Green Track

Indian Railways focuses on renewables to meet its growing energy needs

Indian Railways (IR), the country’s largest electricity consumer, accounting for 2.4 per cent of the total consumption, and the third largest user of high speed diesel (2.6 billion litres annually), now plans to become the world’s first 100 per cent green railway network by 2030. The ambitious plan is an extension of its bid to develop 1 GW of solar generation capacity in 2020 and meet 10 per cent of its energy demand from renewables as well as to hit the 5 GW capacity mark by 2025.

Working towards this goal, IR is making concerted efforts to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels and is diversifying its energy basket to include renewable energy sources. In one of the latest developments, Railway Energy Management Company Limited (REMCL), a joint venture created by IR and state-owned engineering consultancy Rites Limited, has invited bids for the development of 1 GW of solar generation capacity on the zonal railways land across the country. It is a one-of-its-kind solar tender, which is planned to meet both traction and non-traction requirements of the railways.

As per the bidding document, the solar capacity will be packaged into separate zones with contracts awarded through competitive bidding and an online reverse auction. The grid-connected solar projects can be developed on a single site or at different locations within a state as long as they have a minimum 5 MW capacity. The developers will be responsible for providing connectivity and long-term access up to the power delivery point of each facility. Of the total capacity, 50 MW is required to be connected to the national electricity transmission system operator, Power Grid Corporation of India Limited. Small projects can be connected to state transmission utilities. The tender is open for bidding till June 30, 2020 and there is an electricity tariff ceiling of Rs 2.71 per kWh. Apart from this, IR has been taking regular initiatives to transition to green energy through its various subsidiaries and departments.

Solar power

Solar power has gained significant traction in the railways sector, both in the rooftop as well as utility-scale segments. Of the 1,000 MW of solar power plants planned under the new IR tender, 500 MW is likely to be rooftop based, atop railway stations and various service buildings, and 500 MW ground mounted. While solar energy has been introduced in train coaches to power lights, fans and charging points, most of the capacity addition has happened at railway workshops, stations and on office premises. The Hubballi workshop became the first location other than a station where a 1 MW rooftop solar module was commissioned. Further, 2.204 MW of capacity has been set up in the Bilaspur zone, on the rooftops of zonal and division administrative offices, rest houses and running rooms.

IRs’ solar initiative also covers its unused land, with 3 MW of capacity having already been installed. Further, a 50 MW solar project, slated to begin in 2021, will be set up in Bhilai by REMCL. Refex Energy Limited and the ShapoorjiPallonji Group have already submitted bids for this project. Projects that are expected to be installed in March 2020 include the 1.7 MW Sukhi-Siwania solar plant for West Central Railway and a 2 MW solar plant at Diwana for Northern Railway. The scheduled project commissioning date may be extended due to the current lockdown.

For grid-connected rooftop solar, bids have been submitted for a project totalling 60.17 MW in capacity. This involves the development of grid-connected rooftop solar PV systems atop office buildings and railway stations of various zonal railways through public-private partnership (PPP). The tender was issued in March 2019. Earlier, in June 2017, the Indian Railways Organisation for Alternate Fuels (IROAF) had tendered 1,125 kW of rooftop solar capacity to be set up on trailer railway coaches. Further, REMCL is executing 323 MW of rooftop solar projects at railway offices, station buildings and production units. In Phase I, 100 MW of rooftop solar projects will be set up. At the zonal level, Northern Railway invited developers to set up 4.715 MW of rooftop solar installations in May 2019. This tender consists of 133 units of 10 kW each and 677 units of 5 kW each.

Wind and solar-wind hybrids

IR also plans to harness 200 MW of wind energy. As of March 2020, 36.5 MW of wind generation capacity has been installed by the railways. This capacity comprises a 26 MW project installed in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, and a 10.5 MW project in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. Another 50.4 MW of wind projects are under commissioning in Sangli, Maharashtra, while the coastal area of Gujarat is being explored for potential sites.

In the hybrid space, REMCL invited bids to develop 140 MW of interstate transmission system-connected wind-solar hybrid power projects in June 2019. The tender involves the setting up of projects across three states. For Western Railway, a 55 MW hybrid project will be installed in Gujarat with 14 MW and 41 MW of solar and wind capacity respectively. A 15 MW plant, comprising 3 MW of solar and 12 MW of wind power, will be set up in Karnataka for South Western Railway. For the West Central Railway zone, a 70 MW project, consisting of 18 MW solar and 52 MW wind, will be installed in Madhya Pradesh. These hybrid projects will be developed on a build-own-operate basis.

Biofuel and waste-to-energy

Biodiesel can be blended with mineral diesel up to 20 per cent and used in diesel engines without any modifications. Around 2.8 billion litres of diesel is consumed annually by nearly 4,800 freight and passenger locomotives. The use of the B10 biodiesel blend can replace about 280 million litres of diesel annually.

As one of its objectives to move away from conventional energy sources, the IROAF has commissioned a waste-to-energy (WtE) plant at Kishanganj Railway Colony in Delhi. The WtE plant has a capacity to process 1 tonne of bio-waste to generate up to 80 kWh of electrical energy per day.

Renewable energy procurement

The Electricity Act, 2003, established IR as a deemed licensee, enabling it to own and operate a transmission and distribution network, and sign long-term power purchase 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.

It has already succeeded in achieving cumulative savings of Rs 56.36 billion from April 2015 to October 2017 by procuring power directly under open access arrangements. This cumulative figure was likely to further go up to Rs 69.27 billion by March 2018. The estimated savings indicate that in 10 years (2015-25), these initiatives can generate cumulative savings of about Rs 410 billion in the electric traction bill.

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. 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. The state-wise requirement can vary from 25 MW to 340 MW, which may limit the use of renewables.

Moreover, the scheduling of renewables can be an issue, especially to meet 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. 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

The overall experience of IR with renewables has been positive so far. However, the maintenance of solar panels installed over a large area has been a challenge for the IR. To this end, the PPP model is being adopted for renewable energy development. The PPP model ensures the implementation of the latest technologies such as compact substations.

The IR is also making strides towards energy efficiency. India has signed an MoU with the UK government’s, Department for International Development, for facilitating the energy self-sufficiency of IR. As per the MoU, both countries have agreed on taking steps to improve the energy efficiency of the utility and help meet its energy demands. Both countries have also agreed on energy planning with a focus on renewables, energy efficient practices, fuel efficiency, energy charging infrastructure and battery-operated shunting locomotives. To achieve 100 per cent renewable energy use by 2030, IR needs to ensure that even small stations attract developer interest. It also needs to fulfil its 8 per cent RPO, overcome interstate transmission challenges through open access, implement net metering and attain an optimum energy mix of wind, solar, wind-solar hybrid and WtE.

In sum, the renewable energy initiatives taken by IR will lead to the reduced use of fossil fuels. They will help in meeting the country’s renewable energy target and will have a positive impact on the environment. The huge savings accrued through open access power purchase should incentivise other energy-intensive PSUs to take the same route. Perhaps the regulators too can use this example to simplify open access regulations for all stakeholders. All in all, the initiative of IR to turn green has helped it financially. Going forward, it should provide valuable lessons to other PSUs and regulators.


Enter your email address