On Track: Indian Railways’ renewable energy plans

Indian Railways’ renewable energy plans

India aims to move towards becoming a low-carbon economy and this is possible only with nationwide efforts from all stakeholders. In this respect, Indian Railways (IR), the country’s largest energy consumer, has set a goal of 33 per cent reduction in emissions intensity by 2030 from the 2005 levels. This requires a focus on improving rail traction energy and fuel efficiency by 8-13 per cent from the 2013 levels.

IR utilises about 20 billion units of power and 2.8 million kilolitres of diesel per year. Energy constitutes the second largest cost component in IR, accounting for about 24 per cent of its ordinary working expenses. In order to better manage its energy costs, the utility is taking many initiatives such as procuring cheaper power, improving the efficiency of power utilisation, increasing its renewable energy capacity and engaging in power trade. In recent years, it has taken major strides to increase the share of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind power, in its electricity mix  to reduce its energy costs as well as carbon emissions.

On the renewable energy front, it is aiming to develop 1,200 MW of capacity to meet its energy needs. To this end, the minister of railways in the Railway Budget 2015-16 announced a target of 1 GW of installed solar capacity by 2020. As of March 2017, the utility has an installed capacity of about 37 MW of wind and 16 MW of solar across railway operations. These renewable capacity addition plans are being undertaken by IR for the following reasons:

  • To lower its energy bill by utilising low-cost solar power.
  • To meet its renewable energy targets.
  • To utilise the available train rooftops and railway land.

Solar power

The 1 GW solar power target comprises 500 MW of rooftop solar and 500 MW of ground-mounted solar projects. Under the 500 MW rooftop solar project programme, 16 MW has been installed, 80 MW has been awarded and tenders for almost 255 MW of projects have been floated. Of the tendered capacity, 100 MW has been tendered by Central Electronics Limited under public-private partnership and 50 MW of capacity has been tendered by Railway Energy Management Company Limited. In addition, smaller quantities have been tendered for almost 800 stations.

Under the 500 MW land-based solar project plans, IR is in the process of tendering about 250 MW of capacity, of which 50 MW has been awarded. The tenders under process include a 150 MW tender by the Solar Energy Corporation of India and a 50 MW tender by Railway Energy Management Company Limited. In addition, the organisation is working towards deploying solar panels on rooftops of trains and on the empty railway land parallel to the tracks.

Wind power

IR has a target of installing 200 MW of wind power capacity. Of this, 37 MW is already in operation, a tender for 35 MW has been floated while another 130 MW is in the pipeline.

Revising targets upwards

In November 2016, the union railway minister announced IR’s target of undertaking 40 per cent of cumulative electricity generation capacity through renewable energy by 2030. The Council on Energy, Environment and Water and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) proposed in their recent policy brief on “Decarbonising the Indian Railways: Scaling Ambitions, Understanding Ground Realities” that the solar target be scaled up from 1 GW to 5 GW. This target of 5 GW would need an investment of $3.6 billion.

UNDP is working with IR to devise a plan to meet the target by 2025. This includes:

  • Using vacant IR land and rooftop space to house and support solar installations at no land cost to the project.
  • Increasing private sector investments.
  • Developing innovative low-risk project business models.

The 5 GW target will help attract billions in private investment for IR, and increase solar power generation capacity fivefold against the initial target of 1 GW. It would also take India a step closer towards achieving its renewables target of 175 GW by 2022, as well as its intended nationally determined contributions of 40 per cent non-fossil fuel-based installed power capacity. In addition to lowering the energy bills, this would have much larger implications on climate change as it will help reduce the coal used in power generation by 4 million metric tonnes.