Interview with Pratik Agarwal

“With the rise in renewables, the need for a robust transmission system is key”

Pratik Agarwal, Group Chief Executive Officer, Sterlite Power

As India moves aggressively towards its goals of renewable energy capacity addition and universal power supply, a key area of concern is the inadequate availability of transmission infrastructure. A focus on developing intra-state transmission systems and streamlining the competitive bidding award process are some strategies that Pratik Agarwal, group chief executive officer, Sterlite Power, believes could help fix the transmission segment. In a recent interview, he shares his perspective on the growth challenges that the transmission segment faces, the solutions and strategies needed to address them, as well as the company’s growth plans. Excerpts…

What have been the key recent developments in the power transmission segment globally and in India?

Power transmission is vital for the development of the energy sector. With renewable energy gaining ground and emerging as a key source of power to address peak load challenges, the need for a robust power transmission system is critical. It is imperative to develop evacuation infrastructure for renewable energy within a crunched timeline and at lowest costs. This calls for innovations in business models that focus on addressing cost and time elements. The change in model calls for a greater focus on throughput and a relaxation in the conventional model of micromanaging equipment specifications. As the ownership in a competitive project rests with the developer for as long as 30-35 years, the onus of maintaining high availability of lines is on the developer. In this situation, it is not critical to over-specify; instead the regulator should only be concerned with output parameters. This will result in a renewed focus on innovation and technology, leading to efficient models of transmission, which we have seen in other parts of the world.

How much disruption has been caused by the reducing timelines of renewable projects?

Renewables offer a very unique set of challenges for transmission planning and development. Until recently, transmission planning and development were taking place in tandem with thermal and hydro generation projects. One had the luxury of certainty since one knew in advance where and what capacity was coming up and where it needed to be evacuated. The planning and development timelines of a generation project were matched with those of a transmission project so that they could be developed in a coordinated fashion.

Renewable energy projects, especially solar projects, have short construction timelines, as short as six months, and can come up anywhere in the country. Transmission planning was already struggling to keep up with renewable capacity addition. Once the spare capacities at substations got exhausted, the pace of renewable capacity addition took a hit, an example being the recent cancellation and under-subscription of the bids called by the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI).

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy’s proposal to reduce timelines to 15 months for solar park projects and 18 months for non-solar park projects will put further pressure on the system. We will fall woefully short of the 175 GW target unless something radical is done with respect to the transmission infrastructure.

First, a renewable energy-associated transmission system needs to be developed through the competitive route. The bid award process – a two-stage process that involves requests for qualification followed by requests for proposals and takes over a year to close – needs to move to a single-stage process like the requests for solutions bid employed for bidding out solar and wind projects by SECI. I believe that the award process can be completed in 60 days, if the single-stage route is employed. The guidelines for competitive bidding issued in 2006 also provide for single-stage bidding for awarding transmission projects.

Second, approval activities that are redundant and cause delays should be removed and activities simplified and fast-tracked. The approving authorities need to have a sense of urgency, especially for renewable energy transmission projects. The existing processes can very well be optimised without jeopardising the sanctity of the process or the interest of the stakeholders.

Third, transmission infrastructure developers need to be given the freedom to innovate with design and construction technology to develop a renewable energy transmission system that is aligned with renewable energy project timelines. Innovation in the award process and the development phase is the key to addressing the challenges posed by renewable energy projects.

Is the Indian transmission segment equipped to handle offshore wind challenges?

Offshore wind is a new and exciting frontier that is opening up in India. Sterlite Power, with its technological solutions, expects to play a role in developing offshore transmission infrastructure. World over, offshore transmission evacuation has evolved from being within the scope of the offshore wind farm developer to an independent offshore transmission owner. This has its advantages as offshore wind farm developers operate in their field of expertise and transmission developers do the offshore evacuation system where their strength lies. The risks are appropriately allocated, leading to lower tariffs. Costs are driven down as the duplication of offshore networks is avoided. Offshore transmission projects, though very different from onshore transmission projects, can well be done by Indian transmission players, provided they are given the opportunity. Offshore bids need to be structured to encourage development by Indian transmission entities.

What are the transmission segment concerns that need to be addressed in order to realise the government’s vision of Power for All?

The vision of Power for All is a very laudable objective of the Government of India. This vision will have no meaning if the two crucial “A’s” – accessibility and affordability – are not met, and transmission plays a key role in both. Transmission ensures access of power to consumers by connecting the generation sources with the load centres and, more importantly, providing this access at an affordable cost. The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, in its recent consultation paper on the terms and conditions of tariff regulation for the tariff period 2019-24, has shown that during the period 2010-17, interstate transmission tariffs went up by 70 per cent as compared to a reduction of 21 per cent in the fixed cost of generation. The increased transmission costs should not make electricity unaffordable.

The government has given adequate emphasis to developing and strengthening the distribution network through various programmes like the Integrated Power Development Scheme and the Deendayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana. This is the case with the interstate transmission network as well, wherein we operate as a single national grid and there is no interregional congestion. The same cannot be said with confidence for the intra-state transmission system for many states. Transmission development by the state transmission utilities is under the cost-plus regime, with most states playing catch-up with the rapidly expanding demand.

The tariffs discovered for intra-state projects through tariff-based competitive bidding (TBCB) are 30-40 per cent lower than the regulated tariffs. The Tariff Policy, 2016 also requires that intra-state transmission projects are developed by the state government through the competitive route for projects above the threshold cost limit specified by the respective state electricity regulatory commissions (SERCs). The concern here is that this needs to be initiated by both the state government and the state regulators. While a few states such as Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have gone ahead with announcing competitive bids for developing interstate transmission systems, none of the SERCs has notified the threshold limits for transmission projects.

What are the policy concerns of the transmission segment?

The biggest concern is the propensity of the government to issue a policy that does not provide a level playing field. The policy promulgations are always skewed in favour of public sector entities by providing exemptions that are wide in scope and not very well defined. While it is agreed that there should be exemptions for the government to award projects on a nomination basis, these exemptions should be very specific and be used in rare cases only. The past data on this is not very encouraging. Since 2011, of the 101 transmission projects identified, 47 have been awarded through the TBCB route and 58 through the exemption route to be developed under the cost-plus mechanism. It defies logic to see more exemption projects in number than competitive bid projects.



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