In June 2023, three years after India Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that “every single village in India now has access to electricity,” a government organisation in Meghalaya informed an energy conference that only 61 per cent of 538,299 households in the small northeast state had electricity as the main source of lighting at home.
While Meghalaya does face major challenges in distributing power due to rough terrain and a dispersed population living in hard-to-access villages, energy shortages could potentially be met with renewable energy, which offers more decentralised options.
However, in a presentation by Meghalaya New And Renewable Energy Development Agency (MNREDA) at a seminar to promote clean energy in the region, it emerged that the state has yet to realise one per cent of its renewable energy potential. Its installed capacity is 50.47 megawatts (MW) compared to a potential of 6,103 MW from solar, bio-energy and small hydro projects.
Meghalaya is not an isolated case of underused renewable potential. According to the public sector enterprise North Eastern Electric Power Corporation (NEEPCO), the estimated potential for renewable energy in the northeastern region from solar, small hydro and bio-energy is around 65,837 MW, of which only 610 MW has been realised.
India has witnessed rapid growth in the renewable energy sector nationally, recording a three-fold increase over the past eight years, from 39,550 MW in March 2015 to 1,29,643 MW in June 2023. But the eastern and northeastern regions present a contrasting picture.
Even though the eastern states of West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha do not face as many terrain challenges as the eight states in the northeast, their cumulative installed capacity stands at only 1,797 MW. Together, the two regions account for only 2,407 MW or 1.85 per cent of the country’s 129,643 MW of installed renewable capacity, as of June 2023. The regions make up 20.7 per cent of India’s total geographical area.
Policy experts point out that for the eastern Indian states, the abundant availability of coal and the dependence on mining are slowing the transition to renewable energy. The high cost of land in the fertile landscape of the lower Gangetic plains and high population density, particularly in West Bengal and Bihar, are also cited as impediments.
Vibhuti Garg, director, South Asia, for think tank Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, points out that eastern India has traditionally built coal-based capacity, which was cheaper to not only meet its own demand but also to supply power to other states. Northeastern states on the other hand have been relying on gas or large hydro projects for power generation.
“These states should exploit their renewable energy potential as well, as the cost of renewable energy generation has fallen considerably. Any new additional coal or gas plant will be fraught with environmental concerns. More importantly, raising finance for new coal capacity is becoming increasingly difficult,” she told Eco-Business.
Garg thinks that since the demand for consumption is going to increase, expanding renewable energy capacity would help these states achieve the twin objectives of meeting social and environmental goals and at the same time increasing state GDP.
“These states have the unique advantage of supplementing variable renewable energy with hydro as a flexible generation source and can be leaders in meeting their demand through clean energy sources completely,” she said.
According to Neshwin Rodrigues, an electricity policy analyst with Ember Climate, a United Kingdom-based environmental think tank, one major constraint for the northeast region lies in solar irradiation and wind availability, which significantly impacts the feasibility of solar and wind power plants.
Even when land is available, the relatively low irradiance in these regions results in lower electricity generation and, consequently, higher costs for the energy produced.
Rodrigues cited the example of solar and wind plants in western Indian states like Rajasthan being capable of generating 25 to 40 per cent more electricity compared to northeastern states.
Additionally, while the rough terrain contributes to an increase in the cost of building infrastructure, the northeastern states may also find purchasing from states with higher generation potential to be “more economical” than setting up their own infrastructure. Due to the waiver of the Inter-State transmission system, charges for buying solar and wind power from other states do not cost extra.
The nature of the local energy demand curve in the northeast is another issue, said Rodrigues, pointing out that the peak demand typically occurs during the late evening hours when solar generation is at its lowest. This results in a pressing need for dispatchable power generation or storage capacity to meet peak demand effectively.
“Policymakers need to address these concerns and promote viable solutions to accelerate the transition towards renewable energy sources in these regions,” he said.
The MNREDA presentation echoed these concerns. It stated that private developers lacked interest in developing renewables in the region due to a dearth of profitable power purchase agreements. Finding suitable land is also difficult as the state is listed under the 6th Schedule of the Constitution of India, which restricts outsiders from buying land in tribal areas such as Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Mizoram.
At the same event, Neizeno Peseyie, project officer of Nagaland’s Department of New and Renewable Energy, identified land availability, access to funds and the latest technologies, high cost of transportation and the lack of a renewable energy policy among the challenges the state faces in boosing renewables adoption.
The Tripura government representative highlighted that reaching some habitations required walking for 20-30 kilometres and there were many areas where “grid supply is not feasible and economically viable” and power supply was “very much erratic & unreliable.”
Balawant Joshi, a founder and managing director of IDAM Infrastructure Advisory, said that the complexities make hybrid systems, which leverage complementary generation from wind, solar and small hydro, more suitable for the region. He pointed out that the average wind speed in most of the east and northeastern states is less than 5 metres per second, excluding a few isolated pockets, and this results in higher tariffs.
However, while the government does not see major wind energy potential in the northeast of India, Joshi said that the terrain may be conducive to smaller, distributed wind turbines. Similarly for solar, the shadows cast by the hilly terrain means that solar generation potential is largely site-specific.
“In eastern and northeastern states, a mix of clean energy, for instance wind, solar and mini hydro, would be best suited to develop microgrids and meet the decentralised energy needs of the consumers. It’s important to develop hybrid systems which will leverage complementary generation from wind, solar, and small hydro,” he said.
Extensive studies of energy systems need to be carried out as well as an appropriate regulatory framework developed that does not financially burden consumers.
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