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Green Growth With Care: Addressing Ecological Risks In India's Renewable Energy Expansion – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

Green Growth with Care: Addressing Ecological Risks in India's Renewable Energy Expansion

TK Arun

As India races to achieve the target of drawing half its energy from sources other than fossil fuels by 2030, this very green energy drive also threatens to harm its fragile environment, as power producers scramble to create pumped storage hydroelectric projects. This calls for urgent policy intervention.

The ideal solution is to separate RE production from storage, and charge some hydel specialists with the task of building adequate pumped storage capacity in environmentally benign ways across locations, facilitating transmission of green power across the country for such storage and draw-down.

Adani Green Energy is building the world’s largest RE project in Khavda, Gujarat, putting in place 30,000 MW of wind and solar power generation capacity. The project’s scale is such that it warrants backward integration. This is in addition to Adani’s existing wind and solar capacity of 10 GW. Other Adani companies are building photovoltaic panels and wind turbines, and also smelting copper on a large scale to provide high-quality electric connectivity such a project calls for.

Other companies are ramping up solar, wind, hybrid wind and solar projects across the country as well, as policy promotes India’s energy transition.

RE’s major drawback is its intermittency. The sun does not shine at night and does not shine bright enough in mornings, evenings and on cloudy days. The wind does not blow at the same speed all the time. So, RE produces a lot of power in relatively short periods and has periods of low-to-nil power production. The solution, evidently, is to store the power when it is being produced, and then draw down the stored power when power generation dips.

Green Hydrogen

The long-term solution would be green hydrogen. Use the power generated by the sun and wind and use it to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen produced in this fashion is labelled ‘green’, distinct from grey hydrogen produced by reforming natural gas with steam. CO2 is produced in this process, both when water is heated to produce steam, and when the oxygen in water combines with carbon in methane to release hydrogen. When CO2 so released is captured and stored, this grey hydrogen is labelled ‘blue hydrogen’.

Hydrogen has the property of combustion, as occupants of the hydrogen-buoyed airship Hindenburg found out the hard way. This property makes hydrogen a fuel in its own right. It can be burned to produce heat, the heat, in turn, used to produce steam, and the steam, to turn a turbine to produce power, much like natural gas, but without any carbon emissions.

Hydrogen can be transported with relative ease, converted into ammonia or directly. It can even fuel internal combustion engines, apart from combining with oxygen in an electrolyte inside a so-called ‘fuel cell’, to produce electricity that can drive an EV without storage batteries.

Green hydrogen is right now expensive. While both Ambani and Adani in India have publicly committed themselves to investment to bring down the cost of green hydrogen to less than a fifth of its current cost, that remains a solution of the future.

Storing the large quantities of power produced by gigawatt-scale RE in batteries will create deforestation and other ecological disasters across the world, as mining escalates to extract the minerals required to make the batteries. That is not a viable solution.

In the short run, pumped storage is the tried-and-tested solution. Use the electricity from renewable sourced that cannot be utilised at the time of generation to pump water to an elevated storage, run the water down a steep incline to drive the blades of a turbine and generate power. In large hydroelectric projects, the water is accumulated by building a dam across a river and submerging an expanse of land. In a run-of-the-river project, such submergence of land is redundant, and the water drops along a steep mountainside, to develop the force to turn the turbine.

Instead of burdening India’s green entrepreneurs with the task of locating and building pumped storage sites, obtain environmental clearance and build them individually. It would be ideal for one or more specialised agencies to take on the job of buying the surplus power from grids into which renewable power is fed when it is generated, and using the power for which there is no immediate offtake to pump water to an elevation in multiple sites that are environmentally benign and cost-effective.

NHPC in the public sector and the Jaypee group in the private sector are experienced hydropower companies. They could act as aggregators of surplus power and create distributed pumped storage sites. Instead of turning to fragile mountains inside virgin forests, as hydel developers are wont to, they could explore new sites.

Why can’t every high-rise building also house pumped storage capacity? Instead of hunting for new locations on unexplored hills and mountains, why not run pipelines on the sides of mountains on whose slopes motorable roads already snake their way up and down?

This would call for inter-state transmission, or swapping of power, transforming the voltage at several stages, and require centralised coordination. That adds to cost. But this is vital, if India’s green power revolution is not also to wreak environmental havoc, and incur the cost of inexpert, non-specialised storage.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Economic Times as How to ensure India’s green power revolution doesn’t also wreak ecological damage on April 02, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Tanu Paliwal, a research intern at IMPRI.

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