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How India can solve its energy crisis

Last updated on: April 1, 2011 15:40 IST

How India can solve its energy crisis

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Rajni Bakshi

In a few weeks it will be one year since British Petroleum's deepwater drill in the Gulf of Mexico spewed an estimated 206 million gallons of oil into the sea.

In response to this tragedy a group of American writers and intellectuals drafted a 'Gulf Declaration' and addressed it to President Obama and Members of Congress.

They began by saying that it will not be enough to make the guilty pay and clean up the mess.

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Image: Fire boat response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon.
Photographs: Reuters.
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The gulf oil disaster, said the Declaration, can be turned into a profound catalyst to end the era of oil as the primary economic foundation of American life.

Full energy independence can be created "through accelerated development of clean, renewable, non-polluting, and sustainable energy sources and through vast improvements in energy efficiency."

What are the prospects for such a declaration by citizens in India about our energy future?

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Image: Workers contracted by British Petroleum set out booms from their oyster boat to protect the shoreline.
Photographs: Lee Celano/Reuters.
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How India can solve its energy crisis

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It is not enough to ask whether our nuclear power plants are sufficiently safe or where they should be located. There are more basic questions which need much sharper public scrutiny.

What is the basis of making projections for how much energy India needs in the next few decades? What kind of energy efficiencies have, or have not, been factored into these calculations?

How has it been decided that we cannot meet future needs without a massive up-scaling of nuclear power?

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Image: Nuclear power plant.

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India has substantial reliance on renewable energy - about 8 per cent of our installed capacity (in the US it is less than 4 per cent). And yet, the big push now is not for renewable forms of energy but nuclear. Why is this so?

So far these questions have been raised by activists and a few professionals in the energy sector.

Given the staggering implications of the crisis at Japan's crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant perhaps the event will serve as an impetus for wider public engagement in seeking answers.

There is an urgent need for a multi-stake holder open source enquiry that would look into all dimensions of energy usage, generation and safety. But here are some of the problems such an endeavour would face.

Let us look first at safety.

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Image: Solar lamp with mobile charger.

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Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's promise that there will be a special review of the safety status of all our nuclear facilities carries little credibility. A former Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) chairman, Adinarayana Gopalakrishnan, recently said that India's disaster preparedness "is mostly on paper".

In an interview to the web journal SciDev, Gopalakrishnan explained that the AERB's safety certificate is worthless since it is 'captive' to the Department of Atomic Energy.

The AERB would have to be independent and technically much stronger before its judgement could carry credibility.

However, the safety status of a particular installation is quite a different matter from the risk evaluation of the technology itself.

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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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Even if a nuclear power plant were operating in compliance of every safety regulation the quantum of risk implicit in its very existence is virtually incomparable with most other forms of energy.

A radiation leak can impact people far from the plantsite, its impacts linger to imperil future generations and managing nuclear wastes is an ecological nightmare.

A multi-stakeholder investigation would have to find a formula for measuring the long term human cost of these risks before evaluating the economic merits of nuclear energy in relation to other forms.

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Image: A radiation leak can impact people far from the plant site.
Photographs: Reuters.
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The metrics for doing this would probably have to be designed afresh.

At present the framework for such calculations is one-dimensional since it is anchored in the concept of Gross Domestic Product.

New metrics might need to be anchored in a concept like Gross National Happiness which is now being developed by academics and policy makers in some parts of the world.

Similarly, there is need to review the frame of reference for making projections about energy needs.

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Image: A child studies with a solar lamp.

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Prayas, a Pune based non-profit group working on energy issues, has done several studies which show that energy efficiency has a big role to play in estimates of current and future usage.

For example, one study claims that improved efficiency in household appliances could give India annual savings of about 57,000 million units of electricity by 2013.

This means we could avoid generating about 20,000 MW over five years or one ultra-mega power plant per year!

If this sounds over-blown consider some details about ceiling fans a basic appliance whose sales are growing by 10 per cent every year.

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Image: A solar lamp from D.Light.

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About 70 per cent of the fans that will be in use in 2020 are going to be installed between now and then. A small additional cost of Rs 50 per fan can make this new stock significantly more energy-efficient.

For consumers the pay-back period of the additional cost is less than a year while the energy savings last over 15 to 20 years.

A preliminary survey shows that leaving TVs, set-top boxes, computers, AC adaptors etc. on stand-by mode causes a loss of about 2,700 million units per year - a figure that is expected to rise to 5,500 million units by 2013. Yet virtually no effort is being made to tap these savings.

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Image: A small additional cost of Rs 50 per fan can make this new stock significantly more energy-efficient.

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Of course, even after making appliances more efficient and eliminating various forms of energy wastage India's energy needs will rise.

What component of these needs can be met by technologies based on renewable energy is a big question. But here is a small illustration of issues in this area.

Two years ago the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) reported that Indian sugar mills are generating 2,000 megawatt of biomass-based energy and selling that power to the grid.

There is a potential for sugar mills to turn bagasse, a waste product of sugarcane production, to generate 5,100 mw of power. But lack of policy and pricing issues threaten the growth potential of such green power.

CSE has been lobbying for a stronger policy framework to incentivise green power.

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Image: Sugar mills can turn waste into power.

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In addition private entrepreneurs venturing into renewal energy face enormous uncertainties as they try to craft a business model.

This is partly because it is difficult to make reliable projections about either technology shifts and investment patterns in renewable energy.

But financing is not the key issue in renewable energy, says Girish Sant of Prayas.

The main hurdle is policy "because policy gives much higher tariff for renewable energy (compared to coal or gas). So policy has to make sure that the proposed renewable energy projects ensure cost minimization and appropriate end-use."

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Image: Converting rice husk into power.

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There is no dearth of creative energy in India on the techniques and the politics of our energy future. But at present the work is scattered and critical questions are hanging in the air unanswered.

Seeking answers needs to be a collective process. That won't happen if competing groups simply push government in one direction or another - such as renewable vs. nuclear.

An open and multi-stakeholder exploration, involving independent experts, bureaucrats, private entrepreneurs and political activists could change this. As public pressure against new nuclear power plants mounts the incentives for such a deep exploration will, hopefully, rise exponentially.


Image: Rice husk power plant in Bihar.

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