Mumbai: In December 2023, the Indian government revised its earlier policy that allowed for the repowering of old windmills, also called turbines, in order to pave the way for additional wind energy generation in the coming years. The revised policy allows for old turbines that had less capacity and height to be repowered, refurbished or their life extended, which in turn will allow additional wind power to be generated.

The policy, a long-standing demand of the industry, was framed in consultation with industry representatives, who have also been included in a national committee that will assist the ministry in the policy’s implementation.

However, challenges remain. Repowering is a costly affair, might require more land, wider access roads, consent of all turbine owners in joint projects and indigenous manufacturing capabilities, experts say.

The rebate offered by the Union government for repowering is miniscule, and states will have to step up to give additional financial incentives to wind farm owners to opt for repowering if India is to aim for net-zero by 2070.

IndiaSpend wrote to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) for comment on industry concerns. We will update this story when we receive a response.

A shot in the arm

India has pledged to have 50% of its cumulative electricity installed capacity from non-fossil fuels by the year 2030. Currently, this stands at 42.2%. While India is confident of meeting this target ahead of the deadline, increasing the share of renewable energy in its total mix is also essential to becoming carbon neutral by 2070.

The non-fossil fuels used in energy generation mentioned here include solar, wind, large and small hydro, nuclear, biomass among others. While solar dominates India’s non-fossil segment (17%), wind is a close third (10.4%) behind large hydro (11%). But large hydropower projects are hardly clean, and they impact the ecology and so, harnessing wind energy further might be the way forward for India.

The installed capacity of wind power has also increased from 21.1 GW in March 2014 to 44.29 GW as of October 2023. The Global Wind Energy Council’s (GWEC) outlook for India for the coming four years is positive and it states that cumulative capacity is expected to increase to around 63.6 GW (ranging from 59.3-68.1 GW, depending on several factors and conditions across conservative case, base case and ambitious case scenarios) by 2027.

A critical step towards this progress could be repowering turbines.

Repowering, taken up in European countries, has shown good results. El Cabrito Wind Farm in Spain reported a 16% increase in energy production after repowering 23-year-old turbines. The Nørrekær Enge Wind Farm and Klim Fjordeholme Wind Farm in Denmark have respectively doubled and tripled their energy production.

Most of the wind-turbines installed in India up to the year 2000 are of sub-MW (less than 1 MW) capacity and are at sites having high wind energy potential. Some of the old wind turbines have already completed their design life while some are approaching end of design life. These turbines are not only inefficient in comparison to the latest technology but also have lower heights (in the range of 30- 60 meters) in comparison to hub heights of 120-140 meters being installed now (the winds are stronger at a greater height).

In order to optimally utilise the wind energy resource available at the respective sites, the government found it necessary to revise its earlier policy to further enable these old turbines to be repowered or refurbished to increase their operational life and efficiency.

This means increasing their height, rotor diameter (diameter of circle made by wind turbine blades in the air) and changing other parts as necessary to install turbines from less than 2 MW up to the 3 MW available now.

Turbines that are older than 15 years but have not exhausted their design life can also be refurbished, as per the new policy which was introduced on December 7, 2023. The repowered turbine will have to generate at least 1.5 times more power as compared to earlier. In total, India has about 25 GW worth of turbines that are under 2 MW capacity and can be repowered or their life extended.

The policy retained its earlier provision wherein agencies like Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA) can provide an additional interest rate rebate of 0.25% for repowering projects over and above that available to new wind projects. IREDA can also devise a suitable financial product catering to debt financing for repowering projects. The Reserve Bank of India had already included bank loans up to a limit of Rs 30 crore to borrowers for purposes like solar/biomass based power generators, windmills, micro-hydel plants and for renewable energy based public utilities under priority sector lending classification.

Following this development, the Tamil Nadu government has also started the process to have its own repowering policy which is in the draft stage as of now.

What’s the catch?

The possibility of starting new wind projects at the remaining windy sites in India--so far unutilised--and a possible offshore wind energy boost have been listed as some of the challenges before repowering, in a 2020 paper by researchers from the Gandhigram Rural Institute and National Institute of Wind Energy (NIWE). But more importantly, repowering can become expensive due to dismantling and disposing costs of old turbine components, towers, and foundations. Replacement, upgradation of electrical networks, and laying of access roads may also become uneconomical and delay the repowering works.

“The process is time-consuming and cost-wise similar to the new wind farm development,” the paper states.

In fact, issues with grid readiness and right of way delayed India’s 400 MW wind capacity from getting installed by the end of 2022. India’s initial wind energy projects were developed before the year 2000 and since many areas around wind farms have seen more development, habitation, farms and utilities now, right of way and access roads will become an issue for transportation of upgraded turbines and related equipment, experts say.

The GWEC’s India wind energy outlook for 2023-27 is cautiously optimistic.

“Central and state governments have made progress in addressing obstacles to wind growth, but operational challenges still persist, such as availability of land, conversion of land, and right of way-related issues,” it states while suggesting a logistics corridor for equipment shipment and transportation.

“Repowering should be carefully done on a case by case basis in each state,” said U.B. Reddy, Managing Director of Enerfra Projects who is also part of the national repowering committee as an industry representative. “Sites that are very windy are not fully utilised today since they have old turbines. A lot of interaction is required between the industry and ministry for repowering to succeed. For example, in Tamil Nadu, in one sub-station, there might be more than 100 owners owning a 50 MW project. To get consent from all of them is also not easy,” said Reddy, pointing at the issue of aggregation projects wherein a group of wind turbines with shared, common infrastructure are owned by multiple owners.

Elaborating on why some windmill owners might not be willing to opt for repowering, Francis Jayasurya, India Director of GWEC, explained that once a project owner’s loans are repaid, the operational cost of a turbine is low and it continues to generate revenue through energy generation, no matter how less its utilisation factor. That’s why many landowners are reluctant to opt for costly repowering, wherein they might recover the cost of their investment and generate profit only several years later.

“It’s like we have come back to the same point as 2016 [when the old policy was introduced] except a few things here and there. If you really want change and since India has ambitious climate goals, the government has to take measures to bring landowners out of this mindset and think big,” said Jayasurya.

According to calculations done by Indian Wind Power Association (IWPA), it might take project owners as long as 21 years to repay their loans taken for repowering depending on the capacity of turbines and other factors.

But the financial incentives like the 0.25% rebate are not sufficient, and states will have to step in with additional financial push on their part to get people to opt for the costly repowering.

“0.25% is okay if states give other financial incentives,” said Ajay Devaraj, secretary general, IWPA. “There are a lot of other costs. Unless it makes economic sense, there will be few takers for the repowering policy. Financial incentives won’t come from the Centre, now states need to step in. The Centre’s role was to provide overall guidelines.”

Tamil Nadu currently has a number of other incentives for wind energy which should continue over and above those offered in the national policy; only then will the payback period come down to five-six years, said Devraj.

Jayasurya agrees.

“In a state like Tamil Nadu, it is the right opportunity to bring back the banking system (wherein wind mill owners can ‘bank’ power in the grid when supply is higher than demand and use it later when supply is less) and tax sops to encourage these owners to adapt new technology,” said Jayasurya.

If India manages to combat all these challenges and enough project owners start opting for repowering, there is still the issue that higher capacity turbines are not manufactured in the country, though they can be.

Addressing the schism between the Union government, state governments and the industry, Reddy said, “Currently among the approved list of models as per NIWE, no turbine is suitable for wind repowering. If the policy picks up, suitable models that are used in other markets will not be difficult to deploy in India. But first, the coordination issue will have to be addressed. In the end, repowering will be driven by commercial viability and industry will volunteer when they see profits,” said Reddy.

(Hanna Paul, intern with IndiaSpend, contributed to this report)

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