The cold desert of Ladakh, which was established as a union territory (UT) in October 2019, experiences long, harsh winters, during which it becomes isolated from the rest of the country. The demand for power demand, which has been largely met by diesel gensets and hydropower till now, also rises considerably in these months. However, hydropower availability is limited, especially in the coldest months when energy demand is higher. To improve access to energy, several initiatives have been taken in recent years, especially in the area of renewable energy.
Along with a bitterly cold climate, Ladakh has an inhospitable terrain, which makes the development of large infrastructure projects particularly challenging. In fact, it was connected to the national electricity grid as late as in January 2019 due to its difficult terrain. Power Grid Corporation of India Limited, along with the regional power department, connected the Alusteng-Alunday stretch of the 350 km Srinagar-Kargil-Leh transmission line, covering some of the world’s highest mountain ranges. More investments are being planned to build and strengthen the transmission system further. In February 2020, the government announced plans to set up a 900 km power transmission link to help evacuate power from large solar and wind energy projects. With an investment of Rs 110 billion, Ladakh aims to address the grid connectivity problems faced by the region and increase access to electric power. Initially, the power link will transfer around 2.5 GW and will be developed in the third phase of the green energy corridors project.
The region, although cold and topographically difficult, is incredibly rich in solar and wind resources, with a considerable development potential for other renewable energy technologies as well. In January 2021, the government decided to take steps to make the cold desert region carbon-neutral by tapping geothermal, wind, solar and hydro energy, and turning it into a renewable energy hub. Initiatives are being taken to establish battery energy storage and hydrogen energy projects in the region to support the expansion of renewable energy, improve power management and enable a transition towards clean mobility in the area. The Ladakh Renewable Energy Development Agency and the Kargil Renewable Energy Development Agency (KREDA) are the key implementing agencies for renewable energy in the region. Among renewables, solar power has taken centre stage due to the relative ease of its application in remote areas and strong potential.
Scaling up solar
Ladakh is a solar-rich region with an average direct normal irradiance of 5.43 kWh per square metre per day. The region has an estimated solar potential of 60 GW, with Leh accounting for 35 GW of this potential, while the remaining 25 GW is attributed to Kargil. So far, the solar projects implemented in the Ladakh region have largely been in the category of small-scale off-grid applications. However, recently, the government has given a push to scale up the deployment of large solar projects.
In November 2018, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) launched a plan to implement 23 GW of ultra mega solar projects in the Leh and Ladakh regions. Phase I of the project will entail setting up 2,500 MW of solar PV capacity in the Kargil region and 5,000 MW in Leh district. For this, the Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) issued a tender for 7.5 GW of solar projects in January 2019, which it later terminated in January 2021. It is expected that the tender, which initially directed the winning bidder to set up both transmission systems and solar projects, will be revised. The revision is expected to exclusively open the tender for project development and may also raise the total capacity to 10 GW. In addition, the project will have a wind generation capacity of 3.33 GW. The project cost is estimated at Rs 400 billion, which will be under green energy corridor viability gap funding.
In addition to large-scale project development, the uptake of small-scale solar applications is increasing. These include solar pumps, carports and rooftop systems. KREDA issued a tender in September 2020 for 51 solar pumps with a cumulative capacity of 1.153 MW in Kargil. The project is expected to cost around Rs 20 million. Later, in August 2021, Convergence Energy Services Limited, a wholly owned subsidiary of Energy Efficiency Services Limited, floated a tender for setting up a solar carport and rooftop solar system with a lithium-ion-based battery energy storage system at Leh with tentative capacities of 242 kW and 762 kWh respectively.
In June 2020, NHPC Limited announced plans to set up hydropower and solar projects in Ladakh, with a 50 MW solar project planned to be set up at Phyang. The utility also suggested exploring the possibility of blending hydropower with solar power to optimise resource use.
Ladakh has a hydropower potential of over 2 GW. This potential will most suitably be realised through small-hydropower (SHP) projects, since the region’s topography presents a challenge for the construction of larger projects. The difficult territory and jurisdictional approvals have led to a slow pace of project development on the Indus river, especially in Ladakh. However, there are new initiatives for pushing growth in this segment. In January 2021, the government cleared eight hydropower projects of 144 MW on the Indus river and its tributaries in Ladakh, the highest so far.
So far, only two major hydro projects have been commissioned by NHPC Limited, the 45 MW Nimmy Bazgo hydro project in Leh and the 44 MW Chutak Hydropower project along the Suru river in Kargil district. Earlier, in 2020, NHPC Limited also revealed plans to set up 155 MW of hydropower capacity in Ladakh. This would comprise three hydropower projects – an 80 MW project in Khalsi, a 45 MW project in Kanyunche, and a 30 MW project in Takmaching.
Currently, several small projects are being developed in Ladakh, which are at various stages of implementation. Hydropower projects cleared for Leh include the 19 MW Durbuk Shyok, 18.5 MW Shankoo, 24 MW Nimu Chilling, 12 MW Rongdo and 10.5 MW Ratan Nag, while the 19 MW Mangdum Sangra, 25 MW Kargil Hunderman and 12 MW Tamasha projects have been cleared for Kargil. The construction of the new projects will begin after other mandatory clearances are obtained. The projects must be compliant with the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan.
Scope for wind
According to the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE), Ladakh has a promising potential for large-scale wind power development, assessed at nearly 100,000 MW at a hub height of 120 metres. The high quality of wind resources is due to its valley terrain and temporal variation. In 2010, 50 metre wind masts were installed for wind resource assessment at five candidate sites in Kargil – Khumbathang, Photang, Randum, Hambutingla and Lakhthang. Based on the data collected for 2011-12, Photang had the highest average wind speed and wind density. Later, in October 2020, NIWE initiated a project in Ladakh for the collection of wind data, involving 100 metre wind masts. The earlier wind and solar resource assessment studies carried out by NIWE for Kargil and Chushul in Ladakh have shown immense potential in these project sites.
Initiatives for energy storage
Efforts such as the development of transmission infrastructure have been initiated to help evacuate the large capacity of renewable energy planned for the region. Further, the intermittency issue faced in the context of renewables is being addressed through plans for large-scale energy storage. The government is planning a global tender for 13 GWh of grid-scale batteries to complement 10 GW of large green energy capacity in the region, comprising solar and wind projects. These large battery units will be used to store the electricity generated to supply to the rest of the country through the transmission link.
The era of large-scale battery storage for renewables has already commenced in Ladakh. Tata Power’s wholly owned subsidiary Tata Power Solar received a notice of award in August 2021 to develop a 20 MW (50 MWp) solar plant with a 50 MWh battery energy storage system at a high altitude of 3,600 metres above the sea level in Phyang village, Leh. The order value of the project is Rs 3.86 billion and the project is expected to come into operation in 2023. In April 2021, SECI and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council signed a land agreement for the project that will supply power at a low rate of Rs 2 per unit. SECI had issued the tender for this project in December 2020. In February 2021, SECI also issued a tender for setting up 14 MW of solar power projects with a 42 MWh battery storage system (7 MW/21 MWh each) in the Leh and Kargil divisions. The energy storage projects are expected to help replace over 40 MW of power imported from the national grid, which is highly prone to disruptions due to damage from landslides and avalanches, especially during winters.
Role of green hydrogen
Green hydrogen holds a lot of scope for helping Ladakh reach carbon neutrality, considering the production feasibility, climatic, geographic and road conditions of the region. Efforts under way include a 200 kW green hydrogen-based pilot project at SNM Hospital in Leh, for which a notice inviting tender has been issued by SECI in August 2021 for a capacity of 25 kW. Upon the model’s success, it could be scaled up for use.
In August 2021, NTPC Renewable Energy Limited (NTPC REL), NTPC’s fully owned subsidiary, issued a domestic tender to build India’s first green hydrogen fuelling station in Leh, Ladakh. NTPC REL is also building a separate 1.25 MW solar plant in Leh to make the hydrogen fuelling station completely green. The solar plant contract is expected to be awarded within a month. With this, Leh is soon to become India’s first city to implement a green hydrogen-based mobility project with zero emissions. This development follows the recent release of a tender by NTPC REL and NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam Limited for fuel cell buses in Ladakh. NTPC REL had previously signed an important MoU with Ladakh for the development of green hydrogen technology in the high-altitude region.
The way forward
The central government is focusing its efforts on renewable energy development in the UT. Ladakh plans to move towards carbon neutrality, banking on the development of solar and hydro power. However, there are many challenges in sustainably executing these plans, especially in terms of plant maintenance in such harsh climate.
Further, efforts to scale up other renewable resources such as wind and geothermal energy have been limited. In the case of wind, the logistical issue of transporting large turbines remains a hurdle. On the bright side, large-scale energy storage applications and the promise of green hydrogen may bring respite to the region, which has to contend with an unforgiving climate.
By Meghaa Gangahar