Ramagundam in the Peddapalli district of Telangana has a unique landscape. The Godavari river flows on one side of the city and lush green hillocks add to the natural beauty. In contrast, the vertical blast furnaces of the power plants here hint towards the rapid industrialisation in the area.
Being one of the important power generation centres of National Thermal Power Corporation in South India, tall electricity towers are omnipresent, spanning from the agricultural fields to the roadsides and to the nearby hilly terrains. The area comes under the Godavari Valley Coalfields, the only coalfield of South India. Here coal is mined and processed to create thermal energy to cater to the needs of the state.
However, the region, besides being known for its coal mining reserve and thermal power generation centre, was in the limelight last year when the National Thermal Power Corporation announced one of India’s largest 100 megawatts floating solar parks (at a single location) on its premises at Ramagundam. Floating solar photovoltaic plants are renewable energy generation plants where solar panels are mounted on a structure on a water body. Floating solar or floating photovoltaics are also called “floatovoltaics”.
“The floating solar park at Ramagundam is spread over 450 acres of water body on a water reservoir. Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited has been the executive agency for the project, estimated at a cost of Rs 423 crores. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the project suffered some delays but is likely to be completed by the end of the year,” a senior official from the National Thermal Power Corporation-Ramagundam plant told Mongabay-India.
Floating solar park
The floating solar park is situated around 7-km away from the Godavari river. Around 40 different arrays in the plant host around 4.7 lakh solar panels to produce 100 megawatts of clean energy. Transformers, inverters and switchgear panels have been installed in the floating structure anchored on the water body. However, the site is away from public view as it comes under the jurisdiction plant area of the National Thermal Power Corporation.
In addition to the floating park to increase its basket of clean energy for its captive and other needs, the National Thermal Power Corporation in Ramagundam is also working towards producing Green Methanol (10 temperature-programmed desorption) pilot at Ramagundam using green hydrogen and carbon captured from flue gases of the thermal project.
The National Thermal Power Corporation plant here also has an operational 10 megawatts of solar plant producing clean energy for the last seven years. The campus traffic signals have already been energised with off-grid solar energy, which is meant for use by the local residents of the city. As per the latest National Thermal Power Corporation annual report, the Ramagundam plant meanwhile has 2,600 megawatts of installed capacity of power generated from coal.
According to figures available till now, there are around 15 solar floating power plants in India under different stages of construction. While some are undertaken by the National Thermal Power Corporation, there are some by the National Hydro Power Corporation and others. All these 15 solar plants, after construction, can together give 1,832 megawatts of renewable energy in the country and might help the country in achieving its clean energy targets.
Land requirement is one of the challenges faced by renewable energy projects such as solar and wind parks. But with this new format of floating solar plant, clean energy projects that do not need land are becoming popular. The nodal clean energy agency from Telangana, Telangana State Renewable Energy Development Corporation, has also identified new potential water bodies where floatovoltaic experiments could be done.
“We have identified two potential areas in Telangana where such floating solar parks could be developed,” GSV Prasad, General Manager of Telangana State Renewable Energy Development Corporation told Mongabay-India. “One such feasible area is the Lower Manair Dam area [Karimnagar district] and another one is the Upper Manair Dam area [Rajanna Sircila district]. We have proposed this to the state government. Now the decision is upto the state cabinet.”
According to Telangana State Renewable Energy Development Corporation, both of these plants will have the installed potential of 500 megawatts each and could become India’s largest such clean energy generators through floatovoltaics from one single location, unlike the other state models where the floating plants are scattered.
Meanwhile, other non-state agencies have also eyed the different locations of the Manair dam in the state for floatovoltaics. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation Ltd has also announced two 500 megawatts of floating solar power plants at mid-Manair dam site (Rajanna Sircilla district) in 2020. The Singareni Collieries Company Limited in Telangana meanwhile has also announced submitting a proposal of 350 megawatts of floating solar power plant at Lower Manair dam area in 2021.
A visit to the Lower Manair Dam in Karimnagar by Mongabay-India revealed that the site, situated at the hilly outskirts of Karimnagar city and a popular tourist destination, has a stagnant water source that stretches over a large area and remains undisturbed. Lower Manair Dam is around 65 km away from Ramagundam.
“This is a beautiful site for tourists,” Srinath Reddy, a resident of Karimnagar told Mongabay-India. “Several people often throng this elevated site. Right now, there are some scattered fishing blocks here while boating facilities are also available.”
“It is quite a calm water body,” Reddy said showing the extent of the dam waters. “An overview of the whole Karimnagar city and nearby mountains and greenery could be seen from here. Any works on any floating solar plant is yet to be seen here as of now.”
The Telangana State Renewable Energy Development Corporation and other agencies have, in the past, worked on acquiring land for new clean energy projects. Rising prices of land in many urban areas and their outskirts have often increased their project costs. According to the officials at the Telangana State Renewable Energy Development Corporation, feasibility studies on wind energy alone had hinted that wind energy had the potential of 4.2 gigawatts in Telangana.
However, several of the preferred destinations were close to Hyderabad and other areas where land acquisition and development of the same were not possible and were very costly to undertake. The state now has only 128 megawatts of wind energy. Several of the existing solar works in the state were done on land acquired earlier.
The state till now has been able to install 4.4 gigawatts of clean energy capacity, out of which 3.8 gigawatts comes from solar energy alone. The state has planned to achieve 6 gigawatts of installed clean energy capacity by 2022-’23.
Era of floatovoltaics
The first floating solar park in the world was established first in 2007 at Aichi in Japan. Over the next few years, such floating solar units flourished and spread in different parts of the world, including India. India’s first floatovoltaic park opened at Rajarhat in Kolkata in 2014.
According to global data cited in a World Bank Report on floating solar parks, the real growth could be traced since 2014. In 2014, the total installed capacity of floatovoltaics globally, stood at 11 megawatts which increased by over 10 times to 1,314 megawatts by the end of 2018.
In India, given the rise in demand for power and the need for more clean energy growth, experimenting with new technologies like floatovoltaics becomes significant. Government data claimed that while in 2003-’04 the per capita demand for electricity stood at 592 kilowatt-hours, it increased to 1,208 kilowatt-hours by 2020-’21.
Studies meanwhile claimed that floating solar power has more potential to create power than solar panels installed on land while having the additional virtue of helping in reducing the evaporation from the water body where they are anchored.
Experts who have worked and analysed the sector claimed that the area has immense potential but in its nascent stage globally and its impact on the water bodies, if any, have also not been studied widely.
“Not only in India but globally this concept is in a nascent stage,” Arun Kumar, Professor, Hydro and Renewable Energy Department, Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee told Mongabay-India. “There is a dearth of historical evidence to analyse the long term impact of these plants. This is an emerging sector. If they are confined to stagnant water bodies below 5% of the total area of the water body there are less chances of any possible damage to the water body due to this.”
He also added that the capital costs of floatovoltaics are around 20% to 25% higher than the ground solar plants due to the extra cost of floats and other additional devices needed to ensure its anchoring to the water body that reduces its viability. Because of this, the government should provide financial assistance, he recommended.
Environmentalists meanwhile claim that well defined standard operating protocols and policies for floatovoltaics are needed from the government to avoid any conflicts in future. Ranjan Panda, Convener of Water Initiatives and a river water expert told Mongabay-India, “The concept of floating solar power plants is new in the country but it is slowly getting expanded in different parts of the country. In future, there could be some conflicts among different stakeholders like the local communities, farmers and others with the private developers of such plants. We thus need well-crafted standard operating protocols and policies from the government to cater to any such issues arising in the future as the technology expands.”
He also said that as there are fewer studies on the impact of such plants on the water bodies which should be facilitated by the government in the early stages.
The Energy and Research Institute in its policy document in 2019 had meanwhile identified potential reservoirs across the state where the floating solar plants could be set up. The document claimed that solar energy upto 280 megawatts could be tapped through this technique through the 18,000 square km of water reservoir surface suited for the technology.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.