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Power Up: This Speedy 850-Mile Energy Highway Will Ship Electrons To Millions Of Indians

There are a number of villages in northern India without reliable access to electricity. If entrepreneurial residents want to start a business, like repairing shoes or selling new farming equipment, they have to do it during daylight hours or by the light of kerosene lamps. And forget about using the internet to take orders, receive payments or order new inventory. Other ways of reaching customers also pose challenges. Without power, the only way to charge a cellphone often involves waiting in line at a solar panel or diesel generator.

But things could soon change. As of September of last year, 3,000 megawatts of electricity, aimed at supplying power to 46 percent of India’s population, started flowing north from the eastern Indian state of Chhattisgarh to the populous north of the country via a 1,365-kilometer (nearly 850 miles) energy highway.

The new power line is part of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to bring power to the 240 million Indians who have been living without access to electricity. India is the fourth-fastest-growing economy in the world — the country’s energy consumption is expected to double by 2040. But without consistent electricity across the entire country, many Indians will be left out of the economic boom.

There are challenges. Building power plants is time-consuming and costly. Building a new power plant in India can take years. And while the middle of the country is rich with coal, the north has few natural resources for powering new plants.

One solution involves a massive high-voltage direct current line, otherwise known as HVDC. It works like this: Power plants in Champa, Chhattisgarh, generate power and send it to GE-built stations, where it is converted from AC to DC. The electricity is transported in bulk across the HVDC line and is then converted back to AC at the other end. DC technology allows for lower transmission costs and losses, making it a more efficient way to move electricity over long distances than high-voltage AC technology. It is also more environmentally friendly and “controllable” in that it protects the AC systems connected to it. “It’s much cheaper to ship this power as generated electrons as opposed to shipping the extracted coal to generation stations that would have to be built near the load centers,” says Rakesh Singh, Champa-Kurukshetra project leader for GE Power.

“It’s much cheaper to ship this power as generated electrons as opposed to shipping the extracted coal to generation stations that would have to be built near the load centers,” says GE Power’s Rakesh SinghTop image: A bank of massive AC/DC GE converters in Indial. Above: A panoramic view of a HVDC Converter in Saudi Arabia. Images credit: GE Power.

While HVDC transmission is becoming more popular (there are HVDC lines in Germany and the U.S., among other places), Champa is one of the few lines that is operating at 800 kilovolts. Operating at 800 kV (versus a lower voltage) brings two key benefits: Higher voltage means lower losses, so more of the transmitted energy makes it to the intended destination; and it also means lower current. When you have lower currents, the conductors that carry the current can be smaller. Smaller conductors use less aluminum and are therefore less costly. “The beauty of this technology is that it can transmit up to 6,000 MW at 800 kV, and all you need is one line,” Singh says.

Phase 2 of the project will deliver that second 3,000 MW of power in the coming year. That will make it one of the world’s largest point-to-point transmission systems. “One nation, one grid, one price is the vision of the government of India,” says I.S. Jha, chairman ­and managing director of the Power Grid Corporation of India, which is spearheading the project. “This line will become part of the national grid and will play a key role in achieving that vision.”

Sunil Wadhwa, regional leader for GE Power Grid Solutions South Asia, says that “enabling affordable generation of electrical energy and helping people have reliable access to it, all over the world, is what GE strives for.” He says that the Champa line is an example of a collaborative project that not only realizes the economic and environmental potential of the HVDC grid, but also aims to improve the lives of over half a billion people.

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