How Kerala can transition to a sustainable and affordable energy future

Solar generation has been underutilised in Kerala, which has set itself a target of 1870 MW of solar power by 2022.
Solar floating plants in Cochin airport
Solar floating plants in Cochin airport

As the world transitions to clean energy, India is at an advantage with its large solar generation potential. However, one state where this edge has been underutilised is the southern state of Kerala. It has set itself a modest target of 1870 MW of solar power by 2022, which is about 1% of India’s 175 GW target. But as of March 2020, the state had an installed capacity of 185 MW, which is less than 10% of its 2022 target. One reason for this could be Kerala’s high urbanization rate and related land constraints that limit the potential for large solar parks, as has been attempted in other parts of the country. 

In 2018-19, over 75% of the state’s power needs was met from purchases from other states costing Kerala Rs. 7869.32 crore, (roughly six times its health budget for the same year.) Much of these purchases were to meet peak power demand, which was 4316 MW in April 2019. This is rather low, in comparison with say, Delhi, which has a peak of 7409 MW in 2019. That said, Kerala’s electricity demand is projected to increase by 1.5 times in the next five years, which should be manageable for a state with a culture of robust forward planning. 

Almost all generation within Kerala is from hydropower. The state continues to prioritise this sector, targeting the commissioning of ten plants expected to generate 278.5 MW by March 2022. However, given Kerala’s fragile ecology, and the increased occurrence of extreme climate events like the floods of 2018, the continued reliance on hydropower is at the very minimum, questionable. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed multiple challenges to the state’s finances, and a forward-looking strategy for Kerala’s power sector is needed. We offer below, a few suggestions that can help Kerala reduce its current high power purchase costs, while also transitioning to a sustainable and affordable energy future. 

Cutting KSEB’s losses 

Even while the Kerala State Electricity Board’s (KSEB) overall performance is getting better lately, the financial losses of KSEB mirror those faced by other state-owned power distribution companies. Nearly two-thirds of KSEB’s annual expenses is on purchasing power. These costs could be significantly reduced by tapping into the growing cost-competitiveness of Renewable Energy (RE), prioritizing Demand Side Management (DSM) and attempting energy efficiency (EE) interventions to ensure long-term resilience. DSM refers to policy interventions to change usage patterns of electricity consumers to use power efficiently. 

Loss-making purchase agreements with power plants need to be looked at urgently. For instance, KSEB pays Rs 100 crore as fixed charges annually for power from a standby plant. The Rajiv Gandhi Combined Cycle Power Plant (RGCCPP) – a Union Government-owned gas-based facility in Kayamkulam is used only during peak load periods, and has been acknowledged to be inefficient by KSEB, due to the high cost and unreliable supply of imported naphtha. 

We propose that KSEB’s current planning approach must evolve to include an Integrated Resources Plan (IRP). IRP refers to careful least-cost combination of supply and end-use efficiency measures to meet demand during a specific period while integrating environmental protection, reliability, and developmental objectives. The IRP process would enable KSEB and other government agencies to take a holistic overview of the supply-side constraints, demand-side requirements and Kerala’s unique topography, environmental and social characteristics. 

Alternatives to rooftop solar

In addition to rooftop solar, utility-scale energy storage can address the RE-integration concerns expressed in Kerala’s power policy. This means deploying medium to large sized grid-connected batteries that can store energy and integrate different RE sources. 

One of the RE sources Kerala has embraced to bridge the land constraints gap is Floating Solar Photo Voltaic (FSPV) panels. FSPV has emerged as a promising technology to produce RE in a land-scarce but water-rich state. Kerala has 517 MW of FSPV projects in the pipeline. 

Guidelines for floating solar panels

However, there are no Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) guidelines for FSPVs in India. Kerala must consider the potential environmental and social implications from these floating solar panels on an already fragile ecology. The state can be a front-runner here and develop guidelines and formulate a policy for FSPV projects given the administrative challenges of ownership and control over water reservoirs and potential conflicts with hydropower generation. 

Diversify RE technologies

The potential for developing a wind-solar hybrid park in Ramakkalmedu and Pushpakandam in Idukki district has been assessed by the National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE) and Agency for Non-conventional Energy and Rural Technology (ANERT). Similarly, offshore wind could be explored. According to ANERT, with wind speeds of up to 8-9 meters per second off Kerala’s southern coast, there is immense untapped potential for offshore wind energy in the state. The new Kerala government must prioritise such opportunities, kickstarting it with long-term techno-financial feasibility studies with the aim to continue exploring RE sources suited to the state’s circumstances.

Make buildings and urban spaces energy efficient

Energy efficiency interventions require a paradigmatic shift in how town planners conceive the future of our cities and towns –as electricity guzzlers, or as power conservers. For instance, builders could be mandated to use only energy efficient elevators, or LED lights in common areas. There is a whole range of demand-side interventions that Kerala can champion as India’s energy needs expand exponentially. 

Buildings consume more than half of total electricity consumed in the state.  Local Self Government Institutions (LSGIs) can put in systems to reduce buildings’ energy use. They can initiate processes to evaluate the energy performance of their buildings to understand where power could be saved. This system can be piloted across the six big cities - Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, Kochi, Thrissur, Kozhikode and Kannur. To incentivise EE, corporations could be awarded with greater resource allocations, or commendations as an annual feature. This would also generate public debate about ways to conserve power and sensitise people on the linkages between power consumption and climate change. 

Demonstrate local leadership and ownership in clean energy initiatives

Meenangadi panchayat’s carbon neutral commitment and Pilicode panchayat’s LED lighting program in 2018 have demonstrated the transformative impact when LSGIs show leadership and political will. The vulnerability of Meenangadi’ s agricultural sector to climate change, prompted the panchayat to declare its commitment to achieving carbon neutrality. The panchayat prepared an action plan to achieve this goal.  

When Pilicode panchayat became the first “filament-free’’ panchayat in India, a term used to describe absence of the once ubiquitous incandescent bulbs, it became an inspiration for a state-wide scale-up of the initiative. In 2018, the Kerala Urja mission identified filament-free Kerala as one of the five flagship initiatives aimed at integrated development of the state’s power sector. 

More such efforts must be nurtured and scaled-up to achieve clean energy targets. They must be buttressed with projects like carbon sequestering (for e.g. soil conservation, tree planting) and adopting waste management. 

Kerala’s energy mix and grid of the future must also prepare for rising demand for space cooling. A study by WRI India of 129 three-bedroom (or more) households in Kochi found that on an average these homes have three air-conditioners each. These numbers could easily be extrapolated to the rest of the state, given Kerala’s significant urbanisation. DSM interventions like promotion of energy efficient air-conditioners can help address cooling-related peak demand. 

By exploring several of these measures, we believe Kerala’s new leadership could set an example for other Indian states to follow, in attempting innovative approaches to achieve energy self-sufficiency, transition to clean energy and increase energy efficiency of built environments. 

Dhilon Subramanian, Sumedha Malaviya and Kunal Shankar are part of World Resources Institute India’s energy program and G Sivaramakrishnan is a senior consultant on renewable energy projects in Kerala.


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