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Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Implications of free transmission of renewable energy

by Akshay Jaitly and Ajay Shah.

Inter-state electricity transmission

Transporting electricity across long distances requires investments in the transmission system where high voltages are used to minimise losses. An emphasis on renewable electricity generation requires significant new transmission capacity to transport electricity from the natural locations for generation (e.g. Himalayan hydel, or SPV in Rajasthan) to the centres of consumption in the peninsula. In an announcement in December 2021, 23 inter-state transmission system (ISTS) projects have been initiated by the government, at a cost of Rs.159 billion.

As with other elements of the electricity system, investments in transmission would ideally be done through the price system, where the price for transmission is discovered on a market. Once the price system is in motion, present or anticipated high prices would create incentives for investment in transmission. The structure of the Indian electricity market does not permit this: as this announcement of 23 projects shows, we effectively have a centrally planned system where officials control the resource allocation, and only bring in private firms as vendors playing a defined role in a centrally planned system. Transmission investments and prices are largely government controlled, and not discovered through the price system, which always involves misallocation of resources.

In the remainder of this article, we discuss the outlook on ISTS and its implications for renewable energy. To summarise ISTS, it is an electricity grid that runs across the entire country. It connects to end-points who are either generators or users. There is a process, and there are rules and capacity constraints, which determine whether a given person gets on to ISTS. Once a person is physically on ISTS, they are directly buying and selling from others on ISTS; these transactions are immune to the policies of the local discom. There is one constraint: the buyer and seller on ISTS cannot be within the same state.

Special prices for transmission of renewables

The CERC (Sharing of Inter-State Transmission Charges and Losses) Regulations, 2010 had some remarkable clauses: 7(u) and 7(v) established that for a period of three years, solar generation would be charged zero rates for transmission charges or losses. This suggested a world where a solar generator could sell to any buyer in India with no friction from transportation. These zero charges have been expanded and carried forward to cover all renewable energy commissioned till 30 June 2025. For renewable energy projects commissioned prior to 30 June 2025, for a period of 25 years, there will be no charge for transmission. For projects commissioned from 30 June 2025 onwards, the charges come back in gradually, to a level of 100% of the normal charge for projects commissioned after 1 July 2028. This creates a special deal for any renewables project that gets to the finish date by 30 June 2025.

Open access through discoms: In the present legal system, discoms are supposed to give out ‘open access’, where a buyer and seller of electricity are able to privately negotiate transactions, and have guaranteed access to the transportation services of the discom for the transport or electricity within or outside the state. In practice, this de jure situation does not map out into the de facto: many discoms refuse to provide or otherwise impede these services, as they would like to continue overcharging their best customers.

Open access through ISTS: Transmission across the state border through the ISTS seems to offer an increasingly viable way out of this barrier. It appears that when a renewables generator connected to the ISTS network sells to a third party outside the state who is also connected to the ISTS network through a PPA, neither of the two discoms can impede the transaction. This has been possible for a while, but the expansion of ISTS mentioned above will make such transactions more accessible to a wider range of sellers and buyers.

We could thus have generator $A$ in Dahanu (at the north end of Maharashtra) who is unable to sell to a buyer $B$ in Palghar (40 kilometres away), but she would be able to sell to a buyer $C$ who is across the state border in Vapi (at the south end of Gujarat, 70 kilometres away), assuming that connectivity to ISTS exists.


There are two kinds of ‘free’ in the title of this article. One refers to transportation of electricity without paying for it. Another refers to economic freedom: rational transactions under open access which are impeded and disincentivised within and across states (between a renewables generator and a buyer) and those using ISTS that are seemingly encouraged across the state border. What are the implications of these two kinds of free coming together?

There is no free lunch. When transportation is subsidised for renewables, someone has to pay for this. This can either be an explicit on-budget subsidy, or it can be a within-sector subsidy. In the Indian case, when government-owned transmission utilities undercharge transmission for renewables, this comes with higher prices for fossil fuel generators. Such tax-and-subsidy policies normally require sophisticated public finance analysis, which is not visible, thereby elevating the risk of unanticipated effects.

The ability of renewables generators to frictionlessly transport electricity across state borders is likely to significantly impact upon the distorted pricing being run by discoms. The paying customers (C&I) in any state have a strong incentive to cut the discom out of the transaction and directly buy from any generator. In addition, some C&I customers have ESG equity investors, and need to demonstrate they are using renewable energy. Both imperatives create incentives for C&I customers in each state to find a renewables generator somewhere in India (but not in their own state, where ISTS transactions are absent), and buy directly, thus avoiding the exaggerated prices charged by the discom and freeing themselves from their often unreliable service.

We will have situations where a Gujarat renewables generator will sell to a Maharashtra C&I customer, while at the same time a Maharashtra renewables generator will sell to a Gujarat C&I customer. At an engineering level, transmission between two states would only take place in one direction, and the two streams would get netted out. This would yield the efficient outcome where in each state, buyers and sellers achieve higher economic freedom, and are less controlled by the discom.

Zero or low pricing for transmission of renewables has been around for a while, but earlier there were capacity constraints in inter-state transmission which was holding back this process. The substantial expansion of the ISTS described above would help translate the threat of exit by an increasing number of C&I users into a reality. The rise of ESG investment is also relatively recent. We would hence hazard a guess that these transactions will become more important by 2023 and 2024.

In a recent paper, we argued that the Indian electricity sector in 2021 or 2022 is different from what was seen in the preceding 30 years. While electricity went along a muddled path of non-reform for decades, while private participation only came into the edges of a fundamentally centrally planned system, the stress on the incumbent system is mounting. We are coming to the point where the good old ways are untenable. Inexpensive ISTS, which enables C&I customers to buy cheap renewables from across the state border, adds to this scenario. Other recent developments are also pushing discom finances over the edge [example].

We expect that increased ISTS access will increase economic freedom, and help private investors think more in terms of market opportunities rather than regulatory constraints. But this present moment of the policy configuration will also not be seen as stable, for a 25-year horizon, by private investors. What the state giveth, it can equally take away. All in all, we expect that discom finances will weaken, the ROE in renewables will go up, but the impact upon investment will be somewhat muted owing to fears about the next string of policy actions.

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