Decarbonization of Indian Railways: An Interview with Charith Konda & Dr Gireesh Shrimali

At a conference on the ‘Energy Needs of Indian Railways—Emerging Requirements, Strategies and Solutions’ held in New Delhi on April 6, 2017, key findings of the report, Decarbonization of Indian Railways: Assessing Balancing Costs and Policy Risks were presented by Charith Konda, Consultant, Climate Policy Initiative. Consequently, he and Dr Gireesh Shrimali, India Director, Climate Policy Initiative, spoke to Sapna Gopal on what transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy could mean for the Railways.

The report ‘Decarbonization of Indian Railways: Assessing Balancing Costs and Policy Risks’ states that unlike fossil fuels, the cost of 100 per cent decarbonization would be 26 per cent to 28 per cent cheaper. However, there are several policy risks to decarbonization.
1Dr. Gireesh Shrimali

Charith Konda

What are they and how can they be addressed?

The top policy and regulatory risks that the Indian Railways may face include a lack of recognition by states about the former’s deemed transmission, distribution licensee status, and the lack of a suitable power banking arrangement. The other potential risks are delay in the implementation of a framework that enables the inter-state sale of renewable energy and a delay in developing a national balancing market.

However, we have suggested some short-term and long-term mitigation measures in one of the sections of the report. Also, a number of policy risks could be reduced by using battery storage for balancing as battery costs are expected to fall sharply in the next 10 years.

What is the role of energy storage in ensuring consistent supply of electricity to meet the growing demand for power?

We suggested three balancing options that could be used for matching variable renewable energy generation with the electricity demand of the railways. They are—power banking with another utility, a flexible gas-based power plant, and battery storage. In the future, new options, such as trading on power exchanges may also emerge.

While battery-based energy storage is expensive at present, battery storage costs are expected to reduce by 10–12 per cent per year during the next 5–10 years. Further, battery storage will be an ideal balancing option in the presence of high policy risks associated with grid-connected balancing options, such as power banking and flexible thermal power plants. Another important finding of our study is that the balancing need can be greatly reduced by using an optimal mix of wind and solar power. So, regardless of the balancing technology chosen, balancing costs can be kept as low as approx. 10 per cent of the total decarbonization cost.

In what way will balancing costs account for 5 per cent to 8 per cent of the total decarbonization costs in 2030?

We have measured balancing costs as a percentage of total decarbonization costs, which is the cost of meeting 100 per cent electricity need of Railways (in this case in Madhya Pradesh) through wind and solar power. Balancing costs include the additional generation costs of wind and solar power (i.e., extra generation when the wind blows and sun shines to store and use during times of supply shortfall) for balancing plus the balancing technology costs. Balancing costs can be kept lower than 10 per cent of the total decarbonization costs by using an optimal mix of wind and solar, which have complementary generation profiles.

In an all solar scenario, the balancing cost increases to 63–78 per cent of the total decarbonization costs. There is a lot of thrust on solar power and it was announced in the Budget that 7,000 railway stations would be solar powered. In such a scenario, what is the scope of wind energy, considering that it is seasonal and restricted to around 10 states in India?

We examined the decarbonization of traction electricity demand in Madhya Pradesh in our report. Balancing costs would matter in high renewable energy mix scenarios. We found that through an optimal mix of wind and solar, balancing costs can be kept low.

Secondly, the Indian Railways could generate wind power in high wind states and transmit the power to its demand centres. As a deemed transmission and distribution licensee, the Indian Railways has more freedom to procure power from the supplier of its choice. Finally, we indicated the seasonality of wind power in our report and highlighted that further study is required
to accurately predict the impact of seasonality on decarbonization costs.

What are the energy efficient measures the Railways is likely to take in the next few years? In what way will it help? Are there plans to introduce waste-to-energy plants as well?

We have not studied energy efficient measures being taken by Railways in our reports. However, our demand forecast numbers are consistent with Indian Railway’s own forecasts (i.e., 6 per cent annual growth). According to the Indian Railways, without energy efficiency measures, this growth could be 2–3 per cent higher. Meanwhile, the Railways is also considering solar, wind, and waste-to-energy plants.

Could you briefly summarize the report ‘Decarbonization of Indian Railways: Assessing Balancing Costs and Policy Risks’ for our readers?

The report assesses the costs and policy risks involved in complete decarbonization of the electricity demand from Indian Railways—transitioning from the current, largely fossil-fuel based energy mix to clean energy, such as solar and wind power. It also takes a look at the costs of load balancing. Since solar and wind power can be intermittent and variable, they will
require load balancing, which requires use of technologies such as energy storage to ensure consistent supply of electricity that can meet the demand.

What were some of the highlights in 2016–17 according to the Railway Minister of India Shri Suresh Prabhu ?

The following are the brief highlights:

• Around 4 MW of installed solar capacity was added.

• A record 34,000 bio-toilets were fitted in trains. In the last six years, 36,000 bio-toilets were provided.

• Energy audit was conducted at 205 stations.

• Around 1,313 stations have been provided with 100 per cent LED lights.

• The Indian Railways has come up with a new water policy for efficient use of water resources and ‘Mission 41k’ to achieve a savings of `41,000 crore in the next 10 years, via energy efficiency.

• Going ahead, the aim is generation of 1,000 MW solar, thus becoming one of country’s largest solar power producers.

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Narasimhan Santhanam

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