Views of R.K. Vishnoi: “We are looking at exponential growth in hydropower capacity”

At Indian Infrastructure’s 20th annual conference on “Hydro Power in India”, R.K. Vishnoi, chairman and managing director, NHPC Limited, THDC India Limited and North Eastern Electric Power Corporation Limited (NEEPCO), shared his views on the role of hydro­power in the energy transition, as well as various policy measures undertaken to promote the development of the segment. He also spoke about the key upcoming hydropower projects and expected capacity additions in the coming years, and shared his outlook for the segment, going forward. Edited excerpts…

The energy sector, globally, is transitioning into a new era, and hydro­power has a significant role to play in this transition. We have been advocating for this for many years, and the discussions about climate change and the ill impacts of fossil fuel on the environment are now gaining more prominence. We have been using hydropower for several decades. Our country has ma­ny river systems which are distributed across the country. The water availability cycle in these river basins is such that if we regulate the water flow in these rivers, we can not only fulfil our own requirements, but also those of other parts of mankind.

The hydropower potential in the country is sufficient to maintain the ideal combination of thermal, hydro and renewable energy. The initial policymakers in the country had realised this and some major hydropower schemes we­re taken up soon after Inde­pendence. How­­ever, the growth of hydropower re­mained slow and coal-based power generation took the lead. For almost three decades, fossil fuels have led po­wer generation in the country. With the renewable sector taking off across the globe, India has gradually taken the lead and become the fastest growing renewable energy developer in the world in the last 8 to 10 years. This has also created a lot of challenges, which need to be ad­d­ressed well in time by taking le­ssons fr­om other countries. Three years ago, it was be­ing debated that there shouldn’t be any new coal-fired plants in the country but in the post-Covid power shortage, it has been realised that there’s a minimum requirement for coal-fired power in the grid in order to sustain the baseload demand.

Power generation companies today have a specific role to play in the energy transition pro­cess and need to have diverse sources in their portfolios. Fossil fuel-led power generation companies can no longer afford to be just fossil fuel-based companies, and must have a minimum amount of clean and green energy in their basket. Hydro­power generation companies can no longer afford to have only hydro­power in their basket and need to leverage as much capacity as possible from renewable so­ur­ces such as so­lar and wind. Besides this, all generation companies, whether solar, wind, hydro or thermal, need to have some kind of electricity storage mechanism available in their basket. We need the right kind of tools and resources in our portfolio to provide round-the-clock power as well as to meet the peak power demand.

“India has gradually taken the lead and become the fastest growing renewable energy developer in the world in the last 8-10 years.”

Power demand has been consistently rising in the last few months, and there has been a consistent growth of 8-10 per cent. With the growth in sectors such as electric vehicles, and the introduction of the green hydrogen mission, there is likely to be further growth in power de­ma­nd this year. By the year end, we are ex­pe­cting to cross all previous records of growth. A lot of the power comes from coal-fired plants – 55-60 per cent. We have a large renewable capacity, which is intermittent in nature and needs balancing resources such as hydropower. This year, we will be adding significant hydro ca­pacity in the country. We will be commissioning the largest hydropower project in the country on the Subansiri river in June 2023. We will be adding the largest pumped storage plan (PSP), namely the 1,000 MW Tehri PSP, as well as the 800 MW Parbati hydroelectric plant (HEP), along with another 800-900 MW of smaller plants, which will take the total hydro­power capacity addition to 4-5 GW. Currently, we have 400-410 GW of installed capacity, and this 5 GW of hydropower is very important. The government is eagerly waiting for it, as it will support 100 GW of renewable power.

Around 9-10 GW of hydro capacity is al­ready under construction, and 15-17 GW of projects have been committed by developers and are in the pipeline. By 2028, another 9 GW should come in, some of which will be in the form of PSPs. We are expecting the installed power capacity to be more than 800 GW by 2030. Of this, over 450 GW of capacity is ex­pe­cted to be from solar and wind plants. In order to support this, at least 80 to 90 GW of hydro­power capacity will be required in the grid. Hydro­power professionals and experts should be ready to support this huge transition from a fossil fuel-led power sector to a clean-energy-led power sector. Adding hydro capacity will enable us to add much more re­ne­wable capacity, which is easier for us now given that we’ve already added 100-110 GW of re­newable capacity.

The north-eastern part of the country has a large unharnessed hydropower ca­pacity. In the state of Arunachal Pradesh, huge hydro projects have been lying dormant for the last two deca­des. In the last year, these have been taken over by the central government-led companies THDC, NHPC, SJVN and NEEPCO. These projects have been revived and initiatives have been taken to make them viable. The projects are important not only for the purpose of power generation, but also for energy transition in the country. They are also important for the development of the north-eastern part of the country. Work on projects aggregating almost 15 GW of capacity has been started in Arunachal Pra­desh. Initiatives and developments are expected soon at one of the biggest hydropower projects, with capacity of around 11,500 MW, located in the Siang river basin in Aru­nachal Pradesh. The 3,000 MW Dibang HEP has been cleared by the government, and the investment proposal for the project has been ap­p­roved. We will be taking up the construction of the Dibang HEP shortly. Another big hydro project in Arunachal Pradesh, the Etalin HEP, is expected to see the light of day in the next few years.

Apart from this, recently, in a big push for the development of hydropower, Arunachal Pradesh cleared seven hydro projects and various other initiatives to promote the development of hydropower in the state. Meanwhile, in Jammu & Kashmir, construction work on various hydroelectric projects in the Che­nab River basin, including the Kiru, Kwar and Pakal Dul HEPs, has been re­su­med. These projects had been stalled for several years.

There is a strong thrust from the government to develop hydropower in the country. Various policy interventions are being undertaken in the hydropower segment in order to help developers monetise the benefits of hydropower projects, which are mostly social in na­ture. The government is providing a grant of Rs 10 million to Rs 15 million per MW for the development of enab­ling infrastructure such as roads, brid­ges and transmission lines right up to the project. This support has improv­ed the viability of hydroelectric project tariffs. In addition to this, the government has announc­ed the hydro­power purchase obligation trajectory, which has made it mandatory for distribution com­panies to procure a part of their po­wer requirement from hydro. Hydro­power projects operate for 100 years, and are perennial in nature. These projects also offer a lot of incidental benefits. The surroundings of Bhakra and Tehri have been developed into tourist spots. As such, hydropower projects stand to offer a host of benefits to a country’s power sector.

The next big thing in the power sector is the development of green hydrogen, for which the national green hydrogen mission was recently announced. The deve­lopment of hydropower can support the operations of additional solar and wind capacity, and the increased renewable energy generation in the country will support the production of green hydrogen. The government is encouraging the production of gr­een hydrogen not only for domestic consum­p­tion, but also for export to other countries. Cen­tral public sector undertakings have in­itiated pilot projects in the green hydrogen space and are expected to come up with big projects in the next one to two years. Overall, an enabling policy framework, the huge hydropower potential, the availability of good solar insolation, and a large wind potential puts us in the best position to make India a hub for green hydrogen production.

An important aspect of the development of hydropower is changing the perception of people towards hydropower projects. For many de­cades, people have been made to believe that hydro projects are detrimental to the environment, forests and river ecology, among other things. Various studies have been undertaken and none of them have proved any kind of adverse impact of hydropower projects.

However, even if there are some adverse impacts of HEP development, there are ways and means to mitigate them and find solutions with the various technological advancements that have been achieved in the last three deca­des or so. The government has taken up a social outreach initiative named LAHAR, to spr­ead awareness about the benefits of large hydropower projects. Under this initiative, people from different parts of the country visit hydro projects to see how they have impacted the developme­nt of local areas. Recently, a delegation from Arunachal Pradesh visited the Nar­mada Sagar, Tehri and Bhakra HEPs, and when they returned, they became the ambassadors of hydropower development in their home states.

To conclude, we are looking at exponential growth in hydropower capacity in the country in next 8-10 years. This year, a few big-ticket projects are expected to be commissioned, and going forward we are expecting similar capacity additions every year.