Energy Transition Challenges: Demand- and supply-side power management strategies

R.V. Shahi, Former Power Secretary, Government of India 

There are several challenges on the energy front, not only in India but all over the world. Since energy encompasses electricity, petroleum, fuels, nu­cl­ear energy, coal, etc., and at the point of usage, there are various possible options of transferability from one form of energy to another, ingenious ways of handling these become even more complex and challenging. The global context and na­tional imperative for shifting from fossil fuels to renewables cannot be overemphasised. Such shifts are essential, and the initiatives launched in India are in the right direction. However, implementati­on challenges need a better understanding. A futuristic prediction of these challenges and commensurate preparations and actions are equally essential. Apart from many other issues that need attention, the accompanying table presents an interesting situation.

On August 29, 2023, the maximum de­mand touched 233,700 MW. The peak shortage experienced was 8,554 MW. India has an installed capacity of around 435,000 MW. Obviously, with an installed capacity of this order and a maximum demand of about 234,000 MW, if we still have a significant shortage, it does need a detailed analysis. The country’s national load management organisation, Grid Controller of India Limited (Grid-India [formerly POSOCO]) is fully equipped with the necessary infrastructure for such analysis and it is carrying this out. Ob­viously, gaps in supply to meet the peak demand would have many reasons – some of them would be of temporary nature while others would be the consequences of regular phenomenon, which would emerge out of the dynamically changing profile of power supply systems and consumption patterns. Both these areas need attention. Apart from calibration in supply-side management, it wo­uld also require demand-side management, including changes needed on the consumption profile side to match with the changing supply scenario, to handle not only seasonal fluctuations but also time-of-day (ToD) consumption and de­mand. A preliminary analysis (Grid-India would obviously be carrying out a more extensive analysis) of the above data indicates the following:

  • On August 29, 2023, when the demand was about 234,000 MW, the supply from various sources was coal 68 per cent, hydro 14 per cent, nuclear 2 per cent, gas 3 per cent, and renewables and others 12 per cent. This gives a ge­neral idea about the supply sources. Obviously, the supply from coal-based power plants could have been much higher. One would need to go into de­tails on peak time supply from coal generation plants just as from other power generation sources.
  • Forced outages in coal power plants would need a more detailed analysis to find out whether the availability could have been better.
  • Similarly, the usual practice of a number of coal power plants being taken out for overhaul during the rainy season, considering better availability of hydropower, may also need a careful review for an appropriate moderation and calibration of this practice.
  • Flexible operations have been adopted for coal power plants in a number of power stations. These need to cover all such power units in the country. De­pen­ding on the individual capability, the practice for different categories of power plants needs to be converted in­to standard operating procedures (SOPs) for each case. In times of need, the required backup should come out of such an SOP.
  • Flexible operations in thermal plants, as a streamlined approach, will need to get into more intensive exercises of en­hancing their capabilities through not only operating procedures, but also th­rough required retrofits to improve the overall capability of each unit. This app­ears necessary since the energy transition period may extend over decades.
  • It is relevant to mention that the peak load of 234,000 MW (as on September 1, 2023, this has further risen to 238,000 MW) is being experienced during the daytime when solar power is also available. We need to examine whether during this time of the day a number of coal power plants were off the grid. This could be on account of maintenance, forced outages, or on account of reserve shutdown. The phenomenon of reserve shutdown had to be created because for several days these capacities were not needed in view of the ch­ea­per power supply from solar power systems. This type of challenge is likely to be intensified as the solar proportion increases. Coal power plants do not have the ability to instantly switch on and switch off. Cold starts require a much longer duration of seven to eight hours. Shorter durati­ons to make the units functional ne­­ed to be examined and if certain ad­ditions by way of retrofits can address this problem, these could be deployed. There could be the possibility of a significant improveme­nt in this regard.
  • The country has over 25,000 MW of gas-based power plants. Given the pre­sent situation, till such time that we are ad­e­quately equipped with hydro pum­ped storage plants and other sources such as hydrogen and battery backup, these could be deployed to come to the grid in the shortest possible time. This would require an appropriate arrangement for gas supply. It would also re­quire a more equitable and reliable contract between gas power plant ope­rators and gas suppliers, so that uncertainties about payments for power generated are eliminated. The country also requires a larger storage of liquefied na­­­tural gas, which could be made av­ailable in times of need.
  • For a longer time frame of managing energy transition, which may continue over the next few decades, power availability from various sources, including coal power plants, requires a more fi­ne-tuned analysis. In the initial phase of India’s launch of the renewable po­wer policy, a notion developed that coal power plants are on their way out. With the experience of the past five to six years, the challenges involved are better understood. The emphasis on an optimistic projection of a much larger expansion of solar and wind must continue in view of the inherent enormous advantages from the point of view of economics and climate change concerns. Ho­­­w­­ever, the consequential cha­ll­enges in the management of shortages and maintenance of grid discipline will ha­ve to be integrated with the pace at wh­ich various power supply sources are projected over a time frame of the next 30-40 years. Obviously, the­se ne­ed to be updated, based on further experiences, through some sort of a rolling 5/10-year plan. This automatically facilitates better preparation to address emerging challenges.

Apart from supply-side management, we could also expect a reasonable contribution to mitigating energy transition challenges from the demand-side management point of view. However, the management of peak shortages may have a more challenging task of a different type. Demand-side management initiatives  will need to address those also. It wo­uld obviously be an ongoing exercise and several policy initiatives including incentivising or de-incentivising consumption during certain seasons and during different time blocks would need to be put in place. In this regard, the key issues, which have been discussed over the years but have become more relevant in the present context, include the following:

  • Rural agriculture could be completely shifted to daytime activity. Solar po­w­er consumption for which smaller ca­pacity solar power projects (about 10 MW or below) could be set up adjacent to 11 kV or 33 kV substations. In some states, this initiative has already been started in different forms. It could be made more extensive as an organised intervention for managing transition.
  • The tariff policy does mention ToD power pricing. This has also been im­plemented in many places. This again could be introduced as an organised and extensive intervention for managing the energy transition.
  • Larger consumers in industrial and co­m­mercial categories could be advis­ed to respond to managing consumption linked to the emerging load profile as we move forward to expand renewable capacity and also put in place several other initiatives on coal power plants.
  • It is gratifying that the country has not only launched major initiatives aimed at decarbonising the overall power generation and supply system, but has also embarked upon several other initi­atives to successfully manage the tra­n­sition. The very fact that the prime mi­nister made a declaration that India wo­­uld follow a transition path with the overall goal of net zero by the year 2070, clearly indicates that while the exponential expansion of renewables must be planned, an appropriate ma­na­ge­ment of this transition would be needed over the next 50 years, in a manner which, learning from the ex­periences and challenges, moderates the phase and pace of various options em­erging from technological changes and disruptions. The objective should also be to minimise inconvenience fr­om the en­ergy supply system by managing pe­ak and average shortages. It is hear­t­ening that institutionally the cou­n­try is geared up to face these challenges.