot be ignored. Ever increasing electricity demand will make even such international connections inadequate/ ineffective.
The advocacy on the international grid also ignores the goal of self -reliance or Atma Nirbharata, with the consequence of reduced energy security. Like the import dependence of petroleum products to the extent of 80-85% it will not be in the interest of our communities to depend on even 20-25 % imports of electrical energy.
This perceived need for an integrated national/ international grid in order to meet even the legitimate demand for electricity has already made it acceptable to build power transmission lines even through dense forests and mountains at enormous ecological costs in our country. The planning to build high voltage lines from Chhattisgarh to Kerala and Goa through the thick forest of Western Ghats, and from Northeastern states to Agra etc. only to transfer mass quantities of power, is premised on such a wrong perception, while ignoring various associated societal costs, especially the ecological costs.
When we objectively consider Indian conditions and the results of multiple simulation studies and practical examples available from across the globe, the larger concept that suitable capacity battery energy storage system can be installed in every sub-station of 11kV and 33 kV voltage rating keeping in view the magnitude of RE capacity connected to such substations, and enabled through suitably designed protection and communication technologies, should be satisfactory for our country. Such a scenario, based on small and medium sized RE sources, such as roo-top solar systems and wind turbines, community based bioenergy systems enabled through micro/smart grids, will help to address various technical and logistical issues in order to minimise the need for large size solar/ wind power parks, and the associated dedicated transmission lines. It is techno-economically feasible that small and medium size RE installations, such as roof top SPVs, small/ medium size land based solar/ wind turbines, community based RE systems, can meet the majority of the national electricity demand, especially the demand of a major percentage of the number of consumers.
When we objectively consider the wide geography of our country, and the fact that on an average the solar insolation in India is quite high as compared to the global average, our needs for electricity can be satisfactorily met without having to add massively to the existing integrated grid because of the humongous potential in RE within the country.
What is critical in this regard is a holistic view of the true welfare of our communities, strengths and constraints of the country, and a set of suitable policy initiatives to enable highest possible efficiencies, suitable demand side management, and honest efforts on energy conservation. A narrow perspective on the basis of technical consideration alone and/or the excitement associated with a grandiose technological scenario cannot result in the optimal benefits for our communities.
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*Power & Climate Policy Analyst

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