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Costly affair? Off-river power storage projects to cause 'massive submergence'

By Shankar Sharma* 

A recent news item, "Greenko secures Rs 5,500 cr loan for first off-river power storage project", indicates a proposal to build India's first "off-river energy storage project" in Andhra Pradesh. There is a potential for serious concerns for civil society with such projects, a number of which can come up in different parts of the country in the near future, and threaten our communities in many ways.
The news article says: "An off-river energy storage project involves construction of two large water reservoirs at two ends of a gradient on a stretch of land. During the day, the storage facility uses solar energy to pump the water from the bottom reservoir to the top. At night the water is pumped down to generate hydro energy."
Whereas this is also the concept of a pumped storage hydel power project, such an "off-river energy storage project" can be seen as a lot more costly to the society, as compared to a conventional type of pumped storage hydel power project, wherein the reservoirs are located on the river itself, and hence the land area to be submerged will be much less.
Whereas even such conventional type of pumped storage hydel power project have multiple concerns for our communities, an "off-river energy storage project" can certainly be associated with a lot more societal costs, since hundreds of hectares of land, mostly agricultural lands, may have to be submerged, and a large quantity of water may have to be diverted from the existing fresh water bodies such as a river or a lake.
Whereas it is not known as to where will the water come from for the proposed project in Andhra Pradesh, and how much water will be diverted for a 1,200 MW capacity plant, what seems to be more certain is the fact that a considerable area of land may have to be submerged, and enormous quantity of water will have to be diverted, along with a demand for vast quantities of construction material for two artificial reservoirs and other associated infrastructure.
We have lost vast stretches of forest and farm lands in India in the name of developmental projects
There is a critical need for our society to diligently examine the costs, benefits and real need for such peak hour plants, or night support projects. It must be emphasised here that in all cases of pumped storage hydel power plants there will be a net loss of energy to the state/utility because the energy required to pump water from lower reservoir to the upper reservoir will be about 25% more than the electrical energy that can be generated from the same quantity of water.
There are much benign alternatives in place of such "off-river power storage projects" in the form of energy storage battery systems, and operational measures such as demand side management. Can our resource constrained and densely populous country afford to lose so much of our natural resources (land and water) for such non-essential purposes? We have already lost vast stretches of forest and agricultural lands in our country in the name of such 'developmental projects' even when there were many benign alternatives.
I am of the considered opinion that the associated massive costs to the society from such "off-river power storage projects" in particular, and from pumped storage hydel power plants in general, must be carefully evaluated, compared with benign alternatives available to our society, and effectively discussed with all the stake-holders before proceeding with such high impact projects.
Can we hope that Andhra Pradesh will not set an example for a hugely costly and avoidable project experiment?
*Power and climate policy analyst, Sagara, Karnataka



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