Rivers that Power

There is huge hydroelectric potential in the country, but the development of this source of power is tardy. Out of the potential of around 1,50,000 MW capacity, 66 per cent is yet to be  tapped.

Not too far from the city of Hyderabad is a place that is probably one of the few places in the world where you have artifacts dating from the stone-age to the modern age – all found around the same area.

Housed in a museum in an island, it’s one of the few places – like Rome in Italy – that have evidence of human civilization dating from various time periods of human history.

The place referred to some 150 km from Hyderabad is in Nagarjuna sagar. And an island – which is manmade – created after the famous Nagarajuna sagar dam on the Krishna was built. Started in 1955 and completed in 12 years later, the dam is the lifeline of the state to this day.

The construction of the dam – which is about 125 meters high and about a mile long -- obviously envisaged submersion of large tracts of land. About 215,000 sq. km is the catchment area of this dam.

The big question while building the dam was how to preserve the history of the area that would be submerged. After all, historically, this area had remains dating back to the first century of Satavahana dynasty and a treasure trove of Buddhist art work and sculptures.

While building the dam was a challenge in itself, preserving this heritage was equally important.

It was decided that all sculptures and monuments would be shifted and located at one place in a museum on the rocks that would remain above water after the construction of the dam. As this process of recovery and relocation continued, artifacts, dating even further back to stone and bronze ages, were discovered – an archeologist’s delight showing how ancient this area once was.

Once the dam was constructed –-- a modern day temple by itself -- and archeological finds restored in a different location, this became one of the few places in the world that had various stages of human civilization in one place. Something which is seen in the city of Rome housing remains from one place over the centuries.

It’s a different matter that the number of visitors to Nagarjunasagar site would be trickle by comparison to Rome.

The site and discovery at Nagarjuna Sagar probably was a sheer accident in the process of modernizing the country post-Independence. And like this, others were also built. The Bhakra Beas hydel project in Punjab is just another example.

The drive to build hydel projects on rivers of India was not on a single agenda – they were and are meant for multipurpose reasons. They not only provide irrigation, they also provided electricity and even reduce the devastation caused by flooding.

Take Damodar Valley Corporation (which is based on the concept of the Tennessee Valley Corporation in the US) in Jharkhand (then Bihar) and West Bengal was conceived in 1943 and built thereafter, to convert -- what was called the “sorrow” of the region because of its frequent flooding -- into a project for flood control, irrigation, power generation to even navigation on the Damodar river.

Building hydel projects was seen in a different light – not just for producing cheap electricity harnessing the potential energy of water. After all, tapping this energy potential from water is virtually free (no running costs though there are huge constructions costs) and unlike fossil fuel plants, doesn’t pollute the environment. It is still the best of renewable energy source – given the level of technology of other alternatives.

Going back in time, Tata Power, built the first private power hydel power plant at Khopoli in Maharashtra in 1915. Prior to that in 1901, the Sivasamudram project was built in Karnataka – primarily aimed at providing electricity for the Kolar gold mines. History of hydel power in India in fact goes a tad further back to 1897 when a small 130 kw plant was built in Darjeeling. 

This legacy of building dams on rivers with the multipurpose objective continued through post-Independence. However, the pace of this construction has fallen drastically over the years with concerns on issues such as that on environment and displacement carrying more weight in the complex maze of cost benefit analysis. After all, even though the running cost is zero, the capital cost to build these ventures is tremendous with some costs – rightly or wrongly -- that cannot even be given an imputed value.

Following the principle of least resistance – here in pure metaphorical sense --the focus has shifted towards fossil fuel-based power plants with numbers clearly showing the gradual decline from 1950s to current day where the share of hydroelectricity has dropped from about 50 per cent to about 15 per cent now.

Now, this decline is not because we have tapped our hydel potential completely. On the contrary the truth is far from that. Out of a potential of around 1,50,000 MW capacity in the country, 66 per cent is yet to be developed.

The country’s hydel potential can be divided by its major river basin. These are the Indus, the Ganga, the central Indian river system, rivers that flow west wards (or into the Arabian Sea), rivers that flow eastwards and the Brahmaputra basin.

Of the total potential of around 1,50,000 MW, around 45 per cent is on the Brahmaputra river. Of this 45 per cent barely 4 per cent has been developed and another 8 per cent is in various stages of development. Just one project, the Subarnasiri project in Arunachal along the Bhramaputra has the potential of 13,000 MW. This is not at one location but on several locations along the river. Arunachal Pradesh started developing some of these projects with the aid of public and private sector but these have come to a standstill on account of resistance from the local population. Whether their concerns are right or wrong is a different issue. But the fact is that the project has virtually stopped.

Of the west flowing rivers, 60 per cent of the potential has been developed (these include 23 hydel projects in Karnataka alone) while over 80 per cent of the central India river basin has been developed out of a potential of 4152 MW. About 48 per cent of the Indus potential and 66 per cent of the potential on the Ganga basin is yet to be developed. Now these are huge potentials that cannot be ignored.

That said, there is no one reason why this plummet in the share of hydel has happened. Fossil fuel-based projects are faster and easier to build by comparison.  These projects are expensive – sometimes even costing double that of a coal-based plant. Then they have very long gestation periods. And more again there is the issue of impact of environment and displacement.

The magnitude of displacement in a reservoir-based hydel project is much larger than that of any other fossil fuel or even any other renewable energy power plant.

To compound matters, hydel plants still have the issue of not being available 8760 hours in a year as they are dependent on rains and water flow.

Even if availability issue is discounted for, the bigger bottleneck that appears to slow down projects is the inter-state issues of water sharing as rivers run through more than one state. A dam at one end of the river lands up affecting the flow of water needed for irrigation in another State (we are not talking about issues between two countries – that is different and a wider subject). Even raising of height of dams is a very contentious issue with cases taking years to be decided.

That said, there are two broad categories of hydel projects – one that is based on building reservoirs that store and release water and the other that does not store water but uses the natural flow and gradient of the topography to generate electricity.

Again, it needs to be mentioned, energy from water is free (no running costs) very unlike fossil fuel plants. Though the world over the opinion on building large, reservoir based dams has shifted, the importance of hydel power has not diminished.

In a country like India, the mix of thermal and hydel electricity is important to keep the entire grid of electricity alive in a seamless and efficient manner. This ideal mix was considered to be 60:40. But not 86:14 as it is now!

Why is this important?

The importance of hydel electricity comes out when one requires to shut down coal-based plants for annual upkeep – like maintaining a car. These annual shutdowns are planned in a manner when hydel generation is at its peak or when there is abundant supply of water to keep hydel power generation running.

Added to this, the economics of hydel power is such that it is cheaper to pump water back when there is surplus power available to use the same water again when the demand for power is at its peak while the supply of electricity is low – a feature called pumped storage.

Here’s how it works: assuming there’s 3000 MW available through during off- peak time while the demand is only say 2500 MW, the balance 500 MW can be used to pump back water and store it at higher level to be used during shortage periods.

This is because coal plants level of generation can only be reduced to a certain level when the demand for electricity goes down (coal needs to keep burning at a certain level) – therefore while backing down of generation during off-peak time, it makes economic sense to use this “surplus” power to pump large quantities of water back up the river to be used when the demand of electricity is highest and availability the lowest. Something called peaking power.

Typically peak demand occurs for a few hours in a day and thereafter decreases. As demand peaks, the supply of electricity also has to be matched instantly and then again brought down as the demand comes down. Coal and even nuclear-based plants have limitations is the variation of generation levels possible.

Only other forms of power generation (like using say diesel power) can be switched on and off instantly for meeting such peak demands. Now the cost of running such plants is expensive – anywhere from Rs 9 to Rs 15 per unit.

However, if there is pumped storage facility available, the water stored during off-peak time can be released to generate this electricity at virtually no cost – or at the cost of producing power during off-peak time.

The real economic value of such electricity goes beyond the simple costing – as the alternative is -- not having electricity that leads to loss of economic activity. Can one put a value to that?

Therefore, at a stage when we are targeting double digit growth and digit India is the slogan, what is going to power this growth?

It’s not as though coal is easy to find and mine.

Solar and wind have not yet reached the scale both in terms of technology or scale to make them a substitute for hydel or fossil fuel based plants.

It is a real conundrum that with so much untapped potential, from domestic sources, abundantly available, we still hunt for alternative sources of power. A source that has more than one use alone.

Whatever scheme is taken up, there would be some heartaches. But the idea is to minimize these are far as possible.

Probably the need of the hour is to look at small projects like micro and small hydel schemes where there are no large-scale impact on account of the project. And obviously there is the need for investors to have the risk appetite.

The last major hydel project constructed was by the Jaiprakash Group in the Baspa region in Himachal Pradesh. One of the major plants – Karcham Wangtoo -- started operations in 2011.

Though these projects are in the process of changing hands, they are a run of the river projects.

Whatever the controversy surrounding the cost of the project, given the terrain and the height of the project -- deep in the Kinnaur district of the State -- this project is supposedly the most difficult one to have been built in the world in recent times with even the roads to the project site being described as some of the most dangerous.

And, it is also one of the most picturesque ones in the country.

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