By Nantoo Banerjee
The recent disastrous glacier outburst at Joshimath in Uttarakhand may have caused a big damage to life and property, including at least four hydroelectric projects in the region, but it is unlikely to slow down the government and industry’s bid to tap the massive potential of the country’s renewable energy. India is aiming at creating some 225 GW of renewable energy by the end of 2022-23. Hydro-electric power projects are expected to contribute substantially to this generation capacity. However, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), headed by the prime minister himself, will be more cautious and would like the new power projects strictly follow the guidelines on how to deal with disasters caused by glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) as such floods may occur again and again.
Structural measures can prevent their sudden breach and establish mechanism to save lives and property in times of a breach. The NDMA finds that glacial retreat due to climate change occur mostly in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. Glaciers in the Himalayas are said to be in a retreating phase. New glacial lakes are emerging. They are a potential threat to downstream infrastructure and life. Reports say that the “Inventory and Monitoring of Glacial Lakes / Water Bodies in the Himalayan Region of Indian River Basins”, sponsored by Climate Change Directorate, Central Water Commission, and done by National Remote Sensing Centre during 2011-15, found that there are 352, 283 and 1,393 glacial lakes and water bodies in the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra basins respectively.
The NDMA guidelines say construction of any habitation should be prohibited in the high hazard zone. “Existing buildings are to be relocated to a safer nearby region and all the resources for the relocation have to be managed by Central/State governments. New infrastructures in the medium hazard zone have to be accompanied by specific protection measures.” The industry is naturally cautious. So are the central and state governments, environmental agencies and NGOs. However, there will be no let up in existing hydropower generation and expansion through new projects.
As it is hydroelectric projects are subject to highly time-consuming permissions and clearances at multiple levels. Contractual conflicts, environmental concerns, financial constraints and unwilling buyers often play spoilsport for new projects. The country’s estimated hydropower potential is said to be 1,45,320 MW, excluding small hydro projects (SHPs). Hydropower potential is identified mainly in northern and north-eastern regions. Arunachal Pradesh is said to have the largest unexploited hydropower potential of 47 GW, followed by Uttarakhand with 12 GW.
Unfortunately, hydel projects tend to grow at a snail’s pace. Due to this, the installed hydropower generation capacity at the end of February, last year, was only around 45,700 MW. Massive procedural delays lead to time and cost overruns. Just for an example, an additional generation of only about 10,000 MW of hydro-electric power was possible over the last 10 years. At a time when the things seem to have started moving, the Joshimath glacial outburst came as a big damper, at least for the time being.
Among the major contributors to the country’s hydropower generation are: National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, NTPC Limited, North-Eastern Electric Power Corporation, THDC India, Sutlej Jal Vidyut Nigam — all under the public sector — and Jaiprakash Associates, Tata Power and Lanco. The mega projects include: Tehri complex with the total capacity of 2,400MW; Koyna Hydroelectric project (1,960 MW); Srisailam Dam (1,670 MW); Nathpa Jhakri Dam (1,530 MW) and Sardar Sarovar Dam (1,450 MW). Uttarakhand, Arunachal, Assam, Mizoram and Nagaland boast a number of projects with capacities ranging from 25 MW to in excess of 1,000 MW. Uttarakhand’s Tehri complex top the list of big-time hydroelectric power plants in the country.
The prospect of hydroelectric power generation got a big boost in 2019 after the government approved a slew of measures, including awarding renewable energy status for large hydel projects and new funding provisions. Earlier, hydropower projects only up to 25 MW capacity were considered as renewables and were eligible for various incentives like financial assistance and cheaper credit. The government decision paved the way for adding hydro capacities of about 45 GW to the renewable energy basket of existing 74 GW which includes solar, wind and small hydropower projects.
It may be noted that the Himalayan region is also a major source of hydropower for India’s neighbours such as China, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan. The projects offer both opportunities, geographical conflicts and environmental risks for all the countries. For instance, there is speculation that China’s constant military postures along the Ladakh region and the McMahon Line, a demarcation line between Tibet and the North-east region of India, has now gone beyond the actual battlefield to energy infrastructure and water supply, with hydropower at the forefront.
Last November, China’s state-owned Power Construction Corporation announced plans to develop a mammoth hydroelectric project upto 60 gigawatts (GW) capacity on the lower reaches of the Yarlung Zangbo river, known as the Brahmaputra river in India. The project challenges the water security of India and Bangladesh since both the countries are on the downstream of the Bhramaputrariver. It is also likely to have a profound impact on the Himalayan ecosystem
China, by far the world’s largest producer of hydroelectric power, has a number of hydropower plants at the upstream and middle stream of the Brahmaputra river. China has been talking about the “Great Bend” in the Brahmaputra river at Yarlung Zangbo Grand Canyon, where the river falls spectacularly by 2,000 metres and turns sharply into Arunachal Pradesh. As of 2019, China’s hydropower capacity was over 1,300 TwH (terawatt hours). Other top world hydropower producers were Canada (398 TwH), Brazil (397 TwH), the US (274 TwH), Russia (190 TwH) and India (162 TwH). Straddling the Indus Valley, Pakistan is endowed with considerable water resources. Pakistan’s state-owned Water and Power Development Authority estimates its hydropower potential at 60,000 MW, of which 7,320 MW has been developed. (IPA Service)