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To keep the lights on, India’s power sector needs climate-resilient grids

Given India’s ambitious plans to rapidly transition to a cleaner energy economy, it becomes imperative to develop and invest in climate resilient power grids to improve people’s living standards 

August 30, 2021 / 03:30 PM IST

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published on August 9 has declared global warming as an existential threat as some impacts of global temperature rise cannot be undone. The report also provides evidence of how climate systems have changed faster than previously predicted, and warns against severe cyclones, heat waves and erratic rainfall events in South Asia, such as Cyclone Tauktae that hit India’s west coast this May, and the Mumbai deluge in July.

In the power sector, such events affect the entire value chain of grid infrastructure — from generating plants to transmission lines and end-consumer distribution. On the generation side, climate events impede the supply of raw materials, while disturbances in the supply chain affects their availability. Droughts, for instance, could impact water resources essential for electricity generation.

On the distribution side, there are security and reliability issues where infrastructure is weak and poorly maintained as climate events can exacerbate these issues. Flash floods in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district damaged the under-construction Tapovan-Vishnugad NTPC Hydro Power Project on the river Dhauli Ganga, and the storm in Barmer and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan uprooted 1,100 electricity poles blacking out 100-125 villages and hamlets for days. When Cyclone Tauktae was about to hit amid the second wave of COVID-19, Gujarat managed electricity outages by ensuring backups at hospitals and deploying teams to tackle the operational issues. Yet nearly 450 villages did not have electricity for over a week.

The susceptibility of grid infrastructure to climate change became apparent when millions of people in Texas, United States, went without power for days due to severe winter storms in February.

Utilities, governments, and stakeholders need to urgently integrate climate resilience into infrastructure planning processes to mitigate risks faced by customers during and after such disasters. Risk assessments for the entire supply chain need to be done factoring in climate and weather-based information. The sector needs to develop capacity to interpret climate information so that uncertainties that impact power infrastructure are understood. While developing risk reduction mechanisms and disaster response systems, impacts arising from water and heat stress and changing electricity demand patterns should be taken into account. Resilience plans should consider environmental regulations, technical capacity to respond, insurance protocols and regulatory support.

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Smart Technologies

Smart technologies such as automatic outage detection, sensors, and distribution automation systems (DAS) can enable utilities to plan and revive during such contingencies. It is critical to have a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system along with smart metering technologies which record and monitor data at both transmission and distribution levels on a real-time basis.

Robust data communication systems and accurate forecasting techniques will prove helpful in communicating real-time data to all the nodes of the system (till the distribution transformer level) and, thereby, help utilities plan their operations accordingly during such events. Additionally, grid strengthening measures including high-temperature transmission lines, low-sag conductors, and undergrounding would be beneficial.

With increasing recognition of value that demand response and load control technologies bring to the system, the islanding effect can also be thought of to ensure faster restoration during blackouts. Grid islanding helps in isolating parts of the grid infrastructure from the entire system during major disturbance and serves as backup when centralised systems fail.

Decentralised Energy Infrastructure

India would be better placed in achieving its ambitious target of installing 450GW of renewables by 2030, by planning for stand-alone and mini grid-connected decentralised renewable energy (DRE) solutions. These could help in providing electricity to essential sectors such as homes, schools, health centres and local enterprises. The DRE systems are increasingly being adopted in remote, hard-to-reach regions with no electricity connections, or where access is unreliable.

Cost effectiveness, modular components, low maintenance and reduced downtime requirements could boost the adoption of DRE, including distributed energy resources such as solar-plus battery solutions. Compared with sprawling grid-connected solar parks, the scale of infrastructure on-site DRE is small.

These solutions need to incorporate climate-resilient designs and risk operation practices at the planning stage itself. What also needs to be considered is the long term maintenance, insurance, community ownership, training locals for basic maintenance, and planning transport routes in case of emergencies. The DRE is assumed to have lower outage risks compared to the grid — but that cannot be a default consideration when these systems power essential services.

Given India’s ambitious plans to rapidly transition to a cleaner energy economy, it becomes imperative to develop and invest in climate resilient power grids to improve people’s living standards.

Sandhya Sundararagavan and Namrata Ginoya are researchers at the World Resources Institute, India’s Energy Program.

Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Namrata Ginoya is a researcher at the World Resources Institute, India’s Energy Programme.
Sandhya Sundararagavan is a researcher at the World Resources Institute, India’s Energy Programme.

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