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Taking all power lines underground too costly, to make renewable energy projects 'unviable'

By Shankar Sharma* 

With reference to an article which has appeared in The Leaflet, "Place underground powerlines to conserve critically endangered Great Indian Bustards (GIB)", the issue of "powerlines in both the ‘potential’ and ‘priority habitat of the GIB" should be looked in the larger perspective of renewable energy, India's electricity needs, and various environmental impacts.
Such power lines of high voltage grading, when they are constructed above ground, are always a serious threat to avian species almost everywhere; not just in GIB habitats. They also are of huge costs, and have many other societal level costs also.
Hence, there is a critical need for our country to diligently consider all the techno-economically feasible options not only to minimise the need for such power lines but also to minimise their impacts all across the country; certainly in critical wildlife habitats such as GIB habitats, Western and Eastern Ghats, Himalayas, coastal areas etc.
But it must also be emphasised that taking all such power lines underground cannot be the correct option, as the same will lead to humongous costs, and hence will make the associated renewable energy projects economically nonviable.
Since independence, millions of circuit km of such high power lines (and many more millions of overground lines for electricity distribution purpose) have been built criss-crossing all over the length and breadth of the country. A lot more of them are being planned now; not only for the sake of renewable energy projects, but even for other purposes.
Many of them are being planned within ecologically sensitive mountain regions such as Western Ghats, across rivers, towns, cities, human and wildlife habitats, forests, and even within wildlife sanctuaries. Due diligence from an operational and economic perspective will reveal that a substantial percentage of them are entirely avoidable.
Concerted efforts to optimise/maximise their usage can eliminate the need for most of such additional lines as well as many of the existing ones. Since these power lines also have right-of-way issues and threaten forest and agricultural needs, there can be no doubt that there is a critical need for the entire society to minimise the need for such additional lines.
It needs special emphasis in this larger context that the power lines dedicated to one or more solar projects (or even wind power projects) will have a very low utilisation factor; may be as low as 8-10 hours a day.
Under such a scenario enormous societal investment in such power lines in the form of land, ecological impacts, people's displacement, diversion of forest/ agricultural lands, huge finances etc. should become a highly questionable proposition. Unfortunately, our society has not been undertaking diligent analysis of all the associated issues.
Unlike conventional technology electricity sources, such as coal, gas, nuclear, hydel etc. the renewable energy sources are techno-economically feasible in small sizes. Technologies such as roof-top solar power, small/medium size wind turbines, community based bio-energy units etc. which can be distributed all over the country (instead of being concentrated in one location as in the case of solar power parks) have already matured, and are being widely used in many countries.
Such distributed renewable energy (RE) technologies will eliminate the very need for additional power lines, and can also come with very many additional advantages, such as considerable improvement in voltage profile all over the grid, consumer participation, energy justice etc. The energy potential of such distributed REsources in the country is so vast that the entire electricity needs of the country can be met only by these energy sources.
Such a diligent approach keeping in view the overall welfare of our communities, has become critical in view of the already stretched natural resources in the country and the large population growth projected for the country during the next few decades. In a business as usual scenario a large number of additional power lines can be expected to be constructed in the country, as a recent report, "Power minister approves 23 new inter-state transmission projects worth Rs 15,893 cr", states.

Such a large number of power lines along with massive chunks of lands needed to set up land based solar and wind power parks (needing many thousands of sq km of forest/agricultural lands) will undoubtedly lead to massive social and environmental issues in the near future.
As mentioned in the article "The GIB habitat in Abdasa also provides refuge to about 25 other globally threatened birds. Several lesser-known but threatened species of mammals such as caracal, desert fox, desert cat, hedgehog, hyena, Indian wolf, etc."
In the Western and Eastern Ghats of the country as well as in the central Indian forests of the country, foothills of Himalayas, and other plain regions of the country, the ecological disasters which can be caused by such power lines will not be insignificant. Hence, the authorities need to exhibit a lot more diligence, care, and accountability in addressing such critical issues.
But sadly, our authorities were never known to have demonstrated adequate care in safeguarding the interest of flora and fauna in the country. It is left to the civil society groups to take all possible initiatives to persuade the authorities to effectively build such valid considerations into project approval mechanisms.
Unless urgent and effective actions are initiated by the civil society in this regard, the country will face unmitigated environmental disasters of various kinds of which credible threat to GIB and other IUCN listed species is only one.
Leading conservation groups such as the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) and the Corbett Foundation (TCF) and others are well advised to take such technical, environmental and economic arguments to the concerned authorities, and to the judiciary if necessary. People like me with extensive experience in the power sector can provide the necessary judicial evidence if necessary.
---
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst, Sagara, Karnataka; electrical engineer and power sector professional with more than four decades of experience in India, New Zealand and Australia

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