The Future is Renewables

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Soumya Dutta is the Convener of the Climate and Energy Group in the Beyond Copenhagen collective in India, a network of 40 plus environmental organizations. He sat down with Bharat Lal Seth to talk about India’s electricity growth trajectory, the future of renewables and the global climate change impasse.

Could you give us a realistic picture of how much electricity India will need in the future? Are we overestimating our demand?

The erstwhile Planning Commission, in its Integrated Energy Policy, projected a demand of 800-gigawatt capacity by 2032. Around five years back, this was revised to 900 gigawatts, if India’s GDP is to grow at 8-9% each year. To put these figures in perspective, the current installed capacity is around 270 gigawatts. The planners, however, didn’t consider that India, unlike China, is not primarily dependent on manufacturing. More than 60% of GDP is driven by service industries, which is less energy intensive. 

Still, the planners said that the projected demand was not very ambitious given that the United States, with a quarter of India’s population, had an installed capacity exceeding 1,000 gigawatts. India should have the space to grow, they argued. In 2032, our per capita consumption would be a quarter of the Unites States’. By this time, the European Union consumption was around 60% of USA consumption, and the Indian projection looked reasonably logical in this light.

Soumya Dutta has been involved in the people’s science movement for the past twenty years.

Soumya Dutta has been involved in the people’s science movement for the past twenty years.
Bharat Lal Seth

We must recognize that 25-28% of the Indian population remains in the dark. And there is of course the burgeoning middle class and increasing demands of the urban wealthy that need to be taken into account. But lets, as a pointer, take Delhi’s consumption, which is the highest in India at 2,000 units or kWh per person per year. Now consider the case that every Indian will consume at this level. Given increase in population, and voluntary reduction in energy intensity, we would do well to increase out installed capacity by 200 gigawatts, beyond the 30 gigawatts currently under construction. I think 900 gigawatts is a gross overestimate.

Lastly, many needs for electricity are better served by other sources. Heating appliances that are more efficiently run by a fuel source are increasingly being electrified. For instance, it’s better to deliver gas for cooking, than generating electricity from a gas-based power plant. You can eliminate a huge amount of energy loss. Moreover with demand-side management measures and low-hanging fruit such as efficiency, certain major planned investments and their associated ecological impacts can be removed from the grand megawatts game.

If you were the chairman of the Central Electricity Authority, what role would you ascertain for hydropower in meeting India’s electricity demand?

In the hills, undoubtedly hydropower has a major role to play. But if you travel to the hills, you’ll notice that there are transmission lines from the flatlands, while there is power being evacuated from large projects in the upper reaches of rivers in the Himalayan states. We should instead have small-scale plants where the community and their access should be given priority. I am not in agreement with those who advocate that all rivers should flow freely. As a thumb rule I think we must ensure 50% as minimum environmental flow downstream of dams to mimic the hydrograph. Always maintain half of the river flow.

Although people have aspirations, and demand for electricity is rising, hydropower is singularly being promoted to meet peak power demand. While unlike coal and renewables, hydropower can be switched on and off rapidly to meet sudden spikes in demand, doing so obliterates downstream ecology with daily dry periods followed by surges in flow.

Instead, we should be using gas power plants for this purpose. Around 22,000-megawatt installed capacity today is not functioning to meet peak power needs. Gas-based electricity is more expensive than coal. The plants can be ramped up quickly, and with a smart grid this can be done somewhat automatically. That could have been a strategy instead of investing so heavily in large coal and hydropower. But due to gross electricity shortage for a large part of the year, both in winter and summer, gas plants began to be run as base load stations. Now half the gas plants are sitting idle, as we don’t have enough fuel.

What do you think of the government’s plans to ramp up renewables, especially large-scale wind and solar?

We are already reeling from local and global climate impacts. Last decade was declared a decade of global climate extremes. So this leaves us with wind and solar. In the case of the latter, admittedly we need huge tracts of land. But unlike large coal and hydropower projects, solar does not inflict damage at that scale. Agreed, some of the materials used at the production level are toxic, but it can be isolated and controlled.

According to Dutta, priority must be given to small-scale hydro in the primary interests of hill communities. Social and ecologically destructive large projects should not be a preferred energy solution.

According to Dutta, priority must be given to small-scale hydro in the primary interests of hill communities. Social and ecologically destructive large projects should not be a preferred energy solution.
Bharat Lal Seth

The other issue is of sheer scale. In the desert state of Rajasthan, the government has let out thousands of hectares as solar parks, at a tenth of the prevailing price of land. This is damaging the local one-crop agricultural economy and livelihoods, especially impacting animal husbandry where large areas are needed for grazing. Wells are being used to clean the panels, which need to be washed every week. These wells were a lifeline water supply for goats.

Wind too has its own drawbacks. The approximate area for a 1.5-megawatt turbine is around one acre. But a land grab is taking place, although this is not inherent to the technology; this is a case of bad practices for good things. Another problem with large wind power plants is that turbines have an infrasound beyond the audible whoosh. During the day it’s a non-issue. But at night people report that they cannot sleep since the low infrasound travels and impacts within one km. Infrasound is the basis of elephant communication. Anyhow, this needs to be accounted for while identifying suitable sites.

Coming back to solar, a 25-megawatt plant can be installed in one square kilometer, which means we need to identify 20,000 square kilometers in India. But these solar farms cannot encircle the land and deny other use. If the panels are placed at a height, restricted agriculture can be carried out, even as goats graze in adjacent spaces. This may drive up the project cost by 10-15%, but land is a valued resource, so people’s interests need to be taken into account.

Either which way, we have to move out of coal, large hydro and nuclear.

What do you think of India’s Intended National Determined Contributions (INDC) and what is your sense in the run-up to COP21?

India’s INDC is non-progressive, but you can’t complain, since no major emitter has come up with a radical statement. I do however think that India could have declared, like China, to establish peak emissions by 2030. This could have given some consolation to Small Island and less-developed countries, but now perhaps India will get lambasted, although they are doing a lot of diplomacy to counter this. But collect all the INDC’s submitted and we realize that we’re going nowhere. We’re going to cook up the climate system.

Also, India has promised 175,000 megawatt, or 40% from renewables by 2030. But the plant load factor of renewables is comparably low, so actual generation of electricity from these sources will be approximately 20% of capacity. Having said that, India could have played its cards better. They could have at least set a peak emission year, say by 2035. Although including this in India’s INDC would have done little to change the global climate, it would have given India a moral high ground, which they have lost. Perhaps their diplomacy will succeed, and they will get some claps.