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Small hydro big challenges

The seven northeastern states offer tremendous potential for the development of small hydro power projects. However, the challenges inherent to the region are a major deterrent to power developers, finds Keshav Chaturvedi

The Land of Seven Sisters, as the seven northeastern states of India (comprising Arunachal Pradesh, TAssam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura) are poetically referred to, have immense potential for small hydro power. Among them, three states – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya – hold the key to substantial power supply from this renewable energy source. Another state, Sikkim, if added, has the potential to take care of burgeoning needs of not only the northeastern region but of far off places that need huge supply of power for their industrial base.

What is small hydro power?

Small Hydro Power (SHP) projects are those that produce electric power not more than 25 megawatt (MW). It is further divided into three parts – small, mini and micro power plants. Power plants up to a capacity of 100 kilowatt (KW) are called micro power plants. Hydro power plants that are anywhere between 100 KW and 2 MW are termed as mini hydro power plants. Those that have a capacity more than 2 MW and up to 25 MW are small hydro power plants. SHP plants differ from bigger hydro power plants in terms of scale. While the large hydro power project needs huge area to create a captive lake that leads to displacement of people, small hydro do not have any such requirements – an entire SHP plant can be set up in a small area, say of just 2 acres. In fact, the land requirement in SHP is never more than 3 to 4 acres.

All that a SHP plant needs is constant water flow as well as at least 2 metres of height for the water to fall. Technically this geographical feature or height is called a head. Based on the height the SHP is classified in three groups – ultra low head (below 3 metres), low head (above 3 metres and up to 40 metres) and medium/high head (above 40 metres). Small hydro can’t be built on main rivers that have a huge water discharge (flow). In terms of design they are classified into two types. The ones built on small tributaries are called run of the river plants while the ones built on canal are called canal based projects.

Untapped potential of northeast

A number of natural and manmade circumstances are playing spoilsport in the development of this goldmine of power in the northeast. According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, these four states (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya and Sikkim) together have utilised only 165 MW of capacity till date, though they are capable of generating 1,900 MW, a figure that is nowhere close to the real potential of these states.

A survey of this area brought out a number of issues that have been acting as hindrance for the growth of the small hydro power (SHP) sector. Sikkim power secretary Pema Wangchen says, “In most of the rivers in Sikkim there is problem of finding the right head. Also, when the state plans for large-scale economic development and its projected need of power grows exponentially then its natural inclination would be towards developing large hydro power.”

Sikkim situation

Since Sikkim has been a power surplus state for a long time, it didn’t feel the need to promote small hydro power. Besides, as Sikkim is far away from the industrial belt of northern and western India, the biggest buyer of power the Powergrid Corporation prefers to buy cheaper electricity from Himachal and Uttarakhand than to source it from far off Sikkim. The logic remained that power purchase from the existing large plants was already taxing the exchequer while selling power was a problem. So there was no need to generate more power from new sources. Whatever little activity was undertaken was restricted to community level involvement and some power department projects. Even community level effort didn’t bear the desired results as the Government of Sikkim provides 50 units per person per month free of cost. In such a scenario where free power is assured, it acts as a dampener for locals to take up such a complex operation of building and running a small hydro plant. The state is now in the process of inviting independent power producers (IPPs) to set up plants in the state. Growing industrialisation in neighbouring West Bengal and in Sikkim and lack of funds in the state government along with stringent environment regulations have forced the Sikkim government to look for an alternative to big hydro power; this has resulted in revisiting the SHP route for further generation of power. P B Subba, Chief Engineer, power department of Sikkim says, “It’s all very nice to say flowing water is gold but it’s an altogether different ball game to develop it. What many people don’t understand that when water, in a small hydro, runs through open channel during monsoons, there is a higher probability of it breaking banks and overflowing, causing serious damage to nearby villages. In big hydro projects, however, water is safely channeled through a tunnel. This perception has led to a natural hostility towards small hydro.”

Insufficient data

Another important reason for the lack of support for SHP is the poor response from power producers. Right now there is no independent power producer working in the state, nor has anyone been allotted any project. This poor response of IPPs in SHP development in Sikkim (as in any state) is primarily due to the lack of hydrological data. To set up a small hydro power plant, a developer or engineer needs at least three years of discharge data (water flow available in the rivulet). The data should include flow during two lean seasons and one monsoon season. Wangchen says, “Lack of hydrological data and potential of SHP decided on 1975 data are major stumbling blocks in promotion of SHP on a large scale.”

This problem finds an echo in neighbouring state of Assam too. Assam Power Project Development Company Pvt. Ltd consultant Das says, “Most of the potential was decided by performing desk study involving toposheets as well as catchment area study. However, as map is not the territory, the reality is

way off the mark on the ground in this case too. The study provides a basis or blue print to perform further investigation and can in no way be a true indicator of real potential of a state. But as the state doesn’t have financial as well as technical wherewithal to do field survey, this acts as a reference point. Similarly, the irrigation department or the water department doesn’t keep any data about discharge in smaller rivers or tributaries and Central Water Commission (CWC) keeps records for large rivers only. In such a scenario, the IPP faces an uphill task to create a project.”

Security concerns

Assam’s law and order situation also poses a problem. Former Chief General Manager of Assam Power Generation Company Ltd (APGCL) Mr G R Boruah says, “Most of our SHP potential is found in two districts – Bodo Autonomous Council Territory and Karbi Anglong. They both are insurgency affected areas, so there is a serious security threat to any development initiated by an outsider. Along with this, in these two districts the local communities have complete hold on the land and you have to deal with them for land acquisition, which is a long and arduous route and even after a deal is struck, one cannot be sure of getting hold of the land.”

Challenge of location

Even if an IPP surmounts all the odds and puts up a project, the availability of transmission lines will pose problem as most of the sites are in remote areas and not connected with state grid. Atul Chandra Boruah, Chief General Manager APGCL says, “The distance over which an IPP will have to create a transmission line will make his or her project unviable.”

This remoteness from the grid is a major issue even in northern most state of Arunachal Pradesh. M Bhatacharjee, Superintendent Surveyor of Works in Arunachal Jal Vidyut Nigam looking after small hydro power says, “Many sites are more than 100 km away from the nearest transmission point. State doesn’t have the resource to create such a long transmission line. Also for us, it’s not economic to lay cables for such a distance to evacuate 5 or 10 MW of power. If it is more than a 1,000 MW state government can plan to invest that kind of money as it would fetch commensurate returns.”

Too few or too many

Remoteness of location is not the only challenge; small hydro power plants haven’t picked up also due to the sparse population of the state. Bhatacharjee says, “Rural Arunachal is so thinly populated that in a village at times you may not find more than four to five houses. These too are not built in close proximity and spread over two or three hills. In such a scenario, even micro hydel plant doesn’t achieve economies of scale. The only successful attempt till now in Small Hydro Power has been from the power department that has created 80 projects with a total installed capacity of 57 MW. Most of these are for construction power used in building big hydro power projects.” Another state Meghalaya presents an altogether different case. Here the community experiment has failed not due to lack of numbers but an excess of it! In this state, most villages have a composite population divided into many sub groups and there is a constant tussle for control. BK Dev Varma, Power secretary says, “In our experience we have found that even when we have put a project and given it to a village council to run it, it closes down due to the constant arguments about who will control the operation and who would foot the bill.”

“In extreme cases we have seen people burning down the entire power house. Our community experiment has failed. Local politics apart, the proliferation of electrification via Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana (RGGVY) and an assurance of continuous supply of stable power to villages has also made locals reluctant to get into operations and maintenance of small hydro power plants,” says Elias Lyngdoh, Principal Chief Engineer, Meghalaya Energy Corporation Ltd.

Apart from local tensions, another serious problem is of power deficit. Dev Verma says, “Till the end of last century Meghalaya was power surplus state. Today we have a deficit of close to 50 per cent. Realistic assessment says that it can’t be bridged by small hydro. So our main concern is to promote big hydro power projects as well as thermal to meet the growing demand of residential as well as industry sector.”

Environment and climate change has wrecked havoc with natural resource in Meghalaya posing unique challenges for IPP. Lynghdoh says, “Due to climate change and deforestation, many rivulets have either dried up or their discharge level is nowhere close to what it used to be. Also, there is problem of year round silting which makes operations and maintenance of a small hydro power plant uneconomical.”

As Northeast has suffered a lot of deforestation, getting clearance from forest department can become an insurmountable task. Though Chief Conservator of Forest, Meghalaya, VK Nautiyal says, “The procedure of obtaining forest clearance is based on field surveys involving at least three parties at every stage; so it is a lengthy process. However, if it is not adhered to it can lead to unprecedented destruction of forests. Also, whosoever comes to seek clearance should know that they have to present an alternative forestation plan and in our experience many times due diligence is not done in preparing the plan.”

Even with all these challenges IPPs have been showing increased interest in these areas. While Arunachal Pradesh has allotted 25 projects, Assam, Sikkim and Meghalaya are in the process of attracting private equity in this sector.  Power is big business. Even with all these challenges a power purchase agreement signed with state electricity utility firms for 40 years at a rate of 2.75 per kilowatt hour results in handsome gains for an intrepid power producer. Even if they want to sell their power in the open market, they get a better deal, though this route is not preferred as it keeps fluctuating due to demand supply drives. Also. as small hydro power is classified as renewable energy its promoters can earn renewable energy certificates (RECs) and also register their project with the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism to earn Carbon Reduction Certificates. Clearly it’s a case of Who Dares, Wins.


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