Tackling India’s Transmission Sector Energy Losses Can Help Meet Net Zero Commitments


India’s National Electricity Plan in 2018 projected adding more than 45 GW of coal-fired capacity by 2027, and Central Electricity Authority (CEA) showed that in 2029-30 India’s coal capacity will increase by 64 GW above 2021 levels. This will increase emissions, and risk stranded assets. India’s reliance on coal was one of the driving factors behind its commitment to only phase down, not phase out, coal at COP26.

One persistent problem that doesn’t get much focus in India is the level of energy losses the country must contend with. According to the CEA, India suffers transmission and distribution losses of around 20%. This figure has been declining consistently since 2000, but it is still more than twice the world average.

This is important in a stressed power sector because cash-strapped discoms find it difficult to make timely payments to gencos. The losses are due to technical reasons, like the resistance of cables and equipment as electricity passes through, but also factors engineers cannot readily address, such as pilferage, collection inefficiency, defective meters and errors in meter reading.

If energy efficiency is improved, India would need to generate less energy to reach its intended customers.

It will save the Indian government money, assist cash-strapped discoms and lead to more reliable electricity for consumers. It will further facilitate the integration of renewables by reducing the amount lost between generation and end use.

In October 2021, India faced facing a large-scale power outage with coal reserves enough only for a few days. This came as the result of a surge in power usage during the pandemic and the sharp increase in global coal prices.

As a result, power cuts became more frequent than they had been at the same time last year. Jharkhand, Bihar and Rajasthan were some of the worst affected states according to daily load dispatch data from the federal grid regulator POSOCO. For example, Jharkhand suffered a power deficit of 18-24%, causing power outages for many hours in a day in most of these states.

If Jharkhand has implemented technologies to consistently minimise energy losses, it would been more insulated against this crisis.

One British company has now selected India as its test bed for working on this pernicious problem, following successful trials in the Middle East and Africa. These trials demonstrated up to 30% increase in current carrying capacity with over two years of field data.

As electricity lines operate, they get hot, both from the current running through them and incoming solar radiation. The hotter the line, the less efficient the line is due to increased electrical resistance. In consistently hot, dry climates like in Rajasthan or even high-humidity environments like in Kerala, this is a problem that needs inventive solutions.

Cooling them down increases the power transfer capacity. British company AssetCool has just entered the Indian market with a photonic inorganic coating which cools such overhead lines.

The coating lowers electrical resistance, which cuts power losses, reduces carbon emissions, allows more current to be carried on the line. It is suited for new power lines that are laid, but also have an application for retro-fitting existing lines.

Alternatives to this technology exist in the form of replacing existing power lines with newer, better specification ones, but doing so would be significantly more expensive.

If technical losses in best-performing transmission systems in India are around 3-4% of electricity produced, and the overhead line losses around half of this, even saving 5% of the energy losses across India’s total annual electricity production would come to over 1,380,000 gWh.

India is perhaps one of the most exciting markets in the world for exploring such a technology, because of its climate, high energy losses and the size of the country.

Climate change is not a national problem but a global one. Developing countries led by India and China successfully argued at COP26 that rich countries are responsible for most of today’s climate change impacts since they started emitting carbon much earlier than the rest of the world. Innovative IP from abroad is one way that truly global solutions can be found to global problems.

Pratik Dattani is Managing Director of market entry advisory firm EPG Economic and Strategy Consulting with a focus on cleantech, and sits on the Board of think tank Bridge India.