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Hydroelectric power in India: Exploiting full potential

Currently, the hydroelectric power plants generate only 21 per cent of the electricity consumed in the country with 76 per cent of the total electricity being generated by the thermal power plants.

By Anubhav Srivastava

September 01, 2009

India ranks 6th in the world among the largest energy consumer nations and accounts for 3.4 per cent of global energy consumption. With the growth of economy, the demand for energy has grown at an average of 3.6 per cent annually over the past 30 years. This growing energy demand has proved to be one of the biggest challenges in ensuring a healthy economic growth rate. 

Many parts of the country still do not have access to electricity. According to the Government of India estimates, the power requirement in the country will increase to 200,000 MW by 2012 and to 400,000 MW by 2020. Hence India needs to exploit all its available natural resources to the fullest in order to bridge the widening demand-supply gap in the power sector. 

Hydroelectricity thus assumes greater importance than before as India still has a huge untapped hydroelectric power generation potential. According to the Central Electricity Authority, which generates important statistics on the power generation and usage in the country, the viable hydro potential in India is 84,000 MW at 60 per cent load factor which is equivalent to 1,48,700 MW installed capacity. 

In addition to this, 6872 MW from 1512 small hydro schemes can also be economically exploited. Further, the government agencies have identified 56 sites from pumped storage schemes with an aggregate installed capacity of 94,000 MW. 

But despite India being one of the pioneering states in hydroelectric power in Asia, with Darjeeling power plant established in 1898 and Shimsa (Shivanasamudra) power plant established in 1902, the total installed capacity of hydroelectric power plants in the country was only 36647.76 MW in 2008. 

Currently, the hydroelectric power plants generate only 21 per cent of the electricity consumed in the country with 76 per cent of the total electricity being generated by thermal power plants which are highly polluting and depend on non-renewable fossil fuels. 

According to Mr. S.K. Garg, Chairman & Managing Director of NHPC Ltd. which is India’s largest hydroelectric power company and which has been conferred Mini Ratna status by the government of India, a total of 12 projects with a total installed capacity of 5322 MW will be established by the company during the Eleventh Plan (2007-2012).

However the government must speed up the process of clearing new hydroelectric power projects and should rope in the private enterprise for the purpose of establishing small hydro schemes. This will require the government to take suitable policy initiatives. The advantages that hydroelectric power offer over thermal power plants are immense – 

  • Hydropower is a renewable source of energy as it is generating by a combination of the unending rain cycle and the abrupt topography of the earth. 
  • It is non-polluting and hence environment friendly.
  • Though hydroelectric power projects take a long time to be built, they have a very long life. The first hydro-project completed in 1897 is still in operation. 
  • Cost of generation, operation and maintenance is lower than the other sources of energy. 
  • Ability to start and stop quickly and instantaneous load acceptance/rejection makes it suitable to meet peak demand and for enhancing system reliability and stability. 
  • Hydroelectric power plants offer higher efficiency (over 90 per cent) as compared to thermal power (35 per cent) and gas (50 per cent).
  • Cost of generation is free from inflationary effects after the initial installation.
  • Storage based hydro schemes often provide additional benefits of irrigation, flood control, drinking water supply, navigation, recreation, tourism, etc.
  • Hydropower projects, being located in remote regions, lead to development of interior backward areas in terms of infrastructure facilities like educational institutions, health centres, roads, telecommunication, etc. 

Though concerns remains over the drawbacks of hydroelectric power plants – dislocation of population residing in the reservoir area, damage to aquatic life (partly controllable by measures like building fish ladders for the aquatic species moving upstream and using turbines and power plants of appropriate design so that fishes pass through it with least damage as they swim downstream), emission of greenhouse gases due to anaerobic decay of the plant material in the flooded area and a possibility of dam failure or a terrorist attack on it – the advantages of hydropower far outweight the disadvantages. 

Hence Indian government must make all efforts to increase the installed hydroelectric power capacity in the country despite the high initial cost incurred in building them in order to achieve its targets on power supply. 

The author is Editor, Policy Proposals For India.  

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