Will their intermittency condemn renewable energy sources to the margins in the Indian electricity mix?
India today is witnessing an energy trajectory that straddles multiple imperatives: sustainability, energy access for 1.35 billion people and energy self-sufficiency while establishing and sustaining viable economic growth. In response, the economy has embraced renewable energy at a scale and pace unprecedented in its history. Led by solar energy, the country has already reached the halfway mark of its 175 gigawatt installed renewable capacity goal.
A sustainable energy future also entails a switch to electricity, the cleanest fuel at point of use. While renewables excel in generating clean electricity for consumer use (e.g. household electricity), economy-wide electrification, i.e. the decarbonisation of industry at large, poses another challenge.
Therefore, while electrification and renewables are the twin imperatives of a sustainable energy future, the question is whether they can deliver the certainty that India’s socio-economic growth needs.
When the sun doesn’t shine (or the wind doesn’t blow, in the case of wind energy), generation can come to a halt. This intermittency allows for coal to have a sustained role as a baseload source of power. While the government aims to achieve as much as 350 to 500 gigawatt of renewable energy by 2030, coal will remain the major fuel source for electricity generation in India. The diminishing role of coal, achieved by exploiting the commercial attractiveness of solar energy — foreseen by agencies, including KPMG in India in its ‘The Rising Sun’ report — is being witnessed nationally.
According to the ‘The Electric Future - and its implications for India', a research report released in November 2019 by KPMG in India, renewables intermittency — the primary hindrance of renewables — is being globally addressed through a variety of technologies and business models. A combination of conventional generators, balancing through the power markets and battery storage have begun to prove their merit. In the last year alone, Germany, Portugal and Denmark were powered by a significant volume of renewables - almost 100 per cent for some time periods.
A 100 per cent renewable energy scenario is possible for India as well according to a special issue on storage published for the 11th International Renewable Energy Storage Conference (IRES 2017) in Düsseldorf, Germany. “The demand for storage technologies in energy transition pathways towards 100 per cent renewable energy for India,”. Using an hourly resolved simulation model, the report’s author posits that 100 per cent renewable energy penetration is possible in India, subject to low-cost support of batteries. Furthermore, KPMG in India, in a modelling exercise conducted for states leading in renewable generation, also confirmed that renewable energy penetration of 30 to 40 per cent (in energy terms) is eminently possible by 2025.
Synchronously operated, India's electricity grid enables the resilience and flexibility that renewable energy will need. Moreover, making renewable penetration mainstream will also necessitate storage requirements (battery, pumped hydro, other alternative forms). The prices of battery storage, a vital lever in the energy transition, are anticipated to decline. This builds a strong case to promote battery storage through a policy push. Along with exploring the potential of indigenous battery research and manufacturing, pumped hydro also presents an attractive avenue for future-ready energy systems.
To conclude, the energy transition today is poised to make electricity as the predominant fuel of the future. The pace at which innovation is coming to market is shortening and broad global trends are indicating that rapid electrification — driven by efficiency, cost and climate considerations — is on its way.
 Energy Storage System- Roadmap for India: 2019-2032 by ISGF and IESA.
 IRENA 2019
(A version of this article appeared in The Economics Times on 6th January, 2020)