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2 March 2021

India’s plans for global solar domination

India has big plans to create a grid that could move solar power around the globe. But given its difficulties in transporting electricity at national level, experts remain sceptical the project will ever see the light of day.

By LouDel Bello

A global grid moving clean electricity across 140 countries, from the Far East to the Far West, is India’s latest bid to affirm its role as a climate champion and industrial superpower. The One Sun, One World, One Grid (OSOWOG) plan was first announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in October 2018. After a slow start and a one-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it is picking up fresh momentum. 

The government has set up a high level team, the South Asia Group for Energy (SAGE), to promote dialogue among the region’s nations on energy-related issues. Led by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the group brings together top civil servants, India’s largest power generation utility NTPC, the Central Electricity Authority and some of the country’s biggest private energy companies. It hopes to engage Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, among other neighbours.

At its heart is the idea that “the sun never sets”; the world can, with the right infrastructure, be largely powered by solar. French utility Électricité de France (EDF) has been tasked with creating a roadmap for the plan’s implementation by August 2021.

farmer-looking-up-surrounded-by-solar-panels

A farmer stands near solar panels at Vahelal village, about 40km from Ahmedabad, India, in February 2021. (Photo by Sam Panthaky/AFP via Getty Images)

“The concept originates from the vision of maximising solar resources to meet electricity demand through long-distance, inter-country networks building on existing and emerging technologies, with the aim of helping eradicate poverty and improve electricity access,” says Jagjeet Singh Sareen, finance director with the International Solar Alliance (ISA).

However, the project faces some “big challenges”, says the ISA, not least the need to reduce transmission costs and be able to ensure the quality of the electricity being moved from one country to another.

“Power quality refers to the level of voltage, frequency and reliability,” says Mohamad Saif, from consultancy EY, which is cooperating with ISA on the project. When transferred over long distances, electricity can experience drops in voltage, he explains, potentially making it challenging to move electricity across different countries. However, ISA’s experts are confident that as transmission technologies advance, the problem will be solved. 

According to the Indian government’s call for proposals, the project will be rolled out in phases, first connecting India’s neighbouring countries such as Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, before reaching out to the Middle East via Oman and South East Asia. In a second phase, the new network of high-voltage cables would extend to Africa, before achieving the project’s incredibly ambitious vision of connecting the entire planet. 

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EDF’s feasibility report, due later this year, should shed light on technical and financial details, says the World Bank, which is helping design the project.

Chinese plans

Some observers are comparing the OSOWOG with China’s Global Energy Interconnection (GEI) initiative. For the past six years, Beijing has been working on an integrated energy system based on long-distance transmission through high voltage lines. Much like the Indian project, China’s GEI wants to tap into the abundant, but unevenly distributed, renewable sources present in different regions of the world. The solution is to convert this energy into electricity that can be transmitted over long distances.

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As of 2019, China had built 21 ultra-high-voltage lines, dispatching energy from 340GW of hydropower capacity, 170GW of wind and 160GW of solar plants, the biggest such project in the world. 

“China is no doubt a leading country in the development of an ultra-high-voltage grid,” says Yuki Yu, researcher and founder of the Hong Kong-based consultancy Energy Iceberg. The reason behind this effort is that China’s energy production, both clean and fossil, is mostly located in the western and northern parts of the country, and electricity needs to be distributed across long distances, she says.

In this respect, China’s approach is similar to India’s recent push to electrify every corner of the country before expanding abroad. However, China’s capacity to finance a global energy initiative independently, without foreign backing, is a distinct advantage. 

“Chinese grid companies are more powerful [than most of their international counterparts] in terms of cash position and financial backing,” Yu says. When a company outgrows its domestic market, the natural drive is to invest abroad. “It is not always a politically charged decision, it is just part of their investment logic,” she explains.

Harmonisation required

The question of cash, or lack of it in the case of India, makes Disha Agarwal from the non-profit Council on Energy, Environment and Water in Delhi sceptical about the potential for the country to connect the world. She describes herself as leaning “on the side of apprehension about the OSOWOG idea, for both technical and geopolitical reasons”.

Neither private nor state-run energy companies could cover costs as would be possible in China. The capital needed for such a massive project is difficult to estimate,  but it certainly would not come cheap. A high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cable system costs  $1.17m–$8.62m a mile, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

To even hope to raise such enormous amounts of funding, a vast range of financial institutions would have to come together, says Agarwal. This can only happen if the initiative achieves “a very strong geopolitical bind” with all partners treated equally “in the confidence that the agreement will not hamper or affect anyone adversely”, she adds. Such a level playing field would require “deep harmonisation” of market rules. Just as commodities are exchanged on dedicated market platforms “electricity would have to be sold and bought through a similar exchange”, says Agarwal. The rules of this exchange would have to be the same between all the countries connected.” 

India has two energy exchanges to trade electricity, one of which enables consumers to buy power in near real time, just hours before expected delivery. While these systems allow a flexible circulation of energy in the country, similar platforms would be harder to set up internationally. All countries involved would have to agree on an algorithm that would set the price for all energy sources and how power would be traded. Fuels are priced differently in different countries, Agarwal says, which in turns determines energy tariffs. Achieving this kind of conformity for the renewable energy transmitted under OSOWOG is no small feat, and the Indian government has not specified how this may be done. 

The current lack of harmonisation between Indian states in terms of energy policies is another reason why Agarwal suggests OSOWOG will find it difficult to come to fruition. Cross-border transmission is one of the vulnerabilities of India’s energy system because infrastructure, market rules and taxation can vary widely between neighbouring states, leading to bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

Independent oversight

Others are more optimistic. India’s experience with a vast and complex energy landscape could prove instrumental in navigating the challenges of a global grid, says Chanmeet Singh Syal of energy consultancy ABPS Infra Advisory, which works with  local governments. “India was initially divided into five regions, each with its own separate grid in the south, west, east, north and north-east,” he explains. Over time, the central government was able to unify them under the “One Nation, One Grid” vision. 

India also has a project called Green Energy Corridor, which distributes clean energy across the country, from states that are rich in renewable resources to those with a renewable energy deficit, Singh Syal says. The initiative, spearheaded by the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, includes more 5,840 miles (9,400km) of transmission lines and aims to integrate 20GW of renewable power into the grid. 

“It is the same concept as OSOWOG,” he says. The difference between a national grid, albeit large, and an international system, however, is that reliability and grid conditions cannot be controlled at all times across borders, Singh Syal concedes. “A fault, blackout or cyberattack in one corner of the grid could have cascading consequences on all connected countries,” he says. The only way of preventing such crises is to delegate the system’s oversight to an independent regulatory body established and accepted by all parties.

“Right now, I have more questions than there are answers regarding this project,” says Rahul Walawalkar, founder and executive director of the India Energy Storage Alliance.

For example, for the solar energy produced at various points in the network to peak at the right time and balance out the shortfalls that occur when the sun sets elsewhere, all solar plants should be located at a certain distance from each other. However, this may prove challenging if partner countries have different ideas on where they want to build their renewables plants. 

The dream of a super grid has been around for many years, Walawalkar says, but “people are now highlighting the recent advances in transmission technologies, including cheaper undersea cables”. That is why the idea may be making a comeback, he says, “but we need to wait for a detailed feasibility study to establish whether this is really viable or not”.

Walawalkar says that should such a study fail to support the project’s feasibility, a complete analysis of the energy systems of sun-soaked countries would still be a very useful exercise. Even if the effort does not result in a unified network, he says, better information on how to plan their energy developments will help countries achieve their clean energy goals.

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