By Khushboo Goyal
The newly formed union territory of Ladakh has been in the limelight recently, be it for the commissioning of a transmission line or the launch of the largest solar park tender in India. These are remarkable developments considering that Ladakh is a sparsely populated, high altitude cold desert region, which has some of the remotest habitations and the most difficult and inhospitable terrain in the country. The minimum temperature in winters goes down to -20 °Celsius to -35 °Celsius with hardly any rainfall throughout the year, and much of the region is at an altitude of over 3,000 metres. Due to its challenging geographical conditions, Ladakh was connected to the national electricity grid in as late as January 2019.
This incredible feat was achieved when the region’s power department along with Power Grid Corporation of India Limited switched on the Alusteng-Alunday stretch of the 350 km Srinagar-Kargil-Leh transmission line, which covers some of the world’s highest mountain ranges and inhospitable terrain. This is a milestone project, which will help provide 24×7 power supply to people living in the strategic frontier areas, which see long and harsh winters.
Ladakh was isolated from the rest of the country for a long time. Tourism in the region increased in the late 1990s, slowly increasing the region’s power demand. The Ladakh 2025 Vision Document, formulated in June 2005, highlighted the poor power situation in the region with shortage of power, particularly during the winter months. With no conventional power sources of its own, the region relied on decentralised power generation systems based on diesel imported from outside Ladakh at high transportation costs. Besides, the heavy dependence on diesel meant environmental degradation, while the absence of a grid made the transmission of clean power challenging. In view of these issues, decentralised renewable energy generation was identified as the most feasible solution to Ladakh’s power woes. Ladakh has abundant solar and hydropower potential, along with geothermal resources in certain pockets, and is thus suitable for renewable energy development.
The Ladakh Renewable Energy Initiative was sanctioned by the central government in 2010 for a period of three and a half years. However, the targets set by the two implementing agencies, the Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency and the Kargil Renewable Energy Development Agency (KREDA), were nowhere close to completion by the end of the stipulated period. This was largely because no feasibility assessment studies were undertaken and no prior approvals and land permits were obtained. Recent developments show that Ladakh is slowly overcoming some of the difficulties in renewable energy development with significant uptake expected in the near future, particularly in the solar and hydropower segments.
Solar microgrids gain traction
Owing to solar resource availability and grid connectivity challenges, off-grid solar power solutions are viewed as a key renewable source both by the central government as well as the local agencies in Ladakh. In 2009, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), along with local renewable energy agencies, partnered with Tata Power Solar to implement solar power projects for remote villages, where grid connectivity is almost impossible. Despite challenges related to weather, altitude and topography, a total of 86 microgrids aggregating 1 MW, in the range of 5-115 kWp, were installed across remote and inaccessible villages in both Leh and Kargil, during 2009-13. In addition to these microgrids, Tata Power Solar took up lighting projects in over 300 villages in the region. According to sources, other companies have also set up such off-grid projects. Currently, Ladakh has around 125 microgrids with a combined capacity of over 10 MW. Apart from powering houses, these microgrids provide electricity for commercial greenhouses, heating installations, medical facilities, educational institutions and religious establishments. Solar thermal applications for cooking and heating have also gained prominence in the region, and all large establishments have a solar thermal installation. In addition, small solar-wind hybrid systems of a few kilowatts have been deployed in schools and commercial establishments.
To further leverage Ladakh’s solar power potential, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) issued a tender for the development of two 1.5 MW solar power projects in July 2018, at Tangtse and Durbuk in Leh district. The projects also required the integration of battery energy storage systems (BESS) to overcome resource intermittency. According to sources, a similar proposal for two large projects was also approved in February 2019. As per the proposal, two 7 MW solar projects with a 21 MWh BESS each will be set up in Kargil and Leh. Unlike the previous tender, these projects will be developed on a build-own-operate (BOO) basis with SECI as the implementation agency.
Gigawatt-scale solar plans
Ladakh has a high estimated solar power potential of 35 GW with daily solar power generation ranging from 6 kWh-8 kWh per square metre, as against 3 kWh-5 kWh per square metre for the rest of the country. It is one of the most suitable regions in the world for solar power development with more than 300 days of sunshine and clear cold air. To optimally utilise these resources, the central government has drawn up an ambitious plan to build 23 GW of solar power projects in Ladakh. As part of this plan, SECI issued tenders for the construction of 7.5 GW of solar power projects in the first phase in January 2019. As per the tender document, the total 7.5 GW of capacity has been divided into three blocks of 2.5 GW each. Under this, a 5 GW project will be set up in the Hanley Khaldo area of the Nyoma subdivision of Leh and a 2.5 GW project in the Zanskar subdivision and the Tai Suru block of Kargil.
Since Ladakh’s own power demand is not so much, the excess electricity will be transported to the densely populated power-consuming northern plains, located at a distance of roughly 850 km. Thus, New Wanpoh will be the tentative drawal point for the 2.5 GW Kargil solar project while Hisar in Haryana is planned to be the drawal point for the 5 GW Leh project. The projects are to be developed on a BOO basis, with developers also responsible for constructing the transmission network up to the interconnection point. The project completion timeline is 54 months, and SECI will sign power purchase agreements (PPAs) with project developers for a 35-year period instead of the typical 25-year PPAs.
Though the tender initially generated a lot of interest from developers with at least 50 parties present at the pre-bid meeting in March 2019, it has hit a roadblock due to environmental concerns. According to sources, the local wildlife department has asked SECI to relocate the Leh project to the Morey plains near Pang, due to concerns regarding the impact of development activities on the protected wildlife species around the project site in the Nyoma block. This poses a problem for project developers as the initial project site was located near an all-weather road while the new proposed site is blocked for six to eight months in a year due to heavy snowfall. This has raised concerns among developers regarding access to the site, as well as the viability and timely implementation of the project. If these challenges are addressed in time, the projects can be completed by 2023. This will position Ladakh as one of the leaders in solar power capacity.
With its close proximity to the Indus and other small rivers, Ladakh has abundant small-hydro power potential. The lack of infrastructure to evacuate large power quantities has limited the uptake of hydropower. With the commissioning of the new transmission line in January 2019, the situation is expected to improve. Two major projects of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) in Ladakh, the 45 MW Nimoo Bazgo on the Indus river in Leh and the 44 MW Chutak on the Suru river in Kargil, were commissioned around six years back. However, NHPC was unable to operate these plants at full capacity due to the lack of a grid evacuation facility. This problem has now been addressed with this new transmission line, and the two hydro projects will make roughly 60 MW of additional power available during the summer season. Apart from these large projects, the 1.5 MW Biaras small-hydro power project was set up in November 2017, in the Biaras Drass region of Kargil. The project was developed at a total cost of Rs 170 million and was fully funded by the MNRE. The project supplies power to the people living in one of the coldest places in the country, Drass. The project was developed by KREDA under the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council. In addition, IMP POWERS successfully commissioned three projects of 2×750 kW (Bairas and Sangrah) in 2017-18 and 2×500 kW Chillong in 2018-19 in the Kargil region on an engineering, procurement and construction basis. IMP POWERS is currently implementing three other projects at Khandi (2×750 kW), Matayeen (1×550 kW) and Raru (2×1000 kW) in Kargil region.
The way forward
Apart from solar and hydro, Ladakh has rich geothermal resources with over 5,000 MWh of geothermal energy available at the Puga field. This energy could be used for power generation and heating requirements. Several geothermal exploration activities have also been proposed in the region over the past few years. Two geothermal plants with a total capacity of 8 MW were proposed at Puga and Chumathang. However, no further action has been taken regarding these projects. Due to the scarcity of trees and firewood, biomass uptake is also limited in Ladakh, while logistics issues in transporting large wind turbines restrict wind power development. Thus, much of the region’s renewable power development is focused on small-scale solar and hydro power at present.
Ladakh has recently been reclassified as a union territory, and is now governed by the central government. Thus, it is quite likely that renewable energy development will be expedited, thereby improving the power supply situation in this cold and ecologically sensitive desert.