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Will future scenario of renewable energy sources minimize power blackouts in India?

By Shankar Sharma* 
Abstract: The grid stability crises that affected millions of people in Texas’s electric grid in US (Feb. 2021) demands us to seriously consider the pros/cons of blindly continuing to rely on an increasingly complicated and vulnerable national grid in India. Such a scenario becomes imperative in the context that such massive blackouts, which are not totally unknown in India, can result in massive economic and social impacts, and the fact that distributed kinds of renewable energy sources will become a major part of the power system in the near future. In view of the fact that the future will be one scenario of mostly renewable energy sources, which will not be in the magnitude of thousands of MW in single sites, and which has enormous potential for distributed kinds of RE resources (such as rooftop SPVs, community-based biomass units, small size wind turbines, energy storage batteries etc.) the real need for additional transmission lines and a complex integrated power grid should be diligently reviewed.
The grid stability crises in Texas’s electric grid in US (Feb. 2021) affected millions of people for 2-3 days, and led to the largest forced power outage in U.S. history. Total economic loss of more than $50 billion was reported. Such large-scale power blackouts are reported to be getting more frequent in the last few decades all over the world, and they are resulting in massive economic damages as well as enormous implications for the health and social welfare of communities, which are increasingly dependent on integrated grid-based power supply.
Such a scenario demands us to seriously consider the pros/ cons of blindly continuing to rely on an increasingly complicated and vulnerable national grid in India too. Such a due diligence has become imperative in the context that such massive blackouts, which are not totally unknown in India, have resulted in massive social and economic impacts to millions of highly vulnerable populations. As distributed kinds of renewable energy sources become a critical part of the power system in the near future, wherein the real need for high voltage power transmission lines will be minimum, the root cause of massive power blackouts can be addressed by examining the entire power demand/supply scenario in a holistic manner.
India’s power sector scenario:
Within a short span of 2-3 decades the country seem to have achieved a single national grid connecting all the states and Union Territories. “One Nation, One Grid” has become the aim for the central government. A large number of Extra High Voltage (400 kV), Ultra High Voltage (765 kV) and HVDC lines have been constructed, and many more are reported to be in planning/implementation stages. In this scenario, there are credible possibilities that disturbance in one state/region can quickly spread to other states/regions with disastrous consequences to the people and to the economy, as experienced in two blackouts in 2012.
Two power blackouts in the North and Eastern parts of the country on 31st July and 1st August 2012 have thrown up many issues to our society. The second blackout impacting three regions (Northern, Eastern and North Eastern regions) and covering 21 states was preceded by another blackout the previous day impacting fewer states in the northern region. The media have reported that about 600 Million people were affected by the larger blackout. Many sections of the media have termed this blackout as the most sever blackout in the history; certainly, it can be termed as one of the severest power outage events in independent India.
Though power blackouts impacting one or more districts/states at the same time are not rare in our country, what has caught the attention of the media is the effect of the blackout of 2012 on 21 states during the day time impacting millions of people in one way or the other. Many knee jerk reactions have suggested that massive addition to the power generating capacity is the solution. A dispassionate analysis of the power sector in the country, keeping the possibilities of such blackouts in future, can throw up deeper malaise other than the “inadequacy of generating capacity” as being advocated in some parts of the print media. With the ever-growing complexity and expansion of power network to nooks and corners of the country, it is reasonable to assume that the power blackout cannot be entirely eliminated, but can be minimised if few necessary steps are taken on a war footing.
Salient features of Indian Power Sector which are contributing to chronic power cuts, or frequent blackouts, or inefficiency are:
  • Conventional Power sources concentrated in few areas; they require massive infrastructure for transportation of fuel and/or transmission of electricity
  • Many states and regions are known to have excess transmission capacity (as a recent report of CAG shows for Karnataka)
  • Complete absence of holistic approach / long term perspective of how many of such lines/ schemes may become redundant due to massive increase in capacity of renewable energy sources, especially of distributed kinds
  • Gross inefficiency at all levels of the power sector; true costs to the society are never calculated and, hence, not recovered fully
  • Transmission lines are being built even through forests and wildlife sanctuaries, and for small habitats in forests which can be satisfactorily fed by solar/ biomass technologies
  • Many power plants are not found to be operating economically
  • Discernible absence of concern on overall welfare needs; focused only on producing electricity more and more instead of the consideration of overall welfare of the state
  • Mostly new merchant power plants for profit motive are being planned without due diligence
  • True costs and benefits to society of conventional power plants never determined
  • Rehabilitation & Resettlement of the displaced people and environmental compliance has been abysmally poor; insensitivity to civil society’s views; absence of public consultation.
Increasing number of blackouts across the globe:
​In recent years even an advanced economy such as the US has seen an increasing number of annual outages. It is reported that whereas between 1965 and 2000 there was on average one major blackout every two years, 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 the problem.
  • Some of the major blackouts in recent history are:Auckland, New Zealand (20.2.1998) affecting 70,000 people for four weeks;
  • Brazil (11.03.1999) affecting 70% of the territory
  • India (02.01.2001) affecting 220,000,000 people for 12 hours
  • US (north-east) + Canada (central) (14.08.2003) affecting 50,000,000 people for four days
  • Italy (28.09.2003) affecting 56,000,000 people for 18 hours
  • Spain (29.11.2004); 5 blackouts within 10 days affecting 2,000,000
  • South West Europe (parts of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal, 04.11.2006) affecting 15,000,000 for 2 hours
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 most 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 Aug. 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 this larger context, and the fact that there are enormous societal costs associated with conventional technology based vast integrated grids, there is an imperative to diligently review the very need for such large size/ capacity integrated grid networks for a fast-emerging scenario wherein there can be a very large number of small size renewable energy sources, such as rooftop SPV systems, connected to distribution networks. In view of the fact that distributed kinds of renewable energy sources will become a major part of the power system in the near future, and that large size conventional technology power sources such as coal and gas power plants will almost be completely eliminated in the next 2-3 decades, the very need for so many power transmission lines at 66, 110, 220, 400, 765 kV, and the HVDC lines can come under serious review.
Credible options to minimize/eliminate such large-scale blackouts:
 In the Indian context, we can look at two credible options to minimise such blackouts.
Option I entails the following:
  • Massive additional investments in power sector
  • Build huge redundancy in the network
  • Create huge surplus in generating capacity by massive additions to conventional power plant capacity
  • Incur huge societal costs; directly and indirectly; diverting the same from many other priority sectors.
This option will invariably lead to huge social and environmental impacts due to conventional power plants, which will add to Global Warming impacts. It would also mean diversion of scarce natural resources such as land, water, minerals etc. from other priority sectors such as poverty alleviation, health, drinking water, irrigation, education etc. The question is whether a poor and densely populated country like ours can afford the associated economic, social and environmental impacts on our communities?
Option II entails the following:
  • Reduced reliance on the grid quality power, and strengthen the relevance of micro / smart grids powered by distributed renewable energy sources (RES), energy storage battery systems, and suitably designed protection and communication systems.
  • Increased reliance on distributed kinds of renewable energy sources (RES): solar, wind, bio-mass, and energy storage facilities, which will not need high voltage lines or complex integrated grids.
  • Focus on the concept of a federation of micro/smart grids at the regional /national level connected to each other through distribution level voltage lines or very few high voltage transmission lines.
  • Shifting of all smaller loads on to distributed RES which are further supported through suitable energy storage facilities.
  • Focus on strengthening the local distribution system necessitating much higher efficiency, reliability & accountability; creating smart grids.
  • Effective feed-in- tariff for distributed power sources such as roof top solar power or community-based bio-mass plants etc. will lead to massively reduced investment by the STATE.
This option will assist in accelerated rural electrification & development. It will lead to vastly reduced pressure on the existing integrated grid, and increased reliability due to the resultant redundancy. It is evident that this option is sustainable & environmentally friendly leading to improved reliability of the existing grid. It also can be termed as highly sensible option leading to overall welfare of the society in the larger context of sustainability and Climate Change.
This option will also minimize the impacts of widespread outages/ damages, which may also become more frequent due to Solar Storms or an act of terrorism on the integrated grid. Such reduced reliance on a nationwide grid, will restrict any power outage scenario to a small geographical area; and the power supply to such an area can be restored quickly.
In view of the fact that the future will be one scenario of mostly renewable energy sources, which will not be in the magnitude of thousands of MW in single sites, and which has enormous potential for distributed kinds of RE resources (such as rooftop SPVs, community-based biomass units, small size wind turbines, energy storage batteries etc.) the real need for any additional transmission lines should be diligently considered, keeping in mind the fact that many of them may become redundant, and hence an economic burden on the society.
Concerns with the continued overreliance on integrated grid-based power supply
There are many serious issues with the continued over-reliance on integrated grid-based power supply:
  • Massive investment needed to expand the network to cover all villages/communities
  • Such a focus on grid extension is resulting in the electrification of every rural household
  • Ever increasing complexity; increasing scope for massive blackouts
  • Gross indiscipline on part of the constituent power companies; absence of the much-required professionalism
  • Political considerations instead of technical & economic reasoning in building new power plants/ transmission lines
  • Unscientific pricing and subsidy regimes
  • Massive economic and social implications from blackouts are not diligently considered
  • Cannot ensure satisfactory power supply to all villages; energy inequity will continue
  • Encourages the perceived need for more of large size conventional power plants and transmission lines
  • Social & environmental implications of large conventional power projects will continue to get exacerbated.
The scenario of excessive transmission capacity and the associated societal costs:
In view of the massive societal costs associated with the continued expansion of the conventional integrated power grid, because of the need for diversion of forest and agricultural lands, and the associated economic costs, the potential for excessive transmission systems capacity, or redundant, or lightly loaded transmission lines should not be ignored. There are already some examples. A recent news report says: “The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has pulled up the Karnataka Power Transmission Corporation Limited (KPTCL) for installing excess transmission capacity in the state, noting that it “was an avoidable burden placed on the consumers.” A few years ago, one double circuit 400 kV power line was constructed between Mysore (Karnataka) to Kozikode (Kerala) through the coffee estates in Coorg district and through a National Park, for the exclusive usage of Kerala, against massive protests, and without substantiating the very need for the same in the context of very many suitable alternatives. Another similar effort is ongoing to construct a 400 kV line between Hubli (Karnataka) to Goa through the forests of Western Ghats without credible justification.
Few other transmission lines are also reported to be considered for construction through the thick forests, and even through legally protected Wildlife Sanctuaries. We cannot afford to ignore the overall societal cost of such ill-conceived/unsubstantiated lines, which may soon become redundant.
The relevance of the urgent need to minimize GHG emissions:
In the overall context of how the power sector can contribute to the true welfare of our communities, due importance must be given to the recommendations of many credible reports at national and international levels.The latest synthesis report (AR5) from IPCC, 2014 and the Emissions Gap Report from UNEP, 2014 have taken pains to emphasise the urgency in taking action to minimise the GHG emissions in order to save the humanity from climate catastrophe. But the conventional technology power sector is a major contributor of GHG emissions.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says in a stark report that most of the world’s electricity can – and must – be produced from low-carbon sources by 2050. If not, the world faces “severe, pervasive and irreversible” damage.
In this context the UN has said inaction would cost “much more” than taking the necessary action.
Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) Year 2012 report “Climate Risk and Adaptation in the Electric Power Sector” has discussed how Climate Change is likely to impact the electric power infrastructure on the coastal areas as applicable to Asian countries. Transmission lines can be the most vulnerable assets.
Planning Commission in its Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) has said that CO2 generated from energy use can be reduced by 35% through effective deployment of efficiency, DSM measures and renewable energy sources IEP also considers “relentlessly pursue energy efficiency and energy conservation as the most important virtual source of domestic energy”. Business as usual scenario with the present practice of grid based large size conventional power sources cannot lead to vastly reduced losses in the system.
Bureau of Energy Efficiency has concluded that at the prevailing cost of additional energy generation, it costs a unit of energy about one fourth the cost to save than to produce it with new capacity.
International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that by 2050 about 22% of the global energy (totaling various forms of commercial energy) can be met by solar power alone.
Greenpeace report “energy {R}evolution, A SUSTAINABLE INDIA ENERGY OUTLOOK “: estimates reduction of about 38% in electricity demand by 2050; “by 2030 about 35% of India’s electricity could come from renewable energies” AND “by 2050, 54% of primary energy demand can be covered by renewable energy sources”.
IPCC report ‘Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources (SRREN)’ has projected that renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades.
“A path to Sustainable energy by 2030”, Stanford University study of 2009 estimates that solar, water and wind technologies which are available at commercial scale now can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy by 2030.
Such global requirements can be satisfactorily met only through a full transition to green or renewable energy-based economies.
Power network scenario for the future:
Since a vast and complex transmission system is required for large size conventional power plants, the scenario of large number of small size RE sources will demand a different focus on T&D network. It is credible to suggest that instead of the need for more of EHV and UHV transmission corridors transferring large chunks of power over hundreds/thousands of kM, the electricity grid of the future will be required to be strong and reliable at lower voltage levels, and may be basically designed to connect a large number of mini/micro grids. Since most of the power produced in the large number of small size roof top SPVs OR wind turbines OR community based bio-energy/CSP type solar power plants is expected to be consumed locally, only a small quantity of excess power may need to be transferred between such plants OR between mini/micro grids. Hence, instead of 66/110/220/400/765 kV or HV DC links at which the exchange of large amounts of power is taking place as at present, it is likely that predominant percentage of such exchanges take place within a revenue taluk or district at 11 kV or 22 kV or 33 kV.
The need for additional Ultra High Voltage / Extra High Voltage lines may become very small, and may be needed just to evacuate power from the clusters of renewable energy sources from remote areas/ off shore wind turbines or from few solar power parks. It seems reasonable to assume that more emphasis will be given to make the integrated power grid by the Year 2050 to be much stronger and reliable at distribution level voltages than it is at present, and the concept of Smart Grid will get high priority. When the percentage of RES reaches 75-80% of the total power capacity, there may also be a scenario wherein many of the existing transmission lines become redundant, and hence can be dismantled.
Global scenario in energy transition:
Various global entities such as IPCC, UNEP, UN etc. have called for an early end to the existing over reliance on fossil fuels and transition to clean/green energy economy. India has a huge potential in harnessing its renewable energy. Germany and Japan are planning to replace even the nuclear power with RES. During May 2012, Germany was reported as having met 50% of its afternoon peak demand through RES. Energy co-operatives, equipped with micro/smart grids, are getting more popular for the reasons of local control and the desire to become carbon neutral. In 2012 Germany’s 51% of the renewable energy capacity were reported to be with 586 private co-operative societies, making public the most important stake holders, and in removing energy injustice. By the end of 2013, more than 880 energy co-operatives were reported to be operating satisfactorily in Germany, increasing at the rate of about 3 per week. In Germany, citizens not only put Solar Photo Voltaic panels on their own roof, but also come together to bundle resources for larger projects, such as small wind farms, local biomass units, and large solar arrays. There is even a National Office for Energy Cooperatives catering to more than 150,000 people. This concept of “Energy co-operatives” along with micro grids is eminently suitable to Indian conditions where poor/ middle class people can pool their meager resources together to contribute for larger projects of vast benefit to them.
​In view of the fact that the future will be one scenario of mostly renewable energy sources, which will not be in the magnitude of thousands of MW in single sites, and which has enormous potential for distributed kinds of RE resources (such as rooftop SPVs, community-based biomass units, small size wind turbines, energy storage batteries etc.) the real need for additional transmission lines should be diligently considered. The summary of all these discussions is that India has no option other than to adopt a paradigm shift in the way we look at electricity demand and supply, by resolutely moving towards distributed kinds of renewable energy sources supported with micro/ smart grids and suitably designed energy storage systems. True costs & benefits to society should be at the focus while determining the suitable technology/method to meet each MW of electricity demand. Massive investments in expanding the integrated grid of power transmission lines at higher voltage levels must be diligently reviewed keeping in view the long-term scenario of the distributed kinds of renewable energy resources becoming the backbone of our power system.

*Power & Climate Policy Analyst



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