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Daily-current-affairs / 12 Oct 2023

Hydropower in India: A Historical Overview and Global Perspective : Daily News Analysis


Date : 13/10/2023

Relevance: GS Paper 3- Economy - Renewable Energy

Keywords: Pumped hydro storage (PHS) facilities, International Energy Agency (IEA), Teesta-V hydropower, Net-zero goals by 2050


Hydropower has played a pivotal role in India's energy landscape, contributing significantly to power generation over the years. We will delve into the historical evolution of hydropower in India, its global significance, and the associated challenges and opportunities. We explore its critical role in achieving grid stability, environmental impacts, and the prospects for pumped hydro storage (PHS) facilities.

Historical Evolution of Hydropower in India:

  • In 1947, hydropower accounted for a substantial 37 percent of India's total power generating capacity, generating over 53 percent of the nation's electricity. However, the late 1960s witnessed a transformative shift as coal-based power generation began to overshadow hydropower, resulting in a dramatic decline in hydropower's share in both capacity and generation.
  • By August 2023, hydropower's capacity in India had reached approximately 46,865 MW, representing a mere 11 percent of the total power generation capacity. In 2022-23, hydropower contributed to 12.5 percent of India's power generation. Additionally, the country possessed 4,745.6 MW of operational pumped storage capacity, with 57,345 MW under various stages of investigation and construction.

Global Significance of Hydropower:

  • Globally, hydropower remains the dominant renewable energy source, accounting for over two-thirds of all renewable electricity. In 2021, the world's installed hydropower capacity increased by 26 GW, reaching 1,360 GW. It generated 4,250 TWh of clean electricity, surpassing the entire electricity consumption of the European Union (EU) and outpacing all other forms of renewable energy combined.
  • However, this falls short of the annual capacity addition targets necessary to meet net-zero goals by 2050, as outlined by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Achieving temperature rise goals of 1.5°C or 2°C would require annual additions of 45 GW and 30 GW, respectively.
  • A substantial 80 percent of new hydropower capacity in 2021 was in China, and 4.7 GW of pumped storage hydropower was added to the global grid, tripling the amount from 2020. Despite these achievements, global growth in hydropower generation capacity in 2021 was just over 1.9 percent, which closely aligns with the 2 percent annual average growth necessary to fulfill the Paris Agreement targets.

Challenges and Environmental Concerns:

  • While large storage hydropower projects generate low-carbon electricity, they also come with significant environmental and social costs. These projects displace communities, disrupt river ecosystems, contribute to deforestation, and lead to the loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity. They can also negatively impact food systems, water quality, and agriculture. In North America and Europe, the adverse environmental and social impacts of hydropower projects have led to the removal of dams, as these regions transition from being prominent dam builders to actively decommissioning dams.
  • In the fragile Himalayan mountains, where the majority of India's new hydro-power projects are underway, the region's susceptibility to devastating floods and landslides has significantly heightened the risks associated with these hydro-projects. The catastrophic flooding in February 2021, affecting the Dhauliganga, Rishiganga, and Alaknanda rivers in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district, resulted in a tragic loss of lives and inflicted severe damage on numerous hydropower projects. Subsequently, in July 2023, heavy rains led to the shutdown and damage of these hydropower initiatives, resulting in a substantial revenue loss of over INR 1.6 billion, as reported by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA).
  • While there is ongoing disagreement regarding the precise cause of the 2021 flash floods, whether due to glacier crashes, avalanches, or landslides, there is a consensus that insufficient appraisals and the disregard for cumulative impact and disaster potential assessments played a pivotal role in amplifying the extent of these losses.
  • Large hydroelectric power plants take up a large expanse of land. Submergence of land under reservoirs leads to loss of people’s homes and livelihoods, important natural areas, agricultural land, or historical landmarks. Submergence can impact local wildlife and ecology.

Path to Sustainable Hydropower in India:

  • Although these challenges exist, it is crucial to recognize that hydropower projects in India can meet international sustainability standards. The Teesta-V hydropower station in Sikkim serves as an exemplary case of international best practices in hydropower sustainability. This 510 MW power station, operated by the National Hydropower Corporation (NHPC) Limited, met or exceeded international good practices across all 20 performance criteria. For hydropower to become a sustainable energy source in India, it is vital for the government and the industry to prioritize transparency and actively engage with civil society, especially those directly affected by the projects.
  • Research suggests that modular solutions, combining wind, solar, and hydropower, provide environmentally, socially, and financially desirable alternative energy sources. Instream turbine parks, as opposed to traditional dams, are less disruptive and produce energy at a lower cost. The development of large, 'smart' hydropower projects, considering economic, environmental, and social concerns at the local and national levels, is another approach. These projects can minimize the impact on aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
  • The Indian government has taken steps to support hydropower projects by including large projects above 25 MW in the renewable energy category. It has also introduced hydropower purchase obligations (HPO) as a non-solar renewable purchase obligation (RPO). To enhance the viability of hydropower projects, measures such as tariff rationalization, increasing project life to 40 years, and funding infrastructure like roads and bridges have been introduced.

Hydropower's Contribution to Grid Stability:

Hydropower offers a unique advantage compared to other renewable energy sources, as it can be dispatched quickly to balance load variations on the electric distribution system. In India, this flexibility was evident on April 5, 2020, when operators restored grid stability following a significant demand drop of 31 GW. Households across the nation switched off electrical lights for nine minutes. The reduction in hydropower generation by over 68 percent during this event played a crucial role in maintaining grid stability.

Pumped Hydro Storage (PHS):

Pumped hydro storage facilities store energy by pumping water to an upper reservoir from a lower one. During periods of high electricity demand, power is generated as water is released through turbines. During low-demand periods, the upper reservoir is recharged using lower-cost electricity to pump water back up. While PHS facilities consume some electricity due to hydraulic and electrical losses, they are efficient and vital for balancing the grid. Globally, around 161 GW of PHS functions as a 'water battery,' accounting for over 94 percent of installed global energy storage capacity.

Economics of PHS:

In the long term, PHS faces challenges, as its traditional revenue source, arbitrage, depends on a level of predictable variability in the electricity market. PHS provides essential network support services such as frequency control and fault level control, which will gain value as non-synchronous solar and wind generation increases. Currently, no markets exist for these services in India, but they are likely to become valuable in the future.


In conclusion, the historical evolution of hydropower in India and its global significance is marked by achievements and challenges. Balancing environmental and social concerns while harnessing the potential of this renewable energy source is essential for India's sustainable energy future. The inclusion of PHS and the pursuit of grid stability further underline the role of hydropower in the country's energy landscape. To navigate the path towards sustainability, the industry, government, and civil society must collaborate transparently, ensuring that hydropower projects align with international best practices and prioritize the well-being of communities and ecosystems.

Probable Questions for UPSC Mains Exam-

  1. How has the historical role of hydropower in India evolved, and what are the key factors contributing to its declining share in total power generation capacity over the years? (10 Marks,150 Words)
  2. In the context of global hydropower significance and the challenges associated with achieving net-zero goals, what are the primary environmental and social concerns related to large storage hydropower projects, and how can India move toward more sustainable hydropower solutions? (15 Marks,250 Words)

Source: ORF