Solar energy saves Himalayan river vistas

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Solar power tariffs having dropped to a record low are saving many Himalayan river vistas from disappearing, as interest in hydropower development has waned significantly.

Solar power tariffs having dropped to a record low are saving many Himalayan river vistas from disappearing, as interest in hydropower development has waned significantly.

Many potential project sites that were allotted a decade ago are being abandoned or surrendered, as competitive tariff loses out to cheaper solar power. 

Unable to motivate developers to get started on stalled projects, an anguished chief minister Jai Ram Thakur put up his case at a state power ministers conference that had Union Power Minister RK Singh in attendance as “hydropower should get the same priority as solar.”

In June the government had nudged developers of 21 stalled projects to submit revised completion schedules. “We have asked power producers to expedite work on these projects,” said Tarun Kapoor, additional chief secretary (power).

“Hydro-electricity vis-a-vis solar energy is so expensive today, who would want to develop a hydropower plant anymore?” is how Deepak Sanan, a retired bureaucrat, summed it up.

For over two decades, hydropower generation has been sold as a pipe dream to achieve financial self-sufficiency by the state, but Himachal continues to sink deeper into debt, as the government expenditure keeps ballooning every year.

Besides, taming rivers for hydro-electricity has left scars that have defaced the scenic valley and damaged ecological habitats, as many river stretches disappeared into tunnels.

“This cannot be anything but an unmitigated disaster, for a river is not just a flowing mass of water – it is an entire eco-system sustaining human, animal and rich aquatic life within it,” is how a Himachal Pradesh High Court-appointed committee had raised concerns about damages to micro-climates being caused by vanishing rivers.  The Satluj originates in the vicinity of Lake Mansarovar- Mount Kailash peak on the Tibetan plateau, as do the Bhramaputra and the Indus, and enters Himachal at an altitude of 3,000 metres and flows out from Bhakra Dam at about 500 metres. 

Bhakra Dam, Kol Dam, Nathpha Jhakri Dam and Karcham Wangtoo Dam have already sliced up the river into parts and if the full hydro potential is developed, the original river will be gone and will only be preserved for small stretches in its current form. For the Ravi, a natural flow of over 70 km has already been broken down by cascading dams and only 3 km of the river now flows in its original bed.

German geographer Alexander Erlewein in his study “Disappearing rivers – The limits of environmental assessment for hydropower in India” holds that fragmentation of such large rivers that are as old as the Himalayas, has severely “damaged habitats of animals and plants that depend upon it for migration and dissemination.” 

Whereas the Pong, Bhakra and Kol dam projects have disrupted the natural river flows and inundated large tracts of fertile land, others like the Nathpa Jhakri, Karchma Wangtoo and Chamera dams harness electricity by diverting the river into tunnels to create a fall downstream to run turbines at a generation plant.

Studying the impact of hydro-electric project development around the ecologically sensitive Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP), which involved construction of roads and associated activities of dam building that involved blasting, dumping and heavy-machine usage, researcher Virat Jolli from Delhi University Environmental Sciences Department in his 2017 paper found that “habitat disturbance had significantly affected the diversity, richness and abundance of bird species in the Sanj Valley.”

Source: The Tribune