by Kanika Chawla
Geothermal potential in India is estimated to be close to 10,600 MW of power. As per the Geological Survey of India, this potential is spread over 340 geothermal hot springs in the country. 62 of these are distributed along the northwest Himalayas, in the states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. However, despite this significant potential and the deficit in electricity supply and capacity, geothermal power projects have not received serious consideration or development in India. China, however, has been tapping in to the vast geothermal power potential in the Himalayan belt since 1976, by operating a 25 MW plant in Yangbaijan in Tibet.
The geothermal power plant in Yangbaijan taps thermal manifestations at a temperature of 160° C. International experts claim the geothermal potential at Puga, in the Ladakh district of Jammu and Kashmir is considerably greater than that in Yangbaijan, and potentially the greatest geothermal resource in the Indian subcontinent. Leaving this resource untapped could be a huge lost opportunity for Jammu & Kashmir, which suffers from an acute shortage of power, particularly in the mountainous region of Ladakh.
Puga lies at an altitude of 4400m and has thermal manifestations in the form of geysers, hot springs and thermal pools along the Puga Nala. These thermal manifestations are in the temperature range of 22°C to 84°C spread over an area of 4 square kilometres. A total of 35 shallow holes were drilled, to depths of 28.5 m to 200 m, in 1980 for exploration of geothermal potential. The Geological Survey of India along with UN Experts found the existing pressure and flow rates in the exploratory holes remarkable for their shallow depths, indicating significant geothermal potential. Subsequent deep geophysical assessments in the region confirm that Puga has geothermal capacity with temperature as high as 240oC at a depth of 2000 m covering an area over 15 square kilometres. In addition to geothermal potentials assessment, glacial mass balance calculations indicate that there is sufficient melt water available to recharge both shallow and deep reservoirs in the Puga geothermal field. This would further boost the lifetime of the geothermal plant if geothermal power were to be harnessed, as the thermal manifestations would self-replenish with the melt water.
It is estimated that more than 5000 MWh of geothermal energy is available at Puga at the current depths, which could be used for heating, greenhouse cultivation and electricity generation. Studies have indicated that there is a 90% probability that the Puga field could sustain a 20 MW power plant at the current shallow depth of drilling. A 20 MW geothermal plant at Puga could save three million litres of diesel burnt annually in the region at a cost of approximately US$ 2 million. The development of geothermal potential would provide for base-load needs, especially in the winter months when the region’s hydro-power stations are frequently either shut down or working at a much lower efficiency on account of variable and low flow rates.
Several players, domestic and international, have expressed their intentions in developing a pilot programme to harness this geothermal energy. Thermax and Reykjavik Geothermal announced a 3MW pilot project in 2010. This was preceded by the interest displayed by the Australian company Panax Geothermal in conjunction with Geosyndicate Power to explore geothermal potential in Puga. Reports from 2010 also suggest that the LNJ Bhilwara Group had signed an agreement with Iceland-based Mannvit for the development of a geothermal project at the same site. However, none of these interested parties have made any significant advancement in Puga. This could be attributed to the contentious geo-politics of the region. Puga’s location makes it prone to land dispute, with harnessing of local resources being considered tantamount to economic theft. However, given that harnessed geothermal power from the Puga valley would be sold back to locals in this region, providing them relief from their energy poverty woes, this argument appears to be less than robust. Despite the large potential displayed by Puga, the projects planned to tap the geothermal resource of the region and convert it in to power are facing tremendous odds in land acquisition, raising of investment and garnering local consensus.
Land acquisition notwithstanding, geothermal power plants have large upfront capital costs, predominantly due to the costs attached to resource exploration and plant construction. Given the difficult terrain of Ladakh, these costs are further amplified in Puga. Geothermal power in the region is estimated to cost up to 30 crores per MW, significantly more expensive than other renewable energy technologies. However, geothermal power unlike other renewable energy technologies does not suffer from intermittency, resulting in a high plant load factor. This brings down the cost of capital per unit of electricity generated to levels lower than that of solar PV and close to that of wind power. While MNRE has a Draft National Policy on Geothermal Energy which offers developers 30% subsidy on capital cost (up to a maximum of 9 crores/MW) and 50% subsidy on first drilling cost for exploration, there has been no allocation of these subsidies so far (probably as no geothermal plant has been developed yet). New geothermal plants around the world are currently generating electricity at a cost of 0.05$ to 0.08$ per kilowatt hour, comparable to the cost of electricity production in thermal coal plants.
Thus scientific analysis and on ground assessments in the Puga Valley make a compelling argument in favour of harnessing geothermal energy in the region. However, lack of regulatory clarity in the region along with the absence of funding, is severely prohibiting the deployment of geothermal energy in Puga. Dearth of funding for geothermal power projects in the Puga valley is a function of both the regional geopolitical instability as well as the lack of investor confidence in geothermal energy given no previous track record of successful deployment. However, action from the government, both at the centre and the state, to encourage the harnessing of this geothermal potential in Puga could go a long way in increasing investor confidence and result in actual deployment.