‘Only Hydro Projects Can Feed India’s 24×7 Power Needs’

New Delhi: In March 2019, India decided to classify large hydropower projects as sources of renewable energy. This, the government claimed, would help in the development of the states located in the higher Himalayas and the north-east where “most of the hydropower potential is located”. It would also help stabilise the grid when the share of solar and wind power increases to meet the country’s growing demand for power but cannot be available 24X7.

The government is now looking at new large hydel projects in Jammu and Kashmir and revisiting several pending projects in Arunachal Pradesh. It is also pushing renewables such as solar and wind power as a part of its energy mix to meet the promised Nationally Determined Contributions that were a part of the United Nations’ Paris Agreement on climate change.

There could be problems with this decision: A 2018 study by the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, has warned that all hydropower projects are expected to experience a warmer and wetter climate in the future because of climate change. Climate change may also hit reservoir operation for power generation, the study added. There are also the problems of siltation and questions about flooding.

Government data for the last 30 years showed that 89% of existing hydropower projects are not performing at even 90% dependability (installed capacity). So, does India need more hydropower projects given its current solar energy push? “You add 175 GW of solar energy to India’s total installed capacity, and when it goes off in the evening, who comes in?” asks Balraj Joshi, 59, chairperson and managing director of the state-run National Hydroelectricpower Corporation Ltd (NHPC). “Somebody has to supply it. And with 24X7 power now assured in all homes across all villages, power requirement will only increase.”
In an interview with IndiaSpend, Joshi speaks on the role of hydropower in India’s energy mix and addresses the various debates and controversies surrounding the topic. Trained in civil engineering and hydropower development and planning, Joshi’s career has spanned three decades, during which he has been involved in the development of many of NHPC’s projects.

Excerpts from the interview:
The share of hydropower has fallen from 50.62% in 1962-63 to 12.5% in August 2019, as per power ministry data. Its share in total power generated in 2018-19 is even less, 9.9%. There has been a substantial increase in solar and wind power in the energy matrix, especially in the last two decades. Existing Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) data for the last 30 years showed that 89% of the hydropower projects are not performing at even 90% dependability. Why do we need more hydro-power projects?
We need to understand a little bit of the background. The Bhakra Nangal project was basically conceived as an irrigation project; hydropower was a byproduct. Those early days, there were not as many factories, the power consumption was less. Then, our power requirements increased.

Hydropower projects were accorded priority at the time because the advent of coal mining was yet to happen. In the 1980s, there was a flurry of construction activities for hydropower projects, which were called ‘run of the river’ projects or ponding projects. By this time, we realised that since we are a developing country, we have maximum requirement of power at one particular point in a day, maybe twice, but not through and through. So, ‘peaking’ and base operations came into the picture.
Then central agencies said, all these projects should be at least provided with a capability of three-hour peak power to cover the peak requirement of the day so that it can take care of the morning and evening circulation load. And that peak was also not very clearly defined, because there was no grid. Therefore, all hydropower projects of those times were planned with minimum three-hour peak requirements. 

In the Himalayas, this became a big issue, a problem actually. Because these reservoirs were small whereas Bhakra, Hirakud were very large and planned for a life of 100 years considering a heavy sediment load. Still, can it meet our demand? If not, raise the height of the dam now itself: That was how the height of the dams were decided. Over the years this has developed into having lower spillways so that if required, reservoirs can be emptied, and sediments flushed out.

Moreover, big dams, such as Bhakra and Indira Sagar, were built for irrigation. They have a huge capacity–2,000 MW, 1,000 MW. All these big dams total to almost 30,000 MW, or even 45,000 MW. But these projects do not operate to full because they store water for irrigation. So, saying that these are not run to capacity is not correct.

Some good sites were done in good times and cost too. But by and by, due to the fragile Himalayan ecology, some projects got stuck for technical reasons; money required to put them on track was high. States started saying, since this is a project in our territory, we are submerging our land, therefore give me some share of this development.

The Gadgil formula then replaced the earlier practice of paying royalties–we give 12% free power to these states and 1% for the local area development fund. But even though developers are paying that 12% to the state governments, it goes to the state’s central treasury and is distributed as per its priorities. So, that 1% technically marked for that area has not happened. Except Himachal Pradesh, there is no state which has come out with a detailed methodology of how much should be spent where. But developers are burdened with this 13% anyway.

So, have you found a method to deal with this?
This is a policy issue. We raised this issue a number of times. But so far, I have not come across any guidelines permitting the use of this 13%. We have said this in a number of meetings with the NITI Aayog and the PIB (Public Investment Board) that this policy (Himachal government’s) should be emulated everywhere. But so far that has not happened.

But public hearings are not conducted properly. How do you expect people to know better about your projects?
We have done a totally indigenous 510-MW project in Sikkim, Teesta V, in March 2008. And the cost of the power generated through that project was Rs 3.32 per unit. This project changed the total landscape of Singtam, a very small sleepy village on Teesta river. The number of vehicles, good institutions, educational institutions, medical facilities, transport–everything is there (in Singtam).

But when we built that project, environmental consciousness was yet to come. Now, 11 years since, we asked for a comprehensive analysis of the project by the International Hydropower Association (IHA). The report mentions that the most significant impacts of the project are related to “the loss of agricultural and forest land, with a total of 261 families whose land was partially or totally acquired; changes in the Teesta river which flows north to south from the high Himalayas into the plains of Bengal; and impacts on the traditional way of life in Sikkim’s mountain communities. At the same time, the project has provided significant socio-economic benefits, including low-cost electricity and employment. These issues are reflected in the findings of this assessment, and in a range of high scores that summarise the findings. Teesta-V meets proven best practice on 6 of 20 topics, exceeds basic good practice on 9 topics and meets basic good practice on 5 topics.”

Why we did this exercise is because we have an upstream project called Teesta IV and we wanted to tell people that we have developed the project in the most sustainable manner possible; the world body has endorsed our claim. Whatever lacunae, we are ready to improve.
In 2019, this project was rated as one of the best by international standards. But when we held the public hearing for Teesta IV in 2004, there were massive protests.

Do you think there is a political interference in all cases?
The example I gave you was politically motivated. But we will not change the practice on the ground. That is a policy decision, whether I occupy this chair or not. In the case of Teesta IV, we had taken those precautions which we had not done in Teesta V. We have released huge e-flows (quantity, timing and quality of water flow needed to sustain freshwater and estuarine ecosystems on which human livelihoods depend). For example, Teesta V, which is only 5 km downstream of Teesta IV, releases only 1 cumec (cubic metre) of e-flow, whereas in Teesta V, we are releasing 30 cumecs. But the policy of 30 cumecs is questioned and 1 cumecs is not.

But local residents, activists and researchers are stakeholders in hydel projects too.
If the person who is living in that area is very happy with the project, why are others bothered? Let us come to flora, fauna also. That study by IHA says it has improved from the baseline. The area is completely green, ecology has totally adapted to it. The kind of fish found there is still found there.

But ensuring e-flows has been a major issue with most operators? 
People sitting in the finance ministry tell me, hydropower projects get late. They used to get late, but not anymore. We did one project in Bhutan; the prime minister recently inaugurated it. Is it not in the Himalayas? Was there no fragile geology there?

The government set up a task force long back with a number of experts from all walks of life; we were also part of it. We tried to reason the development imperative; they raised the ecological pointers. After 10 years, no consensus could be reached. So, every time someone goes to the MoEF&CC [Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change] with a project, they ask, what about e-flows and all.

Thankfully now, after a number of committees etc., they came out with a guideline saying, okay, in monsoon 30% of the average flow will be released and in non-monsoon, 20% and intermediately, 25%. Earlier, it was like–you should do a site-specific study. Now, in all our projects, we are planning and abiding [by this rule]. So, e-flow no longer remains a question.

But how can it be the same for Himalayan rivers and peninsular rivers?
We do not have any project for peninsular rivers. Where we have JVs [joint ventures] such as NHDC [Narmada Hydroelectric Development Corporation] in Madhya Pradesh, it is all irrigation-based. And those dams were built ages ago; they had no e-flow concept. What do you do to existing projects–that is the question. My personal opinion is, there should be some e-flows. But for all new projects, this is the norm and it is being followed.

How will the decision to term hydropower as renewable power help?
It will help the nation in fulfilling the NDCs [nationally determined contributions] under COP21 [the 21st Conference of Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change]. Now, renewable is called eco-friendly and that tag is very good for us. We might get access to international green finance.

A study has claimed that because of climate change seven large hydropower projects have experienced “significant warming” and a decline in rainfall and stream flow between 1951 and 2007. Where do you see the company when climate change events intensify?
First, there is no such data for any of our projects. And, tell me, how does it matter for Arunachal Pradesh if there is 1 centimetre less rainfall than required? In the Himalayas, in Teesta river, I have seen there are certain orographic pockets which are behaviour-wise totally different from adjacent areas. Local rains are huge. They affect our hydro projects. All the rivers are being monitored by Central Water Commission (CWC) for a number of years. These hydropower projects are not based on 1- or 2-years’ data, it is 60 years’ data.

As for all this talk about climate change and all, for all our projects, we continuously update our data on a daily basis on current precipitation. We are actually measuring it, CWC is measuring it. And we do not find any difference in the data.

But earlier, there were no extreme weather events in the Himalayas.
I am not saying there are no extreme weather events now but we never had this kind of population earlier. So, the glaciers might start receding. But in some of the glaciers, we actually saw an advancement. In Chinese and Tibetan plateau, the glaciers have not receded. But on our side of the Himalayas, because of population rise, temperature rise, increase in pollution, certainly there has been impact. 

The Mullaperiyar floods in Kerala in 2018 and the Almatti dam water issue between Maharashtra-Karnataka–there have been ample examples of how big dams have not helped flood regulation and actually caused damage. In the north-east, there has been much devastation caused by relatively small dams such as Ranganadi in Arunachal Pradesh or Kurichu Dam in Bhutan when there was a sudden release of water. One can imagine the damage mega dams such as Lower Demwe in Arunachal’s Lohit district can cause. How will you allay these fears?
Do not mix natural and manmade parametres. [But] I agree that dams should actually be regulating floods. At NHPC, we have prepared a document which was shared across the country. Now it has become the ‘Disaster Management and Relief Manual’, which was shared by us as best practices manual with the CWC at the national level and also finds mention in the Dam Safety Bill 2019. Dams need to regulate floods: have people do that, have authorities monitor that. But, if a man drives his car into the wall, will you stop manufacturing cars? 

So, give us an idea of how many of your projects are in the pipeline?
NHPC has several projects in the pipeline under various stages–those under construction/clearances; those that have got clearances/sanctions and those for which survey and investigations are being carried out.

Projects under construction:
The corporation is constructing five hydroelectric projects, including a joint venture, with a total capacity of 4,924 MW.

* Unit-I & Unit-II have been re-synchronised with the grid at part load on 05.07.2019 & 06.07.2019.

** Stoppage of work at Subansiri Lower Project since December 2011 and despite NHPC’s efforts could not be restarted till date

*** CCEA has approved equity investment by NHPC in M/s CVPPPL and investment in construction of Kiru HE project by M/s CVPPPL on 08.03.2019.

**** Investment sanction for acquisition of M/s LTHPL (earlier developer) and execution of balance works of Teesta-VI (500 MW) accorded on 08.03.2019. NCLT has given approval for acquisition of M/s LTHPL on 26.07.2019.

Projects under government clearance / sanction:
Projects with aggregate capacity of 7,361 MW are awaiting statutory clearances / government approval.

S. No.ProjectStateInstalled Capacity (MW)
1Kotli Bhel–IA*Uttarakhand195
3DibangArunachal Pradesh2,880
4Tawang –IArunachal Pradesh600
5Tawang –IIArunachal Pradesh800
6BursarJammu & Kashmir800
7Goriganga-III AUttarakhand150
Total 5,945
Projects in Joint Venture
Hydro (In India)
8KwarJ&K (JV With JKSPDC & PTC)540
9Loktak D/SManipur (JV with Govt. of Manipur)66
Hydro (Bhutan)
10Chamkharchhu-IBhutan (JV of NHPC & Druk Green Power Corporation)770
 ATotal Hydro (10 Projects)7,321
Wind (NHPC)
1Wind projectPalakkad, Kerala8
Solar (In JV)
1Solar project**Kalpi, UP (JV of NHPC & UPNEDA)32
Grand Total: 12 projects 7,361

* PIB Approval of KB-IA on 23.10.2013 subject to clearance by the Hon’ble Supreme Court.

** MOU has been signed between NHPC and Uttar Pradesh New and Renewable Energy Development Agency (UPNEDA) for setting up a 50 MW solar power project in UP but land presently available for 32 MW only.

Note: A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) has been signed for implementation of Ratle Hydro Electric Project (850 MW) through a JVC to be incorporated with equity shareholding of 51% by NHPC & 49% by Jammu and Kashmir State Power Development Corporation (JKSPDC).

Projects under survey and investigation:
Projects with aggregate capacity of 1,079 MW are under survey and investigation.

NHPC has recently signed an MoU with the government of Himachal Pradesh for execution of a 449 MW Dugar project to be located in Chamba district. The project is a run-of-the-river scheme on the Chenab river and the estimated present-day cost of the project is Rs 4,112 crore. It will generate 1,610 MU (million units) in a 90% dependable year with 95% machine availability.

There are complaints about dishonest environmental impact assessments (EIA) and farcical public hearings. These often get challenged in court, at the National Green Tribunal (NGT), and the project is delayed for years. Why does this happen repeatedly? 
In case of Dibang, the EIA was questioned and challenged, even the EC (environmental clearance) was challenged. However, we have followed the process in letter and spirit and the proposal passed NGT scrutiny. The MoEF&CC is the nodal ministry which directs and regulates all the EIAs and EMPs (environment management plans). One child passes with 45% marks and another with 80%. Some of our fellow developers might not be doing their job as expected, getting 45% marks. But we are a government company and we have every reason to follow guidelines, procedures and statutes.

For example, in Teesta IV, even for the ToR (terms of reference), there have been four meetings. There is three-season data, data about the fish. Everything is laid out. If some environmentalist or professionals feel that it is not correct, then there are forums available to correct those guidelines.

Most Himalayan hydropower projects are large capacity ones, as per your projections. But almost all of them are located in remote areas, especially in the case of Arunachal Pradesh, described as the future ‘powerhouse’ of the nation. Per-capita consumption of power in the north-east is 257.98 kilowatt-hour (kWh) against the national average of 778.71 kWh so all the power generated will need to be extracted. So why add to the transmission and distribution (T&D) losses?
There are no T&D losses now–we have a national grid. Earlier we had weak-capacity power lines, now we have 800-kilowatt capacity, high voltage, direct current transmission lines, so there are no losses. T&D losses are now called AT&C losses–aggregated technical and commercial losses. These are commercial losses–for instance, there is power theft–but no loss in transmission.

About local consumption, these remote projects generate power at a very high voltage, which certainly has to be brought down. We are living in an integrated grid country, where the load variations, load requirements and demands are not rationalised in a grid. If you are drawing more power in Chennai, someone else is contributing to it.

It is very important to understand the working of the grid. Electricity cannot be stored; it has to be used as it is produced. If you add 175 GW of solar energy, which goes off in the evening, who comes in? Somebody has to supply it. And with 24X7 power now assured in all homes across all villages, power requirement will only increase.

Till now, only hydro has the power to supply it instantly. Earlier it was manual as per demand, now it is all automatic. But the machine should respond simultaneously. Only hydro machines can respond that fast. And in the coming times, when the share of solar and other renewables increases in the system, more hydropower will be needed. We are looking at 175 GW of renewables in five years.

After being stalled for years, the Lower Subansiri project seems to be the first to start work in the North-East in recent times. You have pegged the 2,000 MW Lower Subansiri project at Rs 20,000 crore when completed in about three years. Any new resistance from the community or activists? There have been protests in Assam even till the first week of September 2019.
First there were legal hurdles, because the matter was referred to NGT. And, it was not only for environmental reasons. It was basically technical reasons also. But, these are gone. It was referred to a three-member committee, the members were technical, they have vouched for the project. Then this matter was referred to the EAC (environment appraisal committee) again. As many as 15 experts from various fields sought out by the MoEF&CC have also agreed with the findings of this committee.

This project will have flow cycles. And its effect on the entire marine life and ecology has been studied threadbare. We have proved beyond doubt to all the hydrologists and all the environmentalists that nothing [adverse] is going to happen here.

Before the National Democratic Alliance’s arrival in 2014, there had been allegations of ‘dam money’ being paid for the allotment of hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh. Today, more than half of these projects have not even reached EIA stage. Now, the Arunachal government has approached the Centre to ask if the NHPC could take over these projects. You recently also took over a project from a private operator in Sikkim. If these companies found it problematic to run them–and Arunachal Pradesh government recently scrapped 22 projectswhy is NHPC so confident?
We have expressed interest in any hydro projects which we can build, which are viable. If they have not found it viable, we have to study that. The whole process will start again. If at all they are viable only then will we be interested, otherwise why would we be? We are a government company; we are following all the regulatory norms.

Lower Demwe was with us earlier. Arunachal Pradesh took it away and gave it to a private party. We had done due diligence in that project and we know it is doable. The private company is not saying it is unviable, they are saying they are bankrupt. Issues related to the project’s EIA would also be looked into but that does not change its viability.

The NHPC recently issued tender for 2,000 MW worth of solar projects with a tariff ceiling of Rs 2.95/kWh for 25 years. What explains this when solar power cost is likely to fall to Rs 1.9 per unit in India by 2030. Also, why venture into solar? And what explains the tariff ceiling?
The tariff ceiling was basically taken from the SECI (Solar Energy Corporation of India)–because they were tendering at Rs 2.65, so did we. Earlier they had tendered one project in Maharashtra for Rs 2.93/kWh, whereby we had gone for Rs 2.95/kWh. Later on, we were told that this is erroneous and SECI also issued tender only for Rs 2.65/kWh. So, we also changed it, the very next day. The legality and the rationality of the ceiling tariff, this is a question to be asked to the MNRE (Ministry of New and Renewable Energy). 

Now, why solar? Well. When I took over, at that time, the hydro scenario was very bleak. As a company, we had some cash and if we did not use it, it would have been taken away by the government. Then, why not put it to some productive use? So, we went ahead with one 50-MW solar project in Tamil Nadu. You can have a project running in one year flat and we have a capacity increase by 50 MW. We tried some joint venture projects in other states, but it did not happen. In the meantime, the MNRE came up with a number of schemes. That was in August 2018 when we decided to go for 2,000 MW. Of course, we took time to float the tender.

But in the meantime, the government realised, hydro projects would be required. 

You have funds for both solar and hydro projects?
Oh yes, but we are not funding this (2,000 MW) project; we are using our own credibility to get PPAs (powerhouse purchase agreements). We are also into wind power. We have a 50-MW wind power project commissioned in Jaisalmer three years ago. That time it was the same logic–renewables were coming in, everybody was building something, and we had funds. But we did not find that a very profitable venture, therefore, we did not go for any more wind power projects. But solar, we are finding it profitable and nice, we are going ahead with that.

It is believed that a delay in building hydropower projects in Arunachal Pradesh on rivers originating in China is likely to affect India’s strategy of establishing prior use claims over the waters. What is this clause? And, is this applicable to Himachal Pradesh too? Also, China has plans to divert north the waters flowing into Yarlung Tsangpo (Brahmaputra). India has been worried about water availability downstream of that. So, what will happen to the Arunachal hydropower projects?
In Himachal Pradesh, we already have existing water usage on rivers that are flowing from China. So, we have established those rights. But in Arunachal, there are a number of rivers that are not coming from China. For instance, Dibang–it does not come from China, only one small tributary does. The only major river that comes from China is the Siang, a major contributor to the Brahmaputra.

It so happens that the rainfall is much, much higher on our side compared to China’s. So, 67% of the discharge of the Siang river comes from the catchment area that is in India. Yarlung Tsangpo, even if they manage to divert, will involve less than 37% of the water. I would not worry at all. Only thing is, we can make an international point by putting up a dam, very big, on the Siang, saying that we have water use for it.

(Khandekar is an independent journalist based in Delhi. She writes on environmental and developmental issues. She can be reached at nivedita_him@rediffmail.com.)

Courtesy: India Spend



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