India's Kerala State Triumphs with Floating Solar Power Stations

the dam
Terra Green
Kerala, India

India's Kerala State Triumphs with Floating Solar Power Stations

A glimpse from atop the picturesque Banasura Sagar Dam—the first earthen dam in Asia—which impounds the Karamanathodu tributary of Kabini River, would offer a vista of the Western Ghats. The dam supports the nearby Kakkayam Hydroelectric power project and store waters to irrigate around 2800 hectares of agriculture land in Kerala. 

In addition, a floating solar power station, the first-of-its-kind in India, has today turned out to be an interesting experience for tourists flocking to its reservoir. “It’s really marvellous. Why shouldn’t it be set in all dams in India?” asked Ms Ankita Sen, an eco- tourist from Mumbai.

After coming to a grinding halt for one-and-a-half years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tourism has been returning to normal, with the dam clocking around 10,000 travellers during the holidays, according to estimates shared by the Dam Safety Division. Tourists come to experience boating, rowing in traditional “Kotta Vanchi” (round boats made of bamboo), adventure sports, typical Malabar cuisine, and tribal dances.

According to B Anas, a tourist guide working at the nearest town, Kalpetta, in the ongoing season, a new category of tourists, especially from north Indian states, is also pouring in: “Solar tourist”. Like Ankita Sen, these travellers are coming especially to see the solar floating power station.

Floating Solar Power Station Sets a Model

The solar power station over the lake formed by Banasura Sagar Dam was commissioned on December 4, 2017. In the initial days, there was scepticism about its safety and sustainability. 
Now, the project has been acclaimed as a replicable model in utilizing non-conventional energy sources to tackle the climate crisis, said Baburaj, executive engineer at the Dam Safety Division, Banasura Sagar. On average, 1650 units of electricity is produced per day. The excess electricity left over after the dam site’s requirement has been contributing to the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) grid.

As a result of its success, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) Limited commissioned India’s largest floating solar PV project of 25 MW on the reservoir of its Simhadri thermal station in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, on August 21, 2021. Many similar projects are in the pipeline.

The floating solar power plant was the brainchild of two B Tech students—Ajay Thomas and VM Sudeen. In 2015, they successfully showcased a model before the KSEB. Taking a cue from their experiment, the KSEB streamlined a project with the cost of 19.25 crore, of which 17 crore was from Kerala State’s Innovation Fund and the rest received through a loan from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD).

Floating solar power plants may be more expensive than plants built on land, but officials from the KSEB pointed out that floating solar power stations typically have larger power generation capacity. The 54,450 sq. ft power plant consists of 1938 solar panels. Each panel has the production capacity of 260 Watts, producing more power on sunny days.

Before commissioning the project, the safety of the plant was one of the major concerns for communities living near the dam. Could it withstand natural disasters? 

In August 2018, Padinjarathara Village, in which Banasura Sagar Dam is situated, was affected by a deadly flood that killed 498 people in Kerala and led to the evacuation of about a million people. When the inflow began to increase, the electricity board officers opened the shutters of the dam to prevent it from collapsing. Once opened, the dam, which has a maximum storage level of 775.6 metres, resulted in flooding on  the shores of Karamanthadu and Kabini rivers.

“In the days after the drastic flood, the livelihoods of people in the surrounding region were severely affected. But the solar power plant was unperturbed. With the rise in water level, the plant had also been automatically elevated and electricity production went on uninterrupted,” said Baburaj, Executive Engineer, Safety, Banasura Sagar Dam. Floating solar power plants have many other advantages too, added Baburaj. They are more efficient than the plants installed on land due to the reduced temperature on water and floating environment. Further, their presence reduces evaporation from the reservoir, thus conserving water.

More Plants are to be Floated Soon

In November 2021, while at Glasgow for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP26, Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi announced India would achieve carbon neutral status by 2070. To achieve this target, the state of Kerala has no other option but to begin utilizing renewable energy resources.

“New major hydel power stations necessitate the degradation of forest and displacement of communities. Fossil-fuelled power stations would emit carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas.  Shifting to renewable energy would be a reliable alternative for the state,” suggested Dr P Vijayan, veteran environmentalist and former Chairman of Kerala State Biodiversity Board.

According to officials at the KSEB, Kerala produces hardly 30 per cent of its power requirements; the rest of it is bought from other states and the national grid at the cost of around `88 billion per year.

Despite Kerala’s solar innovations—ranging from the world’s first solar airport in Kochi to India’s first floating solar power plant, as well as India’s first solar ferry boat Aditya, the State has lagged in wider uptake of the renewable energy source. According to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy Kerala stood at the 16th position of India’s 28 states in terms of installed solar capacity. According to the Agency for New and Renewable Energy Research and Technology (ANERT), the state plans to generate 3000 MW—about 45 per cent  of its electricity needs—from the sun  by 2025.

According to Aneesh S Prasad, state programme coordinator at ANERT, Kerala currently generates 326.89 MW of solar power, or 10.27 per cent of the state’s capacity. “Lack of adequate land has been the main hindrance. Unlike other states we couldn’t trace vacant land for setting huge solar panels,” said A Nasiruddin, State Coordinator, KSEB Soura (Sun) project. With more than 33 million residents, Kerala is India’s third most densely populated state, leaving little available land to build large solar parks.

However, the presence of many water bodies and reservoirs opens up possibilities for floating solar. Taking a cue from the success of Banasura Sagar floating solar power plant, the KSEB has decided to deploy floating solar panels in 10 more reservoirs, eyeing a minimum of 100 MW. Ponmudi, Kallarkutty, Sengulam, Kallar, Kundala, Madupetty, Anayirankal and Banasura Sagar are the reservoirs selected for the floating solar programme. The other two are Aruvikkara and Peppara reservoirs in Thiruvananthapuram district under the KWA (Kerala Water Authority).

“In the Kerala context, floating solar lakes are the most practical and scientific method of utilizing renewable energy. We don’t have enough land for fixing solar panels. The success of Banasura Sagar floating solar power station has proved that this model is sustainable. And comparing to solar panels built on land they could produce more electricity,” said CT Ajithkumar, former Programme Manager at the ANERT.

While the KSEB is aiming to expedite the expansion of renewable energy, the Kerala State Tourism department plans to capitalize on solar tourism ventures in the upcoming floating solar lakes. All these dams already attract tourists.  Like in Banasura Sagar, floating solar panels would be a magnificent addition to the Kerala tourism circuit itinerary.

Climate Change and the Tourism Sector

Mr Joseph Sebastian, who has worked in the tourism hospitality sector for 25 years, recollects the difficult days after district Wayanad was rocked by floods and landslides. “Tourists were pouring in from June to August to enjoy monsoon tourism. In fact, after the 2018 flood, the number of tourists dipped, in fear of another imminent flood. Tourism activities were affected and many of us became unemployed.”

Joseph Sebastian is one of around 1.4 million people employed in the tourism sector that accounts for 10 per cent of Kerala’s GDP. The devastating floods of 2018 marked economic losses of around 40,000 crore, according to the Government of Kerala. All sectors have learned lessons, especially tourism. Taking a lesson from the flood, it is hoped that “nature”, a new marketing campaign launched by the Kerala Tourism Department in 2019, will yield a growth of 17.8 per cent in domestic tourists and 8.5 per cent in international tourists.

“Grave lessons learned in the last three years has taught us that tourism can’t sustain unless we protect nature,” said P Vijayan, former Chairman of Kerala State Biodiversity Board.

In addition to the impacts of climate change, Kerala tourism has been drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A study conducted by the Kerala Planning Board finds that the money-spinning Kerala tourism, which yields an annual income of ℃45,000 crore, was halved in 2020–21.

“It left us no other option than to shift to ecotourism, especially in the context of climate change. Our tourism policy is being revamped with green initiatives like successful solar experiments,” said PA Muhammed Riyas, State Tourism Minister.

Soon, travellers to Kerala will arrive at Kochi international airport, the first-of-its-kind to fully function on solar energy. They may take a solar-powered tourist boat on a journey on Vembanad Lake. They could reach districts Alappuzha and Kottayam via India’s first solar ferry boat, Aditya, and Banasura Sagar, along with many other floating solar stations, will attract nature-loving tourists.

Watch the 30-minute documentary in Malayalam: 

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in print in Terra Green in their February 2022 edition and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: The Banasura Sagar dam / Credit: K Rajendran.

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