Renewables Route

Rail transport is one of the most important modes of transit in India and is referred to as the backbone of the country’s transport infrastructure. Not surprisingly, the world’s fourth largest railway network has huge energy needs.  Indian Railways (IR) consumes about 2 per cent of the total electricity generated in the country and accounts for about 3 per cent of the total diesel consumption. In 2016-17, the organisation’s energy bill amounted to 25 per cent of its ordinary working expenses. So far, IR has been meeting its energy needs mainly through fossil-based sources.  However, it is now making concerted efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and is diversifying its energy basket to include renewable energy sources.

The organisation released its “Mission 41k” to achieve cumulative savings of Rs 410,000 million from 2015 to 2025. To this end, IR is sourcing power for electric traction directly from the market, using renewables extensively to reduce the cost of power and employing a series of energy efficiency measures. Moreover, a part of the organisation’s contracted thermal power capacity is set to be replaced in 2019 and 2020, which will provide an opportunity to IR reduce its emissions by switching to cleaner fuels. In addition, to fulfil its renewable purchase obligation (RPO) requirements, IR is taking advantage of the falling renewable energy tariffs and has set a target to obtain 1,200 MW of renewable power by 2020. This would include 1,000 MW of solar and 200 MW of wind capacities for both traction and non-traction activities.

Initiatives on the traction side

The switch from fossil fuel-based power to electric traction provides IR with multiple advantages such as savings in cost, reduction in emissions, higher speed of locomotives, etc. In 2017-18, it electrified about 4,087 route kilometre (rkm) of its tracks and set a target to electrify 9,000 rkm in 2018-19. IR has a peak traction requirement of 2,000 MW and an average traction requirement of 1,800 MW. The organisation has tied up a total capacity of about 1,995 MW for meeting its electrical energy needs and purchases the remaining power from discoms. In 2016-17, about 18 billion units of electricity was consumed by IR. Of this, electric traction had a major share of about 86 per cent and non-traction activities had a minor share of 14 per cent. As a result, the total annual bill during the time period was Rs 110,000 million.

Over the next four years, the organisation is planning to electrify at least 38,000 rkm, leading to an additional power requirement of 200-300 MW per annum. Moreover, due to the increasing traffic, the organisation’s energy demand is expected to triple by 2030 to 49 TWh. Thus, it is looking to electrify about 90 per cent of its network through green energy.

Betting big on solar power

IR plans to set up about 1,000 MW of solar capacity by 2020, of which 500 MW will be deployed as rooftop solar on railway buildings and offices, and 500 MW of the capacity will be ground mounted to serve the traction load. Solar power procurement will be done through the competitive bidding mode. As of March 2018, 50 MW of rooftop capacity has already been commissioned in various locations, and 115 MW of projects are under construction. While the results are awaited for a 32 MW tender invited by Railway Energy Management Company Limited, bids for another 100 MW have also been invited.

To achieve its ground-mounted solar target for traction, 400 MW of capacity has been planned for procurement from the Rewa Solar Park, 50 MW of capacity will be developed on IR land in Chhattisgarh and projects for the remaining 50 MW will be developed in different suitable locations adjacent to traction substations (TSSs).

Making headwinds

Although a major share of renewable energy will come from solar, IR plans to procure about 200 MW of wind power by 2020. The organisation has commissioned a 10.5 MW plant (with banking facilities) at the Integral Coach Factory, Tamil Nadu, for non-traction use and 26 MW of wind capacity in Rajasthan for traction use. Wind power projects amounting to 16.5 MW (a 6 MW project in Maharashtra and a 10.5 MW project in Tamil Nadu) have been awarded and are under construction, as of March 2018. With reverse bidding proving to be successful in the segment, the utility is planning to tender the remaining 147 MW of capacity through competitive bidding.

Renewable energy procurement

The Electricity Act, 2003 established IR as a deemed licensee, enabling it to own and operate its transmission and distribution network, and sign long-term power procurement agreements with developers. In addition, IR is eligible to avail of open access as allowed by the states to meet its energy demand through renewable energy. In fact, of the 2,000 MW demand, the company procured about 1,000 MW of power through open access in 2017-18, resulting in a savings of about Rs 64,270 million, as of January 2018.

Energy can also be procured from the day-ahead markets of energy exchanges. Moreover, IR can purchase renewable energy certificates to fulfil its RPOs. In addition, it has an option to set up captive power plants. However, due to the high initial investment required, this mode is not being considered currently.

Key challenges

Being a deemed licensee as well as a customer, IR faces multiple challenges in harnessing renewable energy. Neither the energy demand nor the renewable resource is the same in all states. According to Sudhir Kumar Saxena, chief executive officer, Railway Energy Management Company Limited, the state-wise requirement can vary from 25 MW to 340 MW, which may limit the use of renewables. Moreover, scheduling of renewables can be an issue, especially for matching generation with traction demand. Due to the deemed licensee status of the railways, state discoms are hesitant to allow banking of power procured by railways through open access.

However, the organisation is working towards mitigating these challenges by improving infrastructure, forecasting demand and generation, and preparing a roadmap for renewable capacity addition.

The way forward

IR has partnered with the United Nations Development Programme to study the integration of 1 GW of solar energy into its traction network, such that all of the power would be consumed within IR’s network. Twenty sites have been assessed, of which 17 were found suitable and have been modelled for solar energy generation. Under this, three scenarios have been evaluated – power transfer to TSSs (greater than 1 MW); power fed by passing TSSs (less than 1 MW) and fed directly to over-head equipment; and distributed solar fed to the auxiliary transformer (about 100 kW). In addition, a proposal has been made to develop wayside energy storage systems to store and supply excess solar energy, as well as to store regenerative energy.

The organisation has a target to procure a minimum of 25 per cent of its energy requirement from renewables by 2025, for which at least 5,000 MW of cumulative solar and wind energy will be needed. Having made successful efforts towards zero decarbonisation of its technology with a clearly defined roadmap, massive tendering and an evolving policy framework, IR seems likely to achieve its ambitious targets.


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