Last week, India’s Minster of Power went on record saying that India can meet its electricity demand for the next ten years without installing any additional hydropower capacity. This proclamation is a fillip to activists campaigning against the destructive cascade of hydropower dams planned in the upper reaches of Himalayan rivers. The Minister, no less, is implying we can pause, breathe, and perhaps re-think our strategy.
The Minister’s statement follows recent news that next year, for the first time in its 70-year independent history, India will experience a power surplus. The statement made headlines as the Minister cited it as a major achievement for the two-year-old government.
“In one way, we agree and welcome this news that there are no supply constraints,” says Himanshu Thakker, Convenor of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People. “But the government must now prioritize the management of energy demand, look to improve transmission efficiency, and at the same time retire destructive coal and hydropower whilst promoting deployment of renewables.”
A Shifting Landscape
While reaching surplus power is a huge development, it doesn’t guarantee that the energy is reaching those who need it most. In fact, if you look closely at the numbers, this gross national surplus actually conceals ongoing regional disparities.
Though the country will experience a sizeable surplus in the western and southern regions (6.9% and 3.3% respectively), this hides the 10.3% and 8.3% deficits anticipated in the eastern and northeastern region of the country. In all, 15 of the 36 identified regions across the country will likely continue to face energy deficits in 2016-17.
In addition to suffering from regional deficits, a huge number of Indians still lack electricity entirely. “Only 67.2% of the households in the country have access to electricity. One reason for this is that the grid has not reached many remote areas. Millions live in makeshift shelters and cannot afford paying either for the initial service connection charges or for monthly consumption of electricity,” says E A S Sharma, former secretary of the Ministry of Power.
Simply adding generation capacity won’t bring electricity to those who need it most. In 2001, 78 million rural and seven million urban households lacked access to electricity. Ten years later, very little had changed: Even though India had added 95,000 Megawatts (MW) of new capacity during the decade, the 2011 Census reported that 75 million rural and six million urban households still did not have energy access. This, says Sharma, goes to show that benefits of new capacity went largely to existing consumers.
For years, the Indian government has pushed to enhance capacity. “The country-wide power deficit has been reducing since 2012-13, which at the time used to be around 9%,” says N Sreekumar, a member of the nonprofit think-tank Prayas Energy Group. This supply-oriented approach, says Sreekumar, has led to a macro surplus, but the country failed to correspondingly match the supply with a wide and efficient promotion of electricity access and demand.
Therefore the challenge will be reaching out to populations that have little or no access to electricity. “I wish the Minister had talked about the need to transition to green megawatts and stress on saved megawatts (Negawatts) through transmission and distribution loss reductions and efficiency improvements, which are far cheaper than creating new capacities,” says Sharma.
In 2015-16, India faced a gross shortage of 2.1% and a peaking power deficit (when demand is at its highest) of 3.2%. Assuming a capacity addition of 16,654 MW in 2016-17, the Load Generation Balance Report 2016-17 forecasts that India will have a surplus of 2.6% during peak hours and 1.1% during non-peak hours. Now that supply has caught up with demand, rather than carelessly going about increasing capacity, and broadcasting it as a major achievement as if in election campaign mode, it’s time precedence is given to reach the millions living in the dark. The government must not rush to build new destructive hydropower and coal projects. Instead, it must undertake a new project: rebuilding the grid.
Perhaps then the recent statements by the Power Minister will serve as a watershed moment for the country to now look more closely at transmission bottlenecks, last mile infrastructure, economic incentives and disincentives, decentralized power and smart grid infrastructure.
Civil society organizations and activists are hopeful that the government re-evaluates its strategy on large hydropower (>25MW), and instead focuses on true renewables such as solar, wind and micro hydropower in their efforts to reach remote and energy-dark zones in India. The writing is on the wall; for the first time renewable energy surpassed hydropower capacity as per official data published by the Central Electricity Authority in May, earlier this year.