Tucked away in the picturesque landscapes of the Indian Himalayas, Ladakh has established itself as a beacon of sustainable development, proactively embracing renewable energy to power its future. With abundant wind, solar and hydro resources, this remote region has evolved into a hub for renewable energy development, setting an inspiring example for the rest of the world. The local populace has demonstrated exceptional diligence in incorporating sustainable energy sources such as distributed solar power into their homes and businesses. This is driven by the region’s harsh topography and existing limitations of power transmission and evacuation infrastructure. In addition, the union territory (UT) is adopting new clean energy sources such as green hydrogen and fuel-cell-based transportation.
Due to its immense potential for renewable energy development, Ladakh has been envisioned as a carbon-free region by the Indian government. As of June 2023, the UT’s total installed renewable energy capacity was 48.79 MW, with small-hydro-power accounting for the lion’s share at 40.99 MW, followed by ground-mounted solar power at 6 MW and rooftop solar at 1.8 MW. Significant efforts have been made in recent years, particularly in the field of renewable energy, to enhance access to energy in the region. This article examines the status of renewable energy in Ladakh, future potential and prospects for further growth…
Grid connectivity and transmission infrastructure
Ladakh’s harsh topography and extremely cold climate pose significant challenges to the construction of infrastructure projects. There is a lack of dedicated year-round power infrastructure in the sparsely populated region, and locals have consistently demanded reliable, clean and affordable power. The difficulty of establishing a transmission system with sufficient power evacuation capability for these projects has become a significant obstacle to harnessing the region’s potential for clean energy. Due to its rugged terrain, the region was not linked to the national energy grid until January 2019. The 350 km-long Srinagar-Kargil-Leh transmission line, which spans some of the tallest mountain ranges in the world, was eventually connected by Power Grid Corporation of India Limited and the local energy department.
Nevertheless, Ladakh is now proactively investing in improving its transmission infrastructure and grid connectivity to fully leverage its renewable energy potential. The development of transmission lines such as the Srinagar-Leh transmission line has improved the integration of clean energy into the local grid. Recent activities undertaken in the region showcase further progress in this direction. For instance, in May 2023, the Ministry of Power approved the implementation of the Revamped Distribution Sector Scheme in Ladakh. The plan involves improving infrastructure in Zanskar, connecting Changthang to the electricity grid and cutting losses in the Leh and Kargil districts of Ladakh. The enhanced distribution sector programme aims to increase operational efficiency and financial stability by providing discoms with financial assistance based on performance results. Furthermore, in the latest budget, the union finance minister disclosed plans to invest Rs 207 billion, including Rs 83 billion from national funding, to build an interstate transmission infrastructure. The aim is to facilitate the evacuation and grid integration of 13 GW of renewable energy from Ladakh to Kaithal in Haryana. A well-established power transmission and evacuation system would position Ladakh as an important contributor to India’s clean energy ambitions. It would not only enable Ladakh to meet its energy requirements, but also facilitate the export of excess renewable energy to other regions of the country.
The rivers and streams of Ladakh provide yet another avenue for generating renewable energy. The UT has the potential to produce over 2 GW of hydropower. However, due to the challenging terrain and regulatory delays, the development of hydropower projects in the region has not progressed as expected. Moreover, while hydropower sources effectively supply energy during the summer months, they face limitations as the winter season approaches due to inadequate water levels and harsh cold weather.
In 2011, the NHPC Ltd. commissioned the Nimoo Bazgo hydroelectric project (HEP). It is a significant hydropower project located on the Indus river near Leh. It was constructed in 2011 and has been an integral player in Ladakh’s renewable energy landscape. This facility, with a capacity of 45 MW, has significantly contributed to the region’s power supply while minimising its carbon footprint. Another significant project is the 44 MW Chutak hydropower project, situated along the Suru river in Kargil district. However, no other project of this scale has been developed since. The challenging geological makeup of the area is unfavourable for building bigger projects, making small-hydro power projects the most suitable means for realising Ladakh’s hydropower potential. At present, small-hydro projects account for over 84 per cent of the total installed renewable energy capacity in Ladakh, amounting to roughly 41 MW.
New measures are also being implemented to stimulate the growth of this market. Recently, Ladakh’s tourism department added another feather to its cap by announcing plans to launch hydro-tourism, an intriguing approach to promote hydropower and tourism in the area. Under this, NHPC and the tourism department will collaborate to organise water sports to launch hydro-tourism at the world’s tallest hydropower plant, situated on the Indus River near Alchi in Leh. In the latter part of 2022, NHPC proposed to establish three additional HEPs in Ladakh. While the development of such projects may hold significance for the local residents’ livelihoods, it is crucial to be mindful of the ecological fragility of the region and the potential impact of large-scale movement of materials and manpower on Ladakh’s ecosystem when planning such projects, going forward.
Solar shines bright
Due to its high altitude and bright skies,
Ladakh has become a hub for solar power generation. The region has various solar power facilities that utilise the sun’s energy to cater to the growing energy needs of the area. With its vast barren land area, Ladakh receives an abundance of direct sunshine that falls on the panels, as there is minimal dust to scatter the sun’s rays. At present, Ladakh has an installed solar capacity of 7.8 MW, primarily owing to ground-mounted solar projects.
During my recent visit to Ladakh in June 2023, I witnessed how the people of the region have wholeheartedly embraced solar energy with an eye towards the future. From households and commercial buildings to street lights on the roads of Leh, distributed solar energy has permeated various applications across the region. To cater to the heating and electricity needs of tourists, hotels, resorts and homestays rely on solar water heaters and solar panels.
Moreover, Ladakh is a strategic location for India’s defence forces, housing several military bases across its vast terrain. Renewable energy is likely to play an increasingly significant role in delivering a reliable and clean source of power to these military units, which are spread across far-flung areas. For instance, the Indian air force base in Leh constructed a 1.5 MW solar power facility in 2020. As part of the government’s Make in India initiative, the facility prioritises the use of domestically manufactured machinery.
The region is witnessing a growing influx of investments in solar projects driven by government initiatives. In March 2023, the Network Planning Group, an entity under PM Gati Shakti, approved the construction of a solar park in Ladakh, involving an investment of Rs 207 billion. Additionally, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) has authorised a 7,500 MW solar park in Ladakh, which entails the development of an interstate transmission system for renewable energy projects in the region. The project, set to commence by 2026, is anticipated to generate jobs and boost Ladakh’s overall economy.
Harnessing wind energy
Ladakh’s robust winds present an exciting opportunity for the generation of wind energy. According to the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE), the region has a wind power potential of 100 GW for 120 metre turbines, along with a 5 GW potential for 50 metre turbines. As per reports, Ladakh may be able to achieve a plant load factor of 40-42 per cent, surpassing levels typically observed in other windy regions such as Gujarat and Tamil Nadu.
However, the air becomes thinner as the altitude increases and severely limits the wind turbines’ ability to propel the blades, despite the area’s continuous winds. This results in lower energy output as compared to wind turbines installed in the plains. The transfer of massive blades and towers across the mountainous roads poses additional challenges although the installation of smaller equipment is feasible in such areas. Due to the unique challenges involved, installing wind turbines in Ladakh incurs higher costs. To incentivise the establishment of facilities in the region, the industry has recommended the implementation of a feasible, fixed-tariff and visible business model.
Considering the anticipated high power output from solar plants in Ladakh due to the clear air and increased albedo from snow-covered mountains, the MNRE has suggested promoting solar energy in conjunction with wind farms. According to the NIWE, the correct combination of wind and solar energy could help achieve an overall capacity utilisation factor of over 45 per cent and optimise the transmission infrastructure. In this regard, Leh has witnessed the construction and development of several wind-solar hybrid projects in recent years. These hybrid models not only generate clean electricity but also offer job opportunities and contribute to the region’s economic prosperity. Going forward, by expanding wind power projects, Ladakh can effectively utilise the ecosystem services that the region offers and enhance its renewable energy portfolio.
Emerging avenues: Green hydrogen and energy storage
Ladakh is making significant strides in the development of emerging green energy resources. Leveraging its solar potential, the region aims to build solar-powered electrolysis facilities for producing green hydrogen. Large-scale solar projects, combined with innovative electrolysis technology, will enable Ladakh to tap into its abundant renewable energy sources and transform it into a green hydrogen hub. In this regard, robust grid infrastructure and energy storage systems hold immense significance to facilitate this initiative. The electrolysis process may be integrated with the regional power grid in order to guarantee a steady supply of electricity. Furthermore, energy storage technologies such as batteries will facilitate the effective utilisation of renewable energy sources and maintain a continuous cycle of green hydrogen generation.
In the past few months, there has been significant activity in this area. In August 2022, the prime minister laid the foundation stone for the Green Hydrogen Mobility Project, a pilot project aimed at operating five fuel cell buses in and around Leh. This pilot project will mark the initial deployment of fuel-cell electric vehicles for public use in India. In April 2023, GH2 Solar, a subsidiary of Uneecops Technologies Limited, issued a letter of award for the construction of a green hydrogen-based microgrid with a 25 kW capacity in the Leh area of Ladakh. The project will commence at 3,200 metres above sea level and is expected to be completed by the end of 2026. Sungrow, a global player in renewable energy inverter solutions, and Tata Power Solar Systems Limited recently completed the construction of the country’s largest battery energy storage system (BESS) facility at Phyang, Leh. The BESS has a capacity of 60.56 MWh. Furthermore, NHPC has signed two MoUs for the use of pilot green hydrogen technologies in the Leh and Kargil districts. Previously, the Kargil Renewable Energy Development Agency published a request for proposal for the provisioning, installation, and commissioning of solar tubular-gel-type battery banks for utilisation in various capacities throughout Kargil district in Ladakh.
Overall, Ladakh is exploring fresh avenues of sustainable energy development with notable progress. Collaborative relationships between the government, academic institutions, business enterprises, and technology providers are critical for Ladakh’s energy transition to green hydrogen. Through these collaborations, Ladakh can get access to knowledge, obtain funding and drive innovation in green hydrogen technologies. Moreover, supportive policies, incentives and regulations will speed up the construction of clean energy infrastructure and foster an environment that is conducive to renewable energy investment and expansion in the region.
Ladakh’s renewable energy journey is a testament to the power of perseverance and the capacity to turn obstacles into opportunities. The region has embraced clean energy with open arms, significantly reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and taking significant strides towards sustainable development. Ladakh has established itself as a shining example of how renewable energy can fuel a region’s future while safeguarding its natural ecosystem and promoting economic progress through policies, initiatives and investments in power transmission infrastructure. Moreover, the adoption of emerging green energy production avenues such as green hydrogen and energy storage demonstrates the region’s commitment to clean energy transition while meeting its power demands. Ladakh has set a global standard, driven by its dedication to a greener, more sustainable future.
By Kasvi Singh