Once again, India is in the throes of a dam-building enthusiasm. Not only are old, stranded projects being revived, newer ones are being commissioned as well.
Just last year, the BJP-led NDA government announced fresh dams in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. In Sikkim, there is speculation that a 520 MW hydel project at Dzongu will be revived. In Kashmir, so many dams are being built that the region’s hydel power output will double from the existing 3,504 MW to 7,001 MW.
The biggest of these pushes, however, is in Arunachal Pradesh. In December, 2021, the Union power ministry sanctioned 29 hydel projects—adding up to 32,415 MW—in the state.
But hidden underneath these announcements is a state-financed gamble over hydel’s role in India’s decarbonisation.
As the pressure to cut emissions rises, India will struggle to add new thermal power plants. At the same time, alternatives to coal-based power are still imperfect. Renewables are cheap, but not available all day. Gas, as CarbonCopy has reported, is too expensive to be competitive. Nuclear is too small in scale—and, as agitations like Kudankulam showed—runs into intense opposition.
That leaves hydel power. It, however, is costlier than solar. And so, instead of having it compete with low solar tariffs, the NDA government wants to use hydel for peak power and grid-stabilisation. “Renewables come with intermittency and so we will need hydel to balance the grid,” said Vinay Shrivastava, a former executive director (western region) of India’s Power System Operation Corporation (POSOCO), a state-owned enterprise, which manages India’s electricity grid.
And so, not only does the BJP-headed NDA government want to push India’s installed hydel capacity to 70,000 MW by 2030—a 50% jump from the current 45,700 MW—it’s also readying a large push on pumped storage. As energy minister RK Singh told the Economic Times, the NDA has also identified 63 projects adding up to a generating capacity of 96,000 MW.
Hard-wired into this push, however, is a bet that hydel can hold its own against emerging storage technologies like battery energy storage systems (BESS) and electrolysers.
Answers to that question in the second part of our series.