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#19 - When the sun doesn't shine on Ladakh

A mega solar plan may boost India's energy ambitions and its stand against China, but it will come at a cost

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Lou Del Bello

Sep 03 2020

6 mins read

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Hello and welcome to this week’s late edition of Lights On, a newsletter that brings you the key stories and exclusive intel on energy and climate change in South Asia. 

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Moon desert in Ladakh - Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

The tug of war between China and India is flaring up again in the disputed mountains of Kashmir. Over the past week, troops from both sides have been accused of trespassing the de facto border, known as the Line of Actual Control, chipping away at each other’s territory. India is now deploying soldiers across strategic vantage points to prevent new incursions, but with no end in sight to the conflict, the government is at work on long term development plans for the region which may have the co-benefit of strengthening its territorial claims.

Record solar park

India’s biggest solar park, expected to be ready by 2023, would span two areas of the Kashmir region, Ladakh and Kargil. With a total capacity of 7.5 GW, more than threefold the size of the current record solar plant in Rajasthan, the project would boost India’s chances to reach its ambitious solar installation goals.

The project will take advantage of the region’s altitude to catch the sunlight where it’s more powerful, and boost the local economy by creating new jobs, says Nitin Bajpai, a resource efficiency and governance expert with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). After the withdrawal of Kashmir’s special constitutional status in August 2019, the central government hopes that businesses and people will flock to the area that to date remains relatively poor, despite being resource rich.

“With an investment to the tune of 45,000 crore rupees ($6.15 billion), the project has attracted several developers,” says Reji Kumar Pillai, president of India Smart Grid Forum and chairman of the Global Smart Grid Federation. But despite being attractive on paper, he believes that the idea is not financially viable “even if the cost of transmission were to be fully funded through grants”.

Hostile environment

As it turns out, it’s not that easy to install 76 square kilometers of solar panels on such impervious terrain, let alone transport all that energy across the country - because the region alone, with the lowest population density in India of 4.6 people per square kilometer, certainly doesn’t need it all.

The primary market for power generated in Ladakh will be India’s northern states. While the present cost of solar power in most parts of India is well below 3 rupees per kWh, Pillai says, it could be at least 25 percent higher in Ladakh due to higher logistical costs.

For example, transmission of power from Ladakh to Haryana, Punjab, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh or Rajasthan could be “prohibitively high”, making it much cheaper to generate locally. “Add to that the viability gap funding required for the transmission system, which anyway will be used only when the sun shines.” 

For the rest of the time, the plant will have to rely entirely on energy storage, a technology that is yet to reach optimal low prices.

And how about moving solar modules, transmission cables, machines and other essential components uphill? That too is going to cost a lot of money. Roads will have to be built, although many passages are already open due to the heavy military presence. Construction will drag on because it will be possible only in the warm season. There is a plan to use helicopters to help deploy transmission lines, says Pillai, who has experience designing high voltage lines in tough environments, but “at high altitude the weight lifting capacity of a helicopter is very low and they can’t operate in adverse weather conditions.”

Pillai also envisages that the solar farm will take much longer than expected to be completed, at least another five to seven years.

Regardless how long it may take, the government is determined to open up Ladakh to development and business opportunities, ranging from energy to tourism, which in peak season nearly doubles the population count.

“For the last decade, the tourism industry has expanded, and with it harmful emissions and waste generation have also gone up,” Bajpai says. And now, with the imminent inauguration of a tunnel connecting the relatively accessible mountain town of Manali with the remote Ladakh region, reducing the distance between the two points from 476 to 46 kilometres, a tourism boom is all but certain. With his team at TERI, Bajpai is working to model what it would take to keep Ladakh a zero carbon region despite the rapid changes, looking at how to lower emission growth and inject as much green energy as possible into the supply side of the equation. In this respect, the mega solar park will offer a boost to the local green economy, despite the upfront cost and impacts which are not clearly mapped out. 

The cost of geopolitical wins

Big infrastructure often overlaps with border tensions, in Asia and elsewhere. “The geo politics of infrastructure projects, including roads and railways, are obviously that they act to reinforce territorial claims and offer the means to defend them by improving access to difficult regions,” says Isabel Hilton, founder of Chinadialogue, an environmental non profit publication based in London, Beijing and Delhi. 

Combining broad defense strategies with clean development may seem like a win-win proposition, and big solar projects make for catchy headlines in India and abroad. But when it comes to implementation, experts warn it’s not going to be that simple. Overall, Pillai says, “there is no economic benefit in building giga-watts scale power plants in Ladakh region - neither for the inhabitants there, nor for the power consumers in the North Indian States [where] that power will be very expensive”. 

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