ABB has teamed up with India’s national electricity grid operator, the Power Grid Corporation of India (POWERGRID), to build one of the longest power links in the world. The Raigarh-Pugalur project will see over 1,800km of electrical infrastructure built to provide reliable power to 80 million people.

The managing director of ABB’s Grid Systems business unit, Patrick Fragman, explains that this will be a joint effort. “The total project value is more than $840m and ABB’s share is around $640m,” he says. “ABB will execute the project together with its consortium partner BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Limited) who will deliver the remainder of the contract.”

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Construction of the power link will begin soon and is expected to be finished by 2019, employing a predominantly local workforce. For any project of this scale there will undoubtedly be great benefits, but how will it benefit the Indian people who need power the most?

The biggest power link

ABB’s first project in India was the Vindhyachal project, starting in 1989. This newest project will be in the company’s sixth in the country, and the most ambitious. “The Raigarh–Pugalur (RP-800) is an 800kV ultrahigh voltage direct current (UHVDC) transmission link with a 6000MW capacity and will be one of the longest HVDC links of its kind in India,” says Fragman.

Running from Raigarh in central India to Pugalur in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, the power link will be 1,830km long. This will be ABB’s second project in India using UHVDC systems.

The UHVDC system enables the transportation of energy over long distances without power losses. Currently, because India’s grid is dilapidated and because of the nature of AC, 25-50% of energy transported across the country is lost, whereas the UHVDC link operating at 800kV will transmit 6,000MW of electricity between Raigarh and Pugalur, according to Fragman.

UHVDC can deal with intermittent energy flows and combined power sources, including electricity from wind farms. These sources form an important part of India’s pledge to have a renewable energy capacity of 175GW by 2022. Not only will UHVDC balance intermittent wind power with thermal power but it will ease the losses caused by the long distances between wind farms and the cities they fuel.

ABB believes that UHVDC is going to play a large part in India’s energy revolution. “In addition to the integration of wind power in the south of India, HVDC transmission is highly efficient compared to the alternatives, meaning more electricity will reach the end consumer, thereby reducing the amount of electricity that needs to be produced, [and] saving CO2 if this generation is fossil fuel based,” says Fragman.

“Large projects based on HVDC technology, such as NEA or RP800, are key elements of a strategy to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions.”

India’s energy struggles

Of India’s 1.34 billion-strong population, 300 million live without access to electricity. This amounts to almost a quarter of the 1.3 billion people living without electricity worldwide. Whole swathes of Indian countryside and the villages within it remain without power, whilst many others rely on expensive and intermittent supplies. When Prime Minister Modi was elected in 2014, he made universal access to electricity a key ambition for his time in office.

However, the nature of the UHVDC systems enables vast amounts of energy to reach high density areas and centres of industry rather than the rural areas that lack electricity completely. “The 80 million Indians number [who will benefit from the power links] is based on the maximum capacity of the link divided by the average per capita consumption in the country,” says Fragman. “The electricity will be consumed by industrial and household consumers.”

Many may question the direction taken by the Indian government in servicing cities before rural communities but Fragman highlights that the link will support India’s growth, the benefits of which will be widely felt. “It is essential additional capacity to meet the growing demand in India, the fastest growing large economy in the world,” Fragman says. “Bringing clean and reliable electricity enables people to have an enhanced quality of life and promote economic development in an environmentally friendly way.”

Whilst cities in India have electricity it is often spotty and unreliable, with many people only having access to electricity for three or four hours a day. This was made evident in 2012 when an outage left 600 million people in the dark, and cost an accumulated $70bn of debt.

India is focusing on a range of projects to modernise its energy sector, including both ABB’s city-centric power links and projects which are reaching those in remote places. Villages such as Appapur, a few thousand miles north of Deli, are benefitting from India’s solar power schemes, for example. It is one of the first ‘solar villages’, which are becoming increasingly popular in India, supported by a range of charities.

Is it enough?

India faces a host of energy challenges of which the grid is a key component, but ABB and POWERGRID hope that their long-distance power links will be the key to tackling some of them.

“Given the country’s growing demand to fuel economic growth and India’s quest to integrate renewable energy sources that are often remotely located, there will be a need to transmit large quantities of electricity over vast distances, given the geographic expanse,” says Fragman. “HVDC is an ideal technology to serve these needs and ABB has supported India’s HVDC journey for more than 25 years.”

The construction of the Raigarh-Pugalur power link will improve the electricity supply for millions, but India is still lagging behind. It requires not just a renewal of its grid but a vast expansion in order to bring its population firmly into the 21st century.