Minister for Power, New and Renewable Energy R K Singh on meeting global targets for climate action, streamlining power distribution and efficient harnessing of renewable energy. The session was moderated by Deputy Political Editor Liz Mathew.
Liz Mathew: How have you ramped up power distribution and ensured last mile access to remote corners?
Just setting up capacity was not enough, we needed to transfer power. We’ve added almost 169,000 circuit kilometres of transmission lines during my tenure. And now we can transfer 112,000 megawatts from one corner of the country to another. We’ve unified the whole country into one market. Now you can generate power in Guwahati and sell it in Tiruchirappalli or vice versa. We sanctioned distribution schemes worth Rs 2.04 lakh crore. All of this was possible through the state governments, whom we gave money. We added more than 2,900 new sub-stations and upgraded 4,000 more. We increased the availability of power in rural areas from about 12 hours in 2015 to almost 22.5 hours. We have transformed the power sector.
Now, India had made a pledge, saying that by 2030, 40 per cent of our capacity will come from non-fossils. We crossed that target in November 2021 — nine years in advance. Today, our fossil fuel capacity is 42 per cent of our total capacity. Our non-fossil capacity is 170 gigawatts, 42 per cent of the global capacity, which is 404 gigawatts. That is why we upped our ambition conservatively at COP 26 in Glasgow. We said that by 2030, 50 per cent of our capacity would be from non-fossils. Of all the G20 countries, we are the only one whose energy transition trajectory is consistent with the two-degree rise in global temperature.
Liz Mathew: What are the takeaways for India from COP 27?
At COP 26, they wanted developing and emerging economies to commit to a “phase-out” of coal. After India objected, they added the word “phase-down.” Now, this insistence on phase-out or even phase-down was totally inequitable because coal is not the only fossil fuel which causes global warming. In fact, natural gas is just as responsible, if not more, because of methane. If you want a phase-out or even a phase-down, then do away with all fossil fuels because they release carbon dioxide when burnt. Coal happens to be the fossil fuel we have. If some country has oil, it uses that. Why single out coal then? We raised this point at COP 27 and insisted that we use the word “fossil fuels” instead of “coal,” something that developed countries are opposing since it impacts their power generation systems. This is sheer hypocrisy. India is a leader in energy transition and nobody has done as much as we have despite the fact that our per capita emissions are one-third of the world average. About 85 per cent of the legacy carbon load has come from developed countries. We are responsible for only 3.47 per cent of the carbon load whereas we have 17.5 per cent of the global population.
Coal is not the only fossil fuel which causes global warming. In fact, natural gas is just as responsible, if not more, because of methane. If you want a phase-out or even a phase-down, then do away with all fossil fuels
Liz Mathew: The freebie culture that’s resulting in power sector debts is going to come up for discussion in Parliament. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled up state governments for not paying dues to power distribution companies (discoms), which has curbed the latter’s ability to invest in additional infrastructure. What’s being done on this front?
For the first time, Delhi is in the negative category, which means its current revenues will not cover its current expenses. Punjab is in a debt trap. It borrows to pay loans, which it had taken earlier. All these freebies are being given by taking loans and encumbering future generations. I don’t mind if you give free electricity to everyone provided you pay out of your pocket. If you don’t, then electricity will be cut off.
Anil Sasi: There are concerns about energy storage considering the bulk of capacity addition is coming through renewables. You’re pushing for battery storage but there are limitations to how much lithium ion can be used as a technology. The only alternative on a large scale is pumped hydro but that has a longer gestation.
You’re right. One requirement is storage. The other is the flexibility of thermal power plants. We’ve already issued a regulation that the thermal power plants will be flexible up to 55 per cent. In the next phase, after three years, we have to go down to 40 per cent, which means in the daytime, they would run at 40 per cent and pick up after sunset. Now, battery storage is expensive at Rs 10 per kilowatt per hour. So I’ve got a survey of all pumped hydro sites done and given our hydro PSUs a target of taking up two pumped hydro schemes. Some states have already started exploiting pumped hydro. I have written to the coal ministry to look at opencast mines as they are great sites for pumped hydro, our future. Right now, most states have a capacity to absorb solar energy except those where the sun shines more than their requirement.
Battery storage is expensive at Rs 10 per kilowatt per hour. I’ve got a survey of all pumped hydro sites done and demarcated them for hydro PSUs. Some states have already started exploiting pumped hydroAdvertisement
Anil Sasi: What changes have you made in the power despatch schedule and how will the Market-Based Economic Despatch (MBED) system help?
The cheaper power gets loaded first into the interstate grid and the despatch is planned accordingly as per the tariff. Peak demand, which is over and above the contracted capacity, would be met through the costlier power left after meeting all requirements. The present system does not include the state generation companies whose costs may be higher.
We will soon have a universal meritorious system, which will be working on a market-based economic despatch schedule. The procurer, which is the discom, will state its demand in advance or if it doesn’t want power on certain days. The generating company can then sell the power to the exchange or through a bilateral agreement to anybody who needs it. No capacity will be idle. It will be on the market.
The only concern at the exchange is you have to immediately pay for the power. We have said that we’ll be able to provide some current account benefits. Sometimes, legacy systems don’t make sense and we have to change. The procurer will pay the fixed charge. So, it’s beneficial both for the procurer as well as for the generator.
Anil Sasi: The General Network Access (GNA) regulations obviously are seen as a big progressive step. Is there a danger that unviable plants, which do not figure in the merit order, might just decide to shut down because they’re not able to sell power?
If there is surplus capacity, then it makes sense that the capacity which is inefficient shuts down first. But today, the situation is different. Our capacity is 404 GW, our maximum demand is 215 GW. Our demand is growing because India is the only economy growing at seven per cent. Today, on a daily basis, the demand is 20,000 MW more than what it was on the corresponding day last year. The real problem is coal. Now that is a challenge because, for a long time, we had a system which was totally public sector. It was a challenge because of what people like Jairam Ramesh, who was Environment Minister in the UPA, did. He single-handedly put such hurdles in the system to slow down the speed of progress in India. Environmental laws made by Ramesh meant that you couldn’t start a coal mine, knowing there’s a reserve underground, before waiting one-and-a-half years for clearance. Then the land acquisition process under him was so convoluted that you would take another one-and-a-half years to get it at four times the market cost. Our government has auctioned mines to the local market and private companies. Many of them will start production. So two years down the line, we won’t have this problem. We are importing to blend but again, that quantum of import is lesser than what it was.
Shobhana Subramanian: An entity like NTPC, whose tariffs are much higher because of legacy reasons, will be last in power scheduling. Will its power remain unsold then?
Yes, when the demand is low. But on a daily basis, demand is far more than what it was the corresponding day last year. My problem today is how much coal I have and how much is consumed on a daily basis.
Shobhana Subramanian: Are the dues zero now?
The current dues are zero. And the legacy dues have come down by Rs 15,000-20,000 crore. Every year, the legacy dues have to be paid as first installment, followed by current dues. Now State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs) cannot create regulatory assets. The law says that if any state surmounts a subsidy, the money has to be given in advance to the discom to be able to give the subsidy. We sent notices to SERCs. Any conscious violation of the law will invite proceedings.
Amitabh Sinha: How are we planning a phase-down of coal? How much coal will feature in additional capacities?
The availability of power and energy security is my first priority. We are not willing to compromise on that. In 2030, as per the targets we have set, fossil fuel capacity will come down from 60 per cent to almost 35 per cent. In absolute terms, figures will go up because my demand is going up. But the percentage (of total capacity) will come down. Let’s be very clear, the phase-down (of coal) will be defined in percentage terms, not in absolute terms.
Shubhajit Roy: What is the status of grid connectivity with Bangladesh? Will you be considering sharing power with Pakistan?
We already have three interconnections and are going to get a fourth. We are already connected to Nepal and Myanmar. Sri Lanka’s interconnection is on the anvil. With Pakistan, I don’t see anything happening unless our relations improve and Pakistan stops pushing terrorists.
Liz Mathew: The term “saffron terror” came up during your tenure as Home Secretary in the UPA years. It had political repercussions as it pointed out to the involvement of RSS leaders in blasts. We have not heard your explanation on that.
Terror does not have any colour. You can’t generalise. For example, you can’t say that every Muslim is a terrorist. If somebody says that all Hindus are terrorists, they are wrong too. The issue of involvement has to be corrected in the light of what has transpired in courts where people accused of blasts were discharged.
Amitabh Sinha: Was there an effort by the then government to prop up Hindu terror terminology to neutralise all talk of Islamic terror?
Probably that is why it was said, I would say… or that it was something that slipped out by mistake from the then Home Minister (Sushil Kumar Shinde)… because later on he said that it had slipped out by mistake. He apologised for that. You can’t blame all Hindus for terrorism.
Liz Mathew: Did this create any issues for you in the BJP?
I’m still here. I was the one who stopped LK Advani’s Rath Yatra and arrested him. When I got selected for a posting in the Home Ministry during LK Advani’s tenure as Home Minister, I told my batchmate, “Probably he doesn’t know that I’m the one who had arrested him.” But the Minister had said, “So, what? He was doing his job. Let him come here and do his job.”
Liz Mathew: Having worked with Advani and A B Vajpayee as a bureaucrat, you’re working with the new BJP leadership as a Minister. What’s changed?
I first met Narendra Modi when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. I had gone to meet him after joining the party and he sat down with me for almost half an hour. He was not in a hurry and there was total focus. He grasps the essentials, looks ahead and decides in the national interest.
Mihir Mishra: During summer, when we were seeing an unprecedented demand across the country, the Power Ministry issued an order asking banks to help restart 13 import coal-fired power plants to manage the supply deficit. Why were banks not forthcoming with that proposal? Is it because they were categorised as non-performing assets on bank books?
There were one or two imported coal-fired plants which were in the NCLT (National Company Law Tribunal) process. When any unit is in the NCLT process, that means lenders are in control. We called the lenders and told them that we wanted the plants to run and that they had to work out a method whereby they could give some funds to the promoter.
Right now, I’m not actually pushing on that NCLT process. We have some capacity, 26,900 MW, under construction. About 5,000-6,000 MW is coming this year and about 15,000 MW will come next year. So, the capacity, per se, is not in question. But what is in question is the availability of domestic coal. We’ve seen plants running completely on imported coal. The fair cost comes to Rs 6.50. Whereas if you blend, the cost is lesser.
Prasanta Sahu: There are guidelines for monetising the state transmission network. What is their potential?
This is to help states find money for expanding their intra-state transmission systems. We can do that by monetising existing systems. As far as we are concerned, we have already done that with Power Grid and we got almost Rs 48,000 crore.
Anil Sasi: Over the last three years, we’ve been seeing a mini-power crisis. Now, as the baseload and the thermal generation goes down to about 35 per cent over a period of time, is there a possibility of such a crisis recurring?
No, because more power will come from renewables. Plus, there will be storage. So, the burden on coal will come down. In fact, if we had not added this quantum of renewable energy, we would have been in dire straits and been like Sri Lanka.
Amitabh Sinha: What about getting nuclear reactors?
It’s a good idea. I’m addressing a conference on small modular reactors (SMRs). The NTPC will also take up the task of setting up a nuclear capacity. I’ve already discussed with the Ministry of Atomic Energy Department. We have a sort of joint venture between NPCIL and NTPC, which we are strengthening to get the SMR going. We are exploring all options.
Liz Mathew: There are political changes in Bihar after the exit of Nitish Kumar from the NDA. What’s your reading?
Before the last Assembly election, I had called my party leaders and said we should break our alliance with Nitish Kumar because there was a huge anti-incumbency against him and he was a political liability. Had we broken the alliance then, we would have done better because of the 100-odd seats which we contested, we won 74 and he won only 40. But somehow the party leadership did not agree.
Basically, Nitish Kumar going to the Opposition means his liability is also going to the other side. The condition of Bihar has started deteriorating rapidly as far as law and order is concerned. There’s no industrialisation and you can’t create jobs in agriculture unless you have a secondary or tertiary sector.
Liz Mathew: What kind of an edge should a BJP leader have to bolster the party’s prospects in Bihar?
People vote for somebody who is upright and honest. You look at the state’s recent electoral history. People gave Nitish Kumar their votes after the first term because he delivered. Similarly, we delivered. People want a good alternative.
Shubhajit Roy: Are you a potential contender for leadership in Bihar?
The people and the party will decide.
The International Energy Agency has called India’s almost last-mile electrification the largest expansion of access within 1,000 days. Capacity addition and the transition from fossil fuel-based generation to a renewable one have happened under the watch of Minister for Power, New and Renewable Energy, R K Singh, who says his Ministry connected 30 million homes in 19 months, added about 172 gigawatts of capacity and now has a power surplus that goes to neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. His challenges are a unified market, ensuring no power plant remains idle and prioritising clearance of power debts.