Wind Now Cost Competitive With Coal in India

Lower need for water and falling prices make renewables more attractive

2 min read
Wind Now Cost Competitive With Coal in India

In India, the expiration of some federal incentives for renewable energy last year has not put a damper on the outlook for wind and solar power.

Wind power is now cost competitive with new coal-fired generation in India, according to a report from HSBC [pdf]. Falling costs are just one reason for the increased interest in wind. For the first time, India has identified water as a scare natural resource in its most recent five-year plan. Nearly 90 percent of India’s industrial water demand comes from thermal power plants, according to the HSBC report.

The appeal of some renewables, such as wind and solar photovoltaic, is that they use far less water than coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants. Across the globe, water stress is growing within the energy industry and power plants have to partially shut down when there isn’t enough water for cooling. In India, water shortages just before monsoon season in 2012 forced hydro generation and thermal power plants to partially close.

India needs all the power it can get. Last July, a sweeping power outage left about 700 million people without power. Outages are a daily occurrence in India, although usually not at that scale, because of a dearth of generation coupled with an outdated grid. The Central Electricity Authority estimates India has a peak deficit of 12 gigawatts.

The latest five-year plan calls for a doubling of renewable energy from the previous plan, including 15 gigawatts of wind, 10 gigawatts of solar, 2 gigawatts of small hydro and nearly 3 gigawatts of biomass. Individual Indian states have also instituted solar and wind installation targets.

Although there was some uncertainty in the renewable industry as federal incentives expired in 2012, many key wind states have raised the feed-in tariff for wind in the past year. The tariff, however, is still lower than the tariffs for new coal capacity, according to HSBC.

Solar is likely not far behind wind. The report estimates that solar could be at parity with coal in India as soon as 2016. Unlike the United States, India does not have abundant gas reserves, so the switch to gas-fired power plants from coal is unlikely on a large scale.  

Solar power, however, is already cheaper than diesel generators, which power everything from homes to businesses to cell towers. The India government has mandated that 75 percent of the nation’s cell towers have to run on renewables by 2020, and mobile companies are looking at everything from solar to fuel cells to replace dirty diesel generators.

Wind and solar look more attractive with every passing year in India, but more work needs to be done on the grid infrastructure that connects new generation to the homes and businesses that need it. HSBC notes that many state utilities don’t have the money to invest in new transmission lines without which, new wind generation can't come online.

Smaller microgrids might help in area that aren’t currently served effectively by a utility. The Indian Tower and Infrastructure Providers Association already has pilot projects in place that will help it understand how telecoms could power their own cell towers using renewables, then sell additional power back to local villages.


Photo: Santosh Verma/Bloomberg/Getty Images

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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