According to reports, a network of HVDC lines and microgrids is needed to move the renewable energy produced over long distances. India has set itself ambitious energy and emissions targets ahead of the Paris climate conference in December. Set against the government’s ‘Make in India’ campaign to increase manufacturing’s share of the economy and its ambition to bring 24×7 power to all by 2020, the scale of the challenge seems formidable.
One of India’s biggest power challenges at present is the state of its grid; in other words, in the distribution set-up. In the coming years, the country will not only need to generate more electricity, but also expand and upgrade the transmission and distribution network to maximise efficiency, reliability and power security. Even though India is among the fastest growing economies in the world, its per capita power consumption is below the global average.
On the national level, the integration of the five regional grids into a national grid is a step in the right direction, but their interconnections need to be strengthened. In particular, the transmission infrastructure needs to be developed to facilitate the transfer of large amounts of power often from remote renewable generation sources to rapidly urbanising consumption centres.
Power plants are increasingly located close to fuel sources, necessitating efficient and reliable transportation to consumers.For a country of India’s size, high- and ultra high-voltage direct current (UHVDC) power transmission is a well suited technology to facilitate such long-distance transmission. The most recent example of this application is the UHVDC ‘superhighway’ that will carry 6,000 megawatts of electricity over more than 1,700 km from the northeast to Agra. The first phase of this North-East Agra link was energised in September this year.
HVDC can support the development of large-scale renewables projects, for instance, by allowing solar power where prices are approaching grid parity to be delivered from sunnier parts of the country, or hydro power from the mountainous north to be brought to central parts of the country.
Another technology being considered for electrifying remote communities and securing reliable power supplies at critical industrial and remote sites is microgrids. These are modular energy systems located at or near the place where energy is used, that can either be connected to the main power grid or operate as stand-alone grids.
Microgrids, often powered by renewable energy, such as a local wind turbine or a small-scale solar farm, could bring reliable electricity supplies to thousands of India’s villages that currently have either no connection or only intermittent power supplies. Widespread deployment of microgrids would also help to decentralise the electricity supply, minimising the impact of outages and making the power system more resilient.
The challenges facing India’s energy sector are not to be underestimated. One of the key hurdles facing microgrid deployment, for instance, would be to align these with national policies and programmes to achieve meaningful levels of deployment. It is also imperative that the policies of the Centre and State governments and regulators are in sync. Correspondingly, to create a consumer driven electricity system that is accountable and sustainable, the onus would be to create transparent polices that augment technology adoption. It would also require awareness among end-users or consumers to take microgrid to the next level of wide scale implementation.
With about 200 firms already engaged in this field in India, there is strong growth potential. However, these companies often lack a robust revenue model and struggle to attract the necessary capital to expand operations at a faster rate. One solution would be to place microgrids close to mobile towers, which use a lot of energy, thereby establishing a revenue stream for energy companies while also enhancing communications in rural areas.
Mobile-phone technology has given Indians access to communications much faster and at a much lower cost than the roll-out of traditional land-lines could have done. Addressing the larger challenge of bringing electricity — the life-blood of a modern economy — to millions while strengthening the grid and lowering emissions demands a similar leap.
The writer is President, ABB Power Systems Division