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Efficient and Energetic – Shifting to renewable energy is necessary but not easy for India

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Greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide, largely caused by burning coal, are believed to be the chief cause of global warming and climate change

Energy through renewable sources and improved energy efficiency in generation and use can mitigate their adverse effects. Despite a cabinet minister for renewable energy, there is little information, or the advocacy of energy efficiency, the using of renewables, cutting the use of energy sources that cause high emissions, educating people about the high cost of energy and the need to pay the full cost, or pushing distributed power so that small communities can manage their energy needs and costs.

Economic growth in India at eight per cent per annum might bring the majority out of dire poverty in 10 years. This growth will require a restructuring of the Indian economy, moving people from agriculture to industry and services, and from rural to urban locations. Far more private transport, emulating the Western model of ‘development’, as well as large-scale cutting of trees and vegetation to convert agricultural and forest lands to accommodate houses, roads, factories and so on would be inevitable. This growth requires raising energy consumption in oil equivalent to a million tonnes from 513 to 1,536 (and if not enough is done to improve efficiency, even 1,887) by 2031-32. Per capita energy consumption will rise (in kilograms of energy) from 439 to 1,250 by 2031-32 (in equivalent coal). Countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development are already at 1,688. India’s emission of CO2 and other greenhouse gases will rise (McKinsey estimate) from 1.6 billion equivalent of CO2 emissions to between 5 and 6.5 billion in 2030.

Over half of India lives on less than $2 per day and uses ‘free’ energy, such as dung, dried leaves, twigs, and so on, causing enormous damage to the health of women and children as the fuel is burnt in chulas in unventilated huts. Even eight per cent growth annually will, by 2031-32, still leave many unable to pay for the cost of cleaner energy. No democratic government can deny these deprived people improvement in their lives through economic growth and higher energy consumption.

China consumes many times more coal and produces 4,820 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions (growing annually at five per cent). India’s is growing at four per cent, and the United States of America, the largest burner of coal and the worst emitter at 6,209, is growing at two per cent.

India has a national renewable energy policy in place. Little publicity has been given to it, in India or overseas. So to many in the world, India appears only to complain about the original sinners — the polluting developed countries — but to not do anything to combat it in India. The present position and potential for renewables is that potential for wind is estimated at 45,000 megawatts and achievement at 1,870 MW; small hydro power potential is 15,000 MW and achievement 1,870; biomass and cogeneration potential is 19,000 MW and achievement 484; biomass gasifiers produce 53.17 MW; solar photovoltaic power potential is 20 MW per square kilometre and production is 2.50 MW; making the total potential from renewables 81,200 MW and achievement 3950.93 MW. The calculations of potential need scrutiny since they could be higher and the achievement is low.

Our national renewable energy policy has targets and plans for supporting and accelerating power generation from renewables. It proposes a supportive fiscal regime, single window clearance, leveraging additional budgetary resources from other departments of government, preferential prices for renewable electricity, and so on. Many specifics, however, have still to be worked out. These include social cost-benefit calculations to discount higher renewable energy costs for their lack of damage to climate. This will make it more competitive in price to coal. The actual cost of renewable is higher than that for other non-renewables and their use will further raise the cost of subsidies for the poor. Waste on subsidies — to farmers and the poor (reaching wrong target populations or theft) needs strong administrative actions and institutional strengthening.

The policy envisages by 2012 a capacity addition goal for wind energy of 5,000 MW, small hydroelectric plants of 2,000 MW, biomass power cogeneration 2,500 MW, urban/ industrial waste converted to energy 220 MW, solar photovoltaic power 30 MW, solar thermal power 250 MW, all totalling 10,000 MW. It will deploy solar water heating systems, electrify by renewables 24,000 villages, deploy of five million solar lanterns and two million solar home lighting systems, cover 30 million households through improved wood stoves, set up three million family-size biogas plants and expand rainwater harvesting. It will also raise energy use efficiencies, for example, by reducing the rate of growth of coal use, with more efficient boilers.

These plans will take renewables from the present five per cent of potential to 10 per cent in 2012. McKinsey consultants propose a more ambitious plan that will accelerate progress with an investment of $874 to $1.1 trillion on energy efficient technologies in power, transport and agriculture. This can reduce energy consumption by 22 per cent and amounts to around 1.8 to 2.3 per cent of India’s total forecasted gross domestic product till 2030.

Concurrently there must be drastic changes in pricing. The real price for carbon-emitting energy must include the environmental costs. Tax concessions on equipment purchase, allowances (unlike today on wind power) on generation than merely on investment, and research and development concessions are required.

Climate change, mitigation (not reduction) of emissions, and renewable energy are connected. They need dissemination, publicity and more ambitious targets. They require measures of taxation of emitting industries and energy sources, incentives and tax breaks to renewables and reworking incentives. The focus has to change. India has many pressures on limited resources: security threats, health, sanitation, water supply, irrigation, and education. But mitigating climate change should not get short shrift.

To counter climate change, the world must reinvent itself to adjust to new energy efficiency paradigms, cutting its energy-guzzling habits. India can innovate and build global leadership on renewables. As China is aggressive in developing photovoltaic and electric cars, India needs to find its own areas, like wind and solar thermal.

Efficiency improvements have led to considerable saving of energy in India. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency is making accelerated efforts with industry and stakeholders in setting standards and identifying technologies. But technologies like burying carbon emissions underground are still theoretical and economically unviable. There is yet no proven way to reduce carbon emissions from coal, nor coal usage. Better boilers, more efficient generation and use of energy, lower use of petrol and diesel and more renewables usage can reduce our carbon footprint. But subsidy costs will grow further as more people move from using free (twigs, dried leaves, and so on) to commercial energy, and we use efficient but expensive energy technologies.

India has to resolve the dilemma of growing emissions, unaffordable cleaner energy costs for the poor and inadequate alternatives. It must do so for its own sake, and not for global commitments.

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