Why we still have to rely on hydel power

The human and ecological tragedy in the aftermath of a glacier burst near Raini village above Rishi Ganga river in Uttarakhand has once again raised the spectre of hydropower projects in the ecologically-fragile and earthquake-prone Himalayan region. Mint explores the rationale behind India’s energy planners’ dependence on hydropower in India’s energy mix.

Experts say this trade-off can’t be an either-or scenario because growth and environment protection needs to be balanced, as India works towards bridging its energy poverty.

Why hydropower?

India, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, plans to add 45 gigawatts (GW) of hydropower capacity to its energy basket. Unless low-cost grid scale battery storage solutions are available, hydropower projects are ideal to meet peak load compared to thermal power plants because of their ability to provide electricity to the grid within three to five minutes from being switched on.

These plants can be swiftly turned on and off, compared to thermal power plants, which take around four hours to be brought online if the boilers are lit and a day in the event of a cold start. In comparison, gas-fuelled projects take around 30 minutes to come online. Also, India does not have large natural gas production capacity.

“As long as any other viable means of generation with faster ramp rate is not available hydropower would be necessary for stabilization of the grid. The efforts to reduce the technical minimum operation level for thermal projects to say 30% or less may reduce this dependence to some extent , subject to its commercial viability.

With the infusion of solar energy coming in a big way in near future, the grid would need a backup power of a quality that only hydropower can provide,” said Balraj Joshi, former chairman and managing director of state-run NHPC Ltd, India’s largest hydropower generator.

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