Renewable Energy Projects Bogged Down by Lack of Transmission Infrastructure

Evacuation infrastructure lags behind burgeoning connectivity demands  


Renewable energy project development is surging across India, resulting in an unprecedented demand for evacuation infrastructure to connect to the grid.

According to a prominent renewable project developer, the evacuation infrastructure development lag stems from the rapid acceleration of connectivity applications, surpassing the infrastructure development rate.

“Particularly challenging is the concentration of evacuation systems in regions like Rajasthan, where additional expansion necessitates the deployment of High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) systems. With commissioning timelines averaging around 48 months, these systems exacerbate delays in meeting escalating demand within concentrated regions,” the developer said.

Last March, Union Minister of Power R.K. Singh informed the Rajya Sabha that the government plans to add 17,500 ckm of transmission lines and 80,000 MVA of transmission capacity across India as part of the planned national grid expansion.

Singh added that the present inter-regional capacity of the country’s grid is 112,250 MW and would reach 150,000 MW by 2030.

“We are already seeing quite a few projects impacted due to delayed transmission lines. Some projects with grid connectivity readiness well before the June 25 deadline for ISTS charge waiver under the earlier connectivity regulations have been moved beyond due to the impact of the transition to the General Network Access (GNA) regulations,” said Vinay Pabba, COO of Vibrant Energy.

The transmission access and capacity contracts have been delinked in the GNA regime. Once GNA for a specified quantum has been granted to a state, it can schedule its contracted power under any contract, i.e., long-term, medium-term, or short-term.

Unlike in the earlier regime, buyers no longer have to obtain long-term, medium-term, and short-term open access separately to schedule different types of contracts. Many projects with transmission approvals under the earlier regime had to reapply for GNA, causing delays in transmission access.

Inherent challenges building transmission lines

Construction of solar and wind projects is less challenging than transmission lines. A typical solar or wind project is completed between 18 and 24 months. However, transmission infrastructure construction times can stretch up to three years or more. This partially explains why renewable energy projects wait in line seeking connectivity.

“Historical underinvestment in India’s transmission and distribution system, coupled with inherent construction delays, prolong the construction cycle of critical infrastructure components such as substations and transmission lines,” said Pabba. “These cross-country lines encounter many challenges, including right-of-way issues, highway and railway crossings, and natural barriers like lakes and rivers. Construction timelines typically extend 24 to 36 months from the notice to proceed.”

Pabba highlighted the intricate challenges that longer transmission lines and larger substations face, where minor disruptions, such as a farmer obstructing one tower or a land-related court case affecting a few towers, can grind the entire transmission project to a halt. Despite provisions in the Indian Telegraph Act aimed at facilitating right-of-way for transmission lines, ground-level obstacles persist, posing significant challenges during construction.

The critical piece of resource planning

The government needs to forecast the power capacity addition plans and the transmission infrastructure required to offtake the power across India accurately.

A transmission project developer emphasized the constraint of long-range resource adequacy planning to ensure a robust transmission system. “This entails establishing institutional mechanisms from the national level down to distribution companies, encompassing various parameters such as demand forecasts, resource availability, etc. Proactive guidelines for long-range resource adequacy play a pivotal role in anticipating requirements for new transmission infrastructure.”

However, according to the renewable project developer, resource adequacy planning has not had any impact on the ground level yet. The renewable sector faces constraints, particularly in identifying commercially feasible areas. For instance, Telangana and certain other states with heavily industrialized and agrarian regions have high land prices, discouraging developers. Consequently, some planned substations are abandoned, while others face oversubscription.

“Despite the short-term results, long-term resource adequacy planning is essential, spanning from national to local levels. These guidelines should forecast the demand for new renewable generation capacities and other resources and ensure that sufficient transmission is commissioned on time,” the developer said.

The green energy corridor

The developer was also skeptical about the effectiveness of the Green Energy Corridor projects as the evacuation primarily focuses on states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and Rajasthan, where renewable resources are abundant. “Developers naturally gravitate towards regions with ample resources, perpetuating concentration in these areas unless new potential zones emerge. However, the extensive data we have collected has shown that there are no new unexplored potential solar or wind zones in India except offshore wind,” he said.

Aligning with long-term government planning processes is imperative to streamline transmission and distribution grid planning. Regulatory frameworks must be reviewed and updated to support the deployment of new grids and optimization of existing assets.

Effective regulations should incentivize grids to keep pace with rapid electricity demand and supply changes, address administrative barriers, reward high performance, and foster innovation. If the transmission infrastructure does not keep pace, it is almost impossible to achieve the 280 GW by 2023 renewable installation goals set by the government.