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Karnataka's pumped storage projects may consume 25% more power than can generate

Counterview Desk 

In a representation to Karnataka chief minister Basavaraj Bommai, with copies to the Union Minister for Power and NRE, the Union Minister for EF&CC, the NITI Aayog Vice-Chairperson, and the Prime Minister, power and climate policy analyst Shankar Sharma has said that the recent decision of the State government to go in for pumped storage projects appears to have been taken without considering their direct and indirect costs to society.
Before going in for these projects, he says, it will be in the interest of the people to deploy an effective usage of economic decision making tools such as costs and benefits analysis, options analysis and risk management analysis etc. in all its associated planning activities, and also to have effective public consultations with the concerned stakeholder groups.


May I draw your kind attention to a recent tender by Government of Karnataka for 1,000 MW pumped storage projects (PSP), as in the news reports below? Whereas, the multiple concerns for the people of the state from a PSP were discussed in an email dated 12th October 2019 (addressed to you as the Chairperson, Karnataka State Board for Wildlife), I would like to reiterate such concerns in the overall context that the Union govt. is planning to set up 18,000 MW of such PSPs by 2032.
Whereas it is not clear to me as to how much of discussions are held at various levels of the state govt. on the pros and cons of such pumped storage projects (PSPs), I am constrained to observe that most of the associated issues have not been diligently considered w.r.t the direct and indirect costs to our society from such projects; meager benefits from the same; and the multiple & credible alternatives existing within the state's boundaries (as well as across the country) to achieve the overall objective of pumped storage projects. When we also consider the fact that India is planning to commission 18 Gigawatts (18,000 MW) of Pumped Hydro Storage capacity by 2032, the real concern w.r.t the enormous overall societal level costs, in the form of environmental damages, should become obvious. The ecological damages alone from so many hydel power plants in a span of about 10 years can be of huge concern to the project impacted communities.
May I request your personal intervention to prevent the massive ecological damages from such projects, and to deploy suitable alternatives, as explained in a few paragraphs below?
1. A pumped storage plant/project (PSP) generally involves one upper reservoir and a lower reservoir which are effectively connected by suitably designed pipes to pump water from the lower reservoir to upper reservoir during lean power demand hours, and utilise such volume of water to generate electricity during the peak power demand hours. In this scheme of things, a set of machines called reversible turbines, which can function both: (i) as a pump to push water from the lower reservoir to upper reservoir; and (ii) as a hydro electricity generator by utilising the water from the upper reservoir and discharging the same to the lower reservoir, are installed at a suitable location between upper reservoir and a lower reservoir.

Societal costs and benefits of PSPs

2. As is evident, such a scheme can be feasible only when there is adequate gradient/ elevation difference between upper reservoir and lower reservoir, and in a hilly or mountainous area. Also, it is a scientific fact that such a scheme will consume more power to pump a given volume of water from the lower reservoir to upper reservoir, as compared to the magnitude of power it can generate from the same volume of water. As a rough indicator it is reasonable to assume that a PSP will consume about 25% more power than it can generate. So, for the state as a whole, there will be a net loss of electrical energy from each of such PSPs. One of the newspaper reports, as in a link above, even calls PSPs as very efficient without understanding the overall science behind such PSPs. By no stretch of imagination an electricity power generation technology, which consumes more power than it can generate, and which is designed to operate for about 6-8 hours only in a day, can be called as efficient technology.
Additionally, such PSPs can be relevant only in a scenario wherein there is surplus grid scale electrical energy during off-peak hours so as to utilise the same to pump water from the lower reservoir to upper reservoir. But most states in Indian conditions, and certainly, the state of Karnataka cannot be seen as having surplus electricity at any time of the day; and specially during night hours. Hence, PSPs can be a sort of burden on the state's grid, thereby compounding the electricity demand/supply problems.
3. Since the PSPs need to be located in hilly or mountainous areas, considerable land areas will have to be diverted either because of the submergence by waters of the two reservoirs, or for the purpose of pipelines, concrete structures, roads, power lines etc. In the case of Karnataka, the locations which are most likely to be identified by our authorities as suitable for PSPs, are in the Western Ghats, which are the only thickly forested areas in the state, and which are a world heritage site of global importance from Climate Change perspective. The geographical area under the cover of forests and trees in the state is only about 23% as compared to the National Forest Policy target of 33%. This is also true at the national level. The state has lost an enormous area of these very high value forests for the sake of a large number of linear projects since 1947, including most of the hydel power projects in the state. The state cannot afford to lose any more of these forest lands in order to safeguard the true welfare of our people. But more PSPs in the state will only mean further destruction of such forest lands, whose consequences can be horrendous to the state's public.
4. Whereas any PSP built in a new location can be generally expected to submerge/ destroy substantial areas of forested/ vegetation covered land (to build two reservoirs, power plant, and the associated infrastructures such as additional transmission lines and roads etc), if such a PSP is planned to be built even in an existing hydel power plant, at least one more reservoir (requiring the diversion of substantial areas of forested/ vegetation covered land) has to be built. Even in a scenario wherein such a PSP is planned to be built between two existing reservoirs on the same river (as in the case of the proposed PSP in Sharavathy valley Wildlife Sanctuary), destruction of substantial areas of forested/ vegetation covered land, will be necessary to build power plant, upstream and downstream pipelines, power lines and other infrastructures needed. In the case of the proposed PSP in Sharavathy valley Wildlife Sanctuary, about 360 acres of pristine forest land of very high ecological value is projected to be diverted.
5. At a time when the phenomenon of Climate Change has forced the UN Secretary General to term the global environment scenario as a climate emergency, and when the total land area in the state under the cover of forest & trees (and of course in the country too) is only about 23% as against a National Forest Policy target of 33%, it will be suicidal from the perspective of societal welfare to divert so much of thick & virgin forest land within a legally protected valley Wildlife Sanctuary; that too for a meager benefit associated with a PSP. The overall negative consequences to the ecology of the state, country and global climate change scenario can only be very high from such PSP in the state. The destruction of large chunks of original forest cover for the purpose of PSP will not only reduce the overall ability of our tropical forests as a highly effective Carbon sink, but will also lead to considerable amounts of Methane (CH4), which is a highly potent GHG, because of the submerged vegetation in the reservoirs.
6. In view of all these factors, the overall costs of a PSP in Karnataka's Western Ghats to the larger society should be credibly treated as unacceptably high, as these costs cannot be compensated/ recovered by any other means; especially in the context that there are suitable options available to our society to realise the overall objective of a PSP. A high level analysis of each of these alternative options options are much benign and of much lower overall societal costs as compared to the option of PSP.

Benign and low cost alternatives to PSP

A recent media report says that as per the National Electricity Plan 2022, India will require additional 17 GW of hydro capacity addition between 2022 to 2031 to sustain 500 GW of renewables in the grid. (). If this theory/ simulation by CEA is to be accepted as it is, then the country will require many times more hydro capacity addition by 2040/50, including pumped storage plants (PSPs), to sustain 1,500/2,000 GW of RE capacity, expected by then. Does the country possess so much hydel power/ PSP potential? Even if our technocrats say that there is a total of 150 GW of hydro power potential in the country, is our country willing to pay the humongous societal level cost of setting up all of this much hydel power capacity? Should the associated social, environmental and financial costs be acceptable to our people?
Hence, there is a critical need to diligently consider the true need for additional hydro power plants, particularly the PSPs, in our country. It is also critical to study how many power grid systems in countries such as the Gulf countries, France, UK, Australia etc. which are much less endowed with Hydro Power potential, have been satisfactorily managing the largely thermal power based grid, and how resolutely they are moving towards green energy transition. Such a study will reveal that hydro power capacity is not essential either to satisfactorily manage the thermal based grid, or to objectively move towards energy transition. What is needed is better planning, suitable modifications to the operational regime of the grid, and penalty/ incentive for disciplined grid operation; obviously involving effective participation of end customers of electricity.
Since the environmental damages associated with hydro power plants/ PSPs cannot be acceptable to our communities, especially in the context of the fast looming threats of Climate Change, our state/ country has no option but to diligently consider all possible methodologies to minimise the peak demand for grid supplied electricity during the morning and evening hours.
7. One or more of much benign and very low cost options such as efficiency improvement; demand side management (DSM), operational regime changes; and optimal usage of suitably designed energy storage batteries connected to the grid at dense load locations (such as Bengaluru, Hubli, Mysuru, Mangalore, Belgaum etc.) can effectively overcome the need for additional PSPs. It is unfortunate that these options seem to have not been considered diligently by our authorities. The state can and should minimise/ eliminate the need for additional hydro power plants/ PSPs by diligently considering the following alternative options. Since the lighting load constitutes a majority of peak electricity demand in India, an adequate focus to reduce the same should be of critical importance.
a) As against the international best practice of about 5% in T&D losses, the state of Karnataka is known to be recording about 15% of T&D losses; bringing it down to the international best practice level alone can reduce the peak hour demand by a considerable margin. Such reduction in T&D losses is also associated with many financial, technical and economic benefits. Hence, it should be a high priority area.
b) Demand side management (DSM) has a huge potential to reduce the peak hour demand by shifting many kinds of loads/ appliances to off-peak hour time; and by improving the energy efficiency of all kinds of appliances. Many reports have indicated that a considerable percentage of light energy from street lighting devices can be saved through efficient/ suitable design. It has been observed that most of the public locations, which are illuminated by street lights, are over illuminated to the extent of 2-3 times more than the optimal value specified by BIS. This should be a task of national importance keeping in view the multi-dimensional benefits from it. Hence, adequate priority should be given to it. Many of the streetlights and many of the lighting devices in public buildings/ places, such as parks, can be fed by solar power charged and isolated energy storage batteries; thereby reducing the peak hour demand for electricity on the grid. Optimal usage of such isolated energy storage batteries will also lead to reduced losses, and more accountability. The vast number of locations such as govt. offices, commercial buildings, industries, educational institutions etc. can make use of the rooftops available in their premises for installing solar photo voltaic (SPV) systems, and use the same for their lighting purposes through energy storage batteries as and when needed; thereby massively reducing the peak demand for grid electricity.
c) A massive awareness campaign for better customer behavior with suitable enabling policies on financial incentive/ penalty for using/ not using electricity during peak demand hours (say between 5.00 AM and 9.00 AM, and between 6.00 PM and 9.00 PM) should be effectively discussed with all stakeholder groups and implemented urgently. The usage of many of the commonly used appliances, such as mixer/ grinders, electric irons, washing machine/ dryers, microwave ovens, electric vehicle chargers etc. can be shifted to off-peak demand periods, if the necessary incentives/ penalty are suitably designed and built into electricity tariffs and if TOD meters are installed.
Such a scheme can be feasible only if there is adequate elevation difference between upper and lower reservoir
8. The concept and technology of energy storage batteries has reached a stage of fair maturity during the last decade. The same technology is being widely used both in small sizes, and also in a grid interactive mode. It is not uncommon in recent years to notice tenders for supply and commissioning of battery energy storage systems of a few hundred MWh capacity (as high as 800- 1,000 MWh). Scores of such systems have already been connected to grid all over the world, and they are reported to be operating satisfactorily, similar to the operation of a fast acting hydro power plant. In this context, it is techno-economically feasible to install suitably designed and adequate size energy storage batteries at major sub-stations all over the grid, not only to provide the quick start power capacity and voltage support, but also to provide the much needed peak hour demand support. Since the technological improvements of such battery energy storage systems are being reported regularly, their efficiency and costs will improve considerably over the next few years. It is already reported that the overall cost of new solar PLUS the associated battery energy storage systems are highly competitive as compared to new coal/ gas/ nuclear/ hydro power plants. Hence, there seems no credible reason not to deploy battery energy storage systems at all the critical points of the powergrid, and to minimize/ eliminate the need for PSPs. Our authorities must diligently consider this techno-economically attractive option of meeting the peak hour demand instead of PSPs.
9. Another benign option is to diligently ensure that every one of the existing hydel power plants generate to the full capacity during peak demand hours of morning and evening. Karnataka has about 4,200 MW of hydel power capacity, out of which KPCL alone has about 3,800 MW of hydel power capacity. If any of these hydel power plants are not planned/ operated to run at full capacity during the peak demand hours for any reason, the same should be thoroughly examined, and all possible measures to overcome such constraints should be considered.
10. A report by the erstwhile Planning Commission under the title "Integrated Energy Policy" had admitted that the potential of DSM to reduce the effective grid demand at the national level is quite high, and the same can result in demand reduction by about 25%. Much of the perceived need to build new power plants in the country is because of the escalating growth in the peak hour power demand, as compared to a much less growth in annual energy demand. Hence, all possible measures to minimise such a high growth in peak hour demand for electricity is critical for our country in order to minimise the deleterious impacts on our natural resources. Honest efforts must be made continuously to limit our peak electricity demand so as not to exceed 85-90% of the total installed capacity at any given point in time. It can be argued that a considerable portion of the peak demand, especially the evening peak demand, is not due to essential economic activities (since the same cannot be seen as contributing to the national economy), and can be managed outside of the peak hours and/or completely eliminated. An example is the night time sports, such as limited over cricket matches, which consume a substantial amount of electricity during peak hours. Such activities can be shifted to day time, when solar power will be available in plenty, OR, can be made to be supplied through isolated/ independent sources of electricity, such as energy storage batteries.
11. The National Electricity Policy (2006) has said: “It would have to be clearly recognized that the Power Sector will remain unviable until T&D losses are brought down significantly and rapidly. A large number of States have been reporting losses of over 40% in recent years. By any standards, these are unsustainable and imply a steady decline of power sector operations. Continuation of the present level of losses would not only pose a threat to the power sector operations but also jeopardize the growth prospects of the economy as a whole. No reforms can succeed in the midst of such large pilferages on a continuing basis".
Without such diligence in minimising the growth in peak hour demand and annual energy demand for electricity, it will not be in the interest of our society to keep adding to power capacity blindly, whether in the form of PSPs, or dam based hydel power plants, or any other type of conventional technology power plants. When we also objectively consider the already deteriorating health of overall health of natural resource base in the country, the huge population base, pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil, the general health of our people etc., it can even be termed as criminal on part of all the concerned authorities to continue to ignore so many credible warnings on inefficiencies in the power sector, and to pour thousands of Crores of Rupees from our meager resource base on all types of conventional types of power plants; not just PSPs.
Hence, a suitable mandate may please be given to the state energy department and all the associated agencies to undertake due diligence in all such planning activities to minimise the social, economic and environmental damages. It will be in the true interest of our people to deploy an effective usage of economic decision making tools such as "Costs & Benefits analysis", " Options Analysis", and "Risk Management" etc. in all the associated planning activities, and also to have effective public consultations with the concerned stakeholder groups.
On behalf of the people of the state may I hope that the effective due diligence in simulation of electricity demand and supply of electricity for the next 2-3 decades, with a correct perspective of the overall welfare of our people, will reveal the techno-economic feasibility of satisfactorily meeting the legitimate demand for electricity without the need to add dam based hydel power plants , or PSPs, or any other kind of conventional technology power plants in the state?
The energy department may kindly be asked to prepare and publish a discussion paper on state's energy policy to show how the demand for electricity in the state for the next 20-30 years is proposed to be met.
The Union government may also be kindly urged through your good offices to adopt such rational and welfare oriented policies in our energy sector, and publish a diligently prepared National Energy Policy as applicable for the next 3-4 decades.
I am an electrical engineer and a power sector professional with over 4 decades of relevant experience in India, Australia and New Zealand.



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