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Govt seeking to expand power grid across India 'without caring for' eco-sensitive areas

By Shankar Sharma*
It would be critical in the overall welfare perspective of our society to raise fundamental issues of huge relevance to our people even with regard to the path of smooth energy transition. The so-called lack of transmission infrastructure at the national level should be credibly questioned in the context of multiple concerns for our society because of the business as usual (BAU) scenario of the ever expanding and increasing complexity of integrated grid being pursued in our country.
There is a need for our civil society groups to persuade the decision making authorities to diligently consider all the costs and risks associated with the BAU scenario, and also the credible alternative options available to the society, in this critical pathway for energy transition.
The basic question that needs to be asked to our authorities in this regard is: why do we need only the ever expanding and increasing complexity of integrated grid to harness renewable energy (RE); and why not fully utilise the distributed kinds of REs, which will not need any new transmission line?
A high level analysis of the draft National Electricity Plan (Volume II), Transmission (years 2022-27) has listed many serious concerns of  the BAU scenario being followed in the Indian power sector, and has indicated credible alternative options available to our society.
It is deplorable, but also can be disastrous, that despite many techno-economically attractive options available to our society to meet the legitimate need for electricity of our people, the old policies in our power sector of expanding the integrated national power grid to all nooks and corners of the country, without caring for the need to protect ecologically sensitive areas such as wildlife sanctuaries, tiger reserves, national parks, and other wildlife habitats are being pursued by our authorities at enormous costs to the larger society, including that of credible threat of extinction of many species such as great Indian Bustard (GIB).
It is even more troubling to project that on the basis of a statement by the Union government that “the Centre has told the Supreme Court that it is not possible to comply with the court's order to put power lines underground, even as they crisscross the Godavans' habitat", the court may decide to allow such lines to pass through the natural habitats of GIBs.
Whereas it is true that it is unacceptably costly to put all power lines underground, our society must objectively consider all the techno-economically viable options to sustainably meet our legitimate electricity needs, instead of focusing on very large size solar power parks and the associated high voltage power lines. The recent decision of the Union government to encourage roof top solar PV systems on 1 crore houses, should be an obvious pointer with regard to the humongous potential in our country from roof top solar PV systems.
What has become critically urgent for the entire society is to seek rational answers to a question: "Why is it essential to put one or more high voltage power lines in such ecologically sensitive areas?" Have all the other credible options been diligently considered from the holistic perspective of the overall welfare of our country?
For example, what does an objective analysis of "costs and benefits (CBA)" to the larger society of the alternative option of optimally harnessing solar power on rooftops of various kinds of buildings in Rajasthan and Gujarat (and of course all over the country) indicate? Why should our society consciously permit the extinction of GIBs due to our indifference to consider various credible alternatives?
In this context, an analysis of the BAU scenario of the power system planning in our country, as in the forwarded email below, should indicate the grave dangers to our ecology due to the continuation of the BAU scenario, and multiple credible alternatives to minimise such ecological damage.
Unless the leading media houses take the necessary initiatives to raise such basic questions on the BAU scenario in the electricity/ energy sector, and seek satisfactory clarifications from the concerned authorities, we will continue to witness the irreversible degradation/ destruction of our natural resources.
The focus of the authorities seems to be on massive expansion of transmission infrastructure at enormous cost to society
Meanwhile, as a part of its mandate under IE Act 2003, the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) invited public comments on its draft National Electricity Plan Volume II Transmission (years 2022-27). My comments (attached here), sent to the the Chairman, CEA, New Delhi, are provided with the hope that the letter and spirit of the same will be objectively taken into account in finalising the plan for this and the subsequent plan periods.
The brief summary of the comments are:
  • Like all other Acts of our Parliament, the IE Act 2003, and various plans under this Act, should comply with the letter and spirit of the relevant sections of our Constitution. This plan as well as the relevant plan on electricity generation should have the environment at their focal point; but there is hardly any reference to the environment in this plan.
  • Keeping in view the global focus on the sort of climate emergency that is being experienced all over the planet, and the inextricable linkage of the power sector to global warming, there should have been unambiguous efforts in this plan to minimize the associated impacts. But sadly, the focus of the plan seems to be on massive expansion of the transmission infrastructure at enormous cost to the society; but various credible alternatives available to minimize such impacts seem to be completely absent in the associated consideration of the CEA. 
  • The long-term needs of the power sector, constraints of our natural resource base, and global efforts to minimize the impacts of climate change seem to have been ignored in the pursuit of the BAU scenario of ever-expanding transmission infrastructure. 
  • The costs and risks associated with the modern integrated power grid, because of the increased complexity, and the enormous power capacity being handled in such integrated networks, in the form of blackouts, have not been discussed. 
  • There is a critical need to diligently consider how widespread usage of rooftop solar PVs, BESS, and EVs can effectively reduce the perceived need for massive expansion of the transmission infrastructure as has been projected in the plan. 
  • A different paradigm for generation and transmission planning and/ or meeting the growing demand for electricity is needed. 
  • Focus on the concept of a federation of micro/smart grids at the regional /national level connected to each other through distribution networks, and/ or very few high voltage transmission lines 
  • An objective consideration of the performance of a large number of energy co-operatives in many countries, such as Germany, Australia, France etc. can provide us with a good model to be emulated in India.
Civil society groups and individuals, who are concerned about the policies and practices in the power sector, are hoping to see a paradigm shift in the way our authorities will view the real needs of our people, the constraints in our country, and the scenario of climate emergency across the globe etc. for the overall welfare of our people.
An effective consultation process involving the interested domain experts, individuals and civil society groups can go a long way in making such strategic documents highly relevant to our needs.
Power & Climate Policy Analyst



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