As India enters the 72nd year of Independence, by a happy coincidence the country is likely to end the year with 72 GW of installed capacity of renewable power. And the fun has only just begun.

But first to look back at the road traversed, it has been quite a ride. Around the time when India broke its British shackles, there was no such thing as renewable energy. It was all coal and water until the two oil shocks of the 1970s shook the world out of its stupor and made it look towards sources of energy that were infinite and easily available.

There is evidence that India began (at least) thinking of both wind and solar as early as in 1976 —three years after the first oil shock, and three before the second. On July 5 of that year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi wrote in her reply letter to JRD Tata, saying, “It is not only now but for years before the energy crisis that I have been drawing the attention of our scientists to the importance and urgency of harnessing solar energy.”

A call for alternative energy

On November 18, 1980, the Cabinet took due note of the “high prices of oil and diminishing availability of other fossil sources”. The minutes of the meeting says, “Research and Development efforts in the field of alternative energy sources like solar, wind, biomass and biogas had to be intensified and steps taken to see that all these got translated from the laboratory to a wider field.” On January 3 of the following year, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi told the Indian Science Congress that a Commission for Alternative Energy would be established and, in the long run, hydel and solar power and biogas would be the principal forms of energy in India.

Assuming therefore that action towards renewable energy began in the late 1970s and the early 1980s, an achievement of 70 GW is a matter of satisfaction, even if most of it came in the last one decade or so.

Also worthy of note is the point that in the discussions of those days, solar figured more prominently than wind, though the latter took over and led the renewable energy march in the country. Attention, though, has since shifted to solar and it is now solar energy’s time in the sun.

It is on the back of the base built thus far that one should look at the future. For sure, the next 70 GW is not going to take 70 more years — it is not impossible that it could take just seven.

Corporate interest

One reason for the optimism — on August 15, some optimism is inescapable! — is the fact that ‘offshore wind’, is no more at sea. Once thought of as something distant, this source of energy is getting mainstreamed faster than anyone expected, globally, and the echoes of the global events in India are also sounding sweet.

A very encouraging response to a call for 1 GW of offshore wind projects has emboldened the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy to look at 5 GW by 2022 and 30 GW by 2030. The Ministry’s call in April for companies to express their interest in setting up offshore wind projects in the Indian seas attracted response from 35 companies, including European biggies such as Orsted, E.ON, Engie and Innogy. An auction is expected to follow, after which projects will be awarded.

Malolan Cidambi, who runs a company called Greenshore Energy, and has been an offshore wind evangelist for many decades, believes that it is possible to set up near-shore wind projects for around ₹10 crore an MW. Assuming the turbines are up 45 per cent of the time, the cost of energy averaged over a 25-year period could come to ₹7.15 a kWhr — which is not bad at all. It means that offshore wind is today where solar was in 2012.

It is still early days, but Cidambi assumes the need for monopile foundation, (which is a large-diameter hollow steel tube driven about 20 metres into the sea-bed, on which the tower of the windmill would stand), but in some places the sea is shallow enough to support ‘gravity foundation’, which is a large, concrete slab with a hole in the middle for the tower to stand. Gravity foundation is cheaper and where it is possible, we are looking at cheaper electricity. Local sourcing of components would get offshore further within reach, but more than these, it is the developments elsewhere that will have a heavier bearing on the Indian offshore wind story.

Gaining in scale

Offshore is catching up fast in Europe and Asia, bringing to the industry one important positive: scale. “Improvements in technology, especially in terms of larger turbines, along with a well-developed supply chain, advances in installation and operation and maintenance strategies, have made offshore wind a competitive source of power in Europe,” notes Steve Sawyer, who recently demitted office as the Secretary General of the Brussels-headquartered Global Wind Energy Council. Prices of offshore wind-generated electricity have fallen to below 10 Euro cents a kWhr (less than ₹8).

Outside of Europe, China is steaming ahead. It built 1.1 GW of offshore wind in 2017, taking the country’s total to 2.9 GW. The country is aiming at 5 GW by 2020, with a long-term vision of 60 GW. Neighbouring Taiwan has gotten into the act, with a target of 5.5 GW by 2025, of which the first 3.5 GW would be under fixed tariffs and the other 2 GW auctioned. Japan and South Korea are also showing interest in offshore wind.

These numbers may not look big, but they have to be viewed against the fact that the world had only 19 GW of offshore wind at the end of 2017, a very small portion of the total global wind capacity of 514 GW.

Collective learning

Apart from the benefits of scale, the surge of interest in offshore wind will bring several other positives, such as cross-learning from each other’s experience and standardisation of best practices. In a report it produced in May, the International Renewable Energy Agency highlighted this point.

Dolf Gielen, Director of IRENA’s Innovation and Technology Centre observes in the report, “Now is the time for the development of a harmonised and documented global standardisation framework that enables countries to access the cost-effective potential of offshore wind.” The report notes that the benefits of international standards include better consumer and investor confidence, better safety and reliability and lower transportation costs.

With so much going for it, offshore wind’s maturation augurs well for India’s future in renewable energy, says Cidambi.

Thus, while the next 70 GW of renewable energy capacity in India will be driven by the momentum already built in onshore wind and solar, the emergence of offshore wind is very likely to provide the necessary tailwind support.