Transmission Troubles

Green Energy Corridors project faces delays in commissioning

As India pushes towards achieving its target of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2020, we are seeing a wave of green energy projects, driven by wind and solar technologies. With this capacity addition, it is equally important that transmission systems are developed for their integration into the grid. At low capacities, integration of wind and solar energy can be done easily. However, at higher levels, they bring imbalances and uncertainty in the power system. This variability is both due to the weather dependence of wind and solar technologies as well as changes in usage patterns by residential, commercial and industrial consumers. The International Renewable Energy Agency recommends improvement in the design and operation of existing power grid systems for the smooth transmission of variable renewable energy.

To this end, the government, in an attempt to evacuate large capacities of renewable energy, announced the Green Energy Corridors (GEC) project in 2011. The transmission infrastructure will be of prime importance to the country for renewable energy projects, given that electricity demand will double over the next decade. Thus, the GEC project aims at a synchronised integration of renewable energy projects into the grid in a way that the entire country benefits from its vast potential. However, the critical factor is that these efforts towards grid integration must keep up with the pace of renewable capacity installation,  which has not been the case.

Green Energy Corridor-I

During the 12th Five Year Plan period (2012-17), 32,713 MW of renewable energy was added to the grid. With large amounts of variable renewable energy entering the grid, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) and Power Grid Corporation of India Limited (Powergrid), in 2015-16 launched the GEC-I to enhance transmission systems in nine renewable-rich states by March 2020. States that were prioritised were Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The two nodal agencies aimed at evacuating renewable energy capacities in these states by developing transmission systems at the interstate and intra-state levels. The purpose of this would be to strengthen the transmission infrastructure in selected states and improve electricity supply in states that have comparatively lower renewable energy capacity. The interstate systems were to be developed by Powergrid and the intra-state transmission was to be developed by the respective state transmission utilities.

Further, the setting up of a renewable energy management centre (REMC) was proposed, in addition to controlling infrastructure such as reactive compensation and storage systems. The REMC is set up to coordinate with load despatch centres to carry out forecasting as well as real-time monitoring of renewable energy generation. Under the project, up to 9,400 ckt. km of transmission lines and substations of a total capacity of 19,000 MVA were planned. The total budget allocated for this project is Rs 341.41 billion. For the intra-state transmission systems, a total of Rs 126.94 billion was allocated; 40 per cent of this funding is a grant from the MNRE, 20 per cent was funded by state equity and the remaining 40 per cent was in the form of a soft loan. For the interstate transmission system, Rs 154.55 billion has been allocated, of which 30 per cent was funded by Powergrid and the remaining 70 per cent was in the form of a soft loan. German development bank KfW committed to providing a soft loan of Euro 1 billion for the project.

The deadline for the completion of the intra-state and interstate transmission system was March 2020. The Central Electricity Authority (CEA) has reported that all parts of the interstate GEC have been completed. In addition, the control infrastructure, energy storage systems, real-time monitoring system and REMC have been commissioned within schedule. However, the intra-state schemes under the GEC have not been commissioned and they are at various stages of tendering and award process. Though some states have awarded contracts for all components of the project, many are yet to do so.

Green Energy Corridor-II

The first phase of the GEC project was restricted to nine states with grid integration for capacity added between 2012 and 2017. As of 2022, the country has a renewable capacity of about 90 GW and aims to develop 175 GW by 2022. Further, with 100 GW of solar capacity to be set up in the next two years, Powergrid, in 2015, announced the second phase of the initiative, GEC-II. The scope of the initiative was to develop power evacuation systems for an additional 20,000 MW of solar energy capacity from ultra mega solar parks – 9,220 MW of inter-state transmission and 10,780 MW of intrastate transmission. The interstate transmission was envisaged through 13 large-scale solar parks in seven states –  four solar parks each in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and one each in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh. Intrastate transmission is envisaged for solar parks across 21 states in the country. The total cost estimated for the second phase of the GEC project is Rs 127.79 billion; Rs 80.41 billion for interstate transmission and Rs 47.45 billion – for intra-state transmission. The CEA has reported that transmission works for large-scale solar projects with a total capacity of 6,450 MW have been completed so far.

Key issues and challenges

The GEC project had set an ambitious target for 2022. Under GEC-I, all components of interstate transmission systems have been completed under Powergrid. For GEC-II, there has been some progress to integrate large solar parks into the grid. However, there is little clarity on the progress of intra-state transmission. The intra-state transmission systems, which are to be carried out by the respective states are, facing many delays in commissioning. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) reported that the development of intra-state transmission will be key for the evacuation of power, as India adopts more renewables in its energy portfolio. Further, the research agency dubbed the country’s intra-state transmission as the “weakest link” in the grid as most of its green energy capacities are connected to state transmission utilities.

The GEC is a huge step towards revamping the country’s transmission system, but it is still far from keeping pace with renewable energy development. There have been several instances of developers in India facing difficulties in obtaining authorisation to utilise connection bays, which are vital for power evacuation. On occasion, tenders have been reported to be launched without prior consultation from state electricity boards. Developers have also reported difficulties in availing of a central transmission utility connection, especially for new projects. Although several solar projects have been completed, they suffer huge losses as they will not gain grid access until the adequate transmission infrastructure is built in. The standing committee on energy reported that more funding will be needed to revamp India’s transmission system. In fact, the CEA estimates that funding of Rs 2.69 trillion will be needed to ensure sufficient grid infrastructure for renewable energy.

Future outlook

Countries across the globe are integrating variable renewable energy into their grid. However, like many of them, India faces many challenges. Diversifying the locations of renewable energy generation can reduce the uncertainty in variable renewable energy. The biggest challenge is linked to the fact that transmission infrastructure takes much longer to develop than renewable energy projects. This leads to a situation wherein projects are built but do not have access to grid connectivity, which leads to losses for the developer. Added to this is the problem of delays in developing intra-state infrastructure, which is a huge bottleneck for renewable energy deployment, going forward.

The IEEFA recommends that the introduction of competition from private players can drive down construction costs and foster innovation in the transmission space. The agency also recommends the promotion of distributed hybrid projects, which could drive down transmission costs as it would help in the optimum utilisation of the transmission infrastructure. Further, the transmission sector must also make room for the adoption of smart grid technologies. As of now, 11 smart grid pilot projects are under way in India.

The GEC project has gone well past its proposed completion date, but going forward, urgent steps must be taken. The respective state utilities must lead the way as intra-state transmission faces maximum delays. As it stands, renewable energy projects do not serve any purpose without the requisite transmission infrastructure to transport this power. Hence, India must shift its priority to strengthening its transmission infrastructure in order to ensure a smooth green energy transition.

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