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Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Over the barrel: Energy needs inspiration

Socio-political and economic realities do not favour the prospects of renewables. Policy-makers need to think out of the box.

Written by Vikram S Mehta |
Updated: September 4, 2017 12:20:39 am
power, energy, renewable energy, coal production, oil output, India energy sector, power consumption, India news, Indian Express (Illustration by Subrata Dhar)

One question has not been answered by the academics, think tanks and government agencies that study the energy sector in India. What will be the consequence on the quality of our existence if decades from now, say 2040, coal and oil provide the bulk of our primary energy requirements?

All studies agree that coal is a “dirty fuel”, and that to tackle the problem of climate change, the government must exponentially increase the generation of renewables. But they also agree that renewables cannot replace coal as the bulwark of the energy system. At least not in the foreseeable future. The studies estimate that in 2040, fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) will together contribute between 70 per cent to 80 per cent of our primary energy requirements .

I do not disagree with this conclusion. It is intuitively obvious given the political economy of our energy system. Coal offers the cheapest source of energy, electricity infrastructure is built around this fuel, alternatives are not competitive and vested interests (politicians, labour unions, mafia) make it “fiendishly difficult” to substantively replace this fuel. But one does not have to disagree with the conclusion to ask the more fundamental question: What will be the impact on our children and grandchildren of this energy scenario?

Today, 13 of our cities rank amongst the most polluted in the world and the US-based research group, Health Effects Institute, has reported that India will soon overtake China with the most number of deaths caused by respiratory illness. This is today when our per capita energy consumption is 521 kgoe (kilogram/oil equivalent) and the bulk of our population lives in villages. Imagine what will be the situation in 2040 when the per capita energy consumption would have doubled to approximately 1,100 kgoe (the Niti Aayog’s projection) and nearly a billion urbanites would be looking at internal combustion engines for mobility.

In recent weeks, three studies on India’s energy sector have caught my attention. The Niti Aayog circulated a Draft National Energy Policy, TERI, Shell and the Council on Energy, Environment and Water published a book Energising India and Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian delivered a lecture entitled, “Renewables may be the future but are they the present? Coal, energy and development in India”.

All three studies emphasised the importance of pushing India onto a low carbon pathway. They recommended that the government create the enabling ecosystems for augmentation of renewable energy capacity and the development of clean energy technologies. The TERI/Shell report outlined the “horizon technologies” that warranted particular focus (namely third generation bio, advanced nuclear, coal gasification, geothermal, hydrogen fuel cells, high speed railways etc). But all three converged to the conclusion that under every scenario, and notwithstanding the greatest of efforts to promote renewables, coal will dominate the energy sector. Subramanian, in particular, cautioned against the hype on renewables. He pointed out that once the full cost of renewables (that is, the costs of “intermittency” — the sun does not shine 24 hours a day and the wind blows intermittently; the fact that renewables are relatively less energy-dense than coal; the investments required to upgrade and stabilise the grid and the “hidden” subsidies) are taken into account, there is little prospect of renewables achieving cost parity with coal in the foreseeable future, even after the social costs of the GHG emissions emitted by coal are brought into the equation. The policy prescriptions that flow from these reports are, in consequence, an Augustinian fudge: “Lord give me chastity and continence but not yet”. The government should augment coal production but also support renewables. It should conserve demand, improve efficiency of usage but also develop green coal technologies like coal gasification.

A quarter of our population does not have access to electricity; 40 per cent still use firewood and dung for cooking and lighting. To suggest, against this backdrop, that we eschew our most abundant and cheapest energy resource because of what Subramanian refers to as “carbon imperialism” would be political, economic and social naïveté of the highest order. That said, there is no gainsaying the reality that the consequential outcome of sustained dependence on coal has existential implications. The question that therefore needs to be asked is whether, notwithstanding these socio-political and economic realities, should we not be looking to imagine a different energy future.

Steve Jobs built his strategy around the slogan “think differently”. He wanted his colleagues and customers to look at the world from a different perspective. The iPod, iPhone and iPad were the result of his “imagineering”. Bill Gates talked about a computer on every desk way back in 1978 . Today, not just people but machines are connected. Dhirubhai Ambani boasted he would bring phone tariffs down to below the cost of a Rs 1 postcard. Today, a billion Indians are connected through mobile telephony. Ray Kurzweil, the scientist, has taken “difference” to perhaps an absurd extreme. He has set up the Singularity University in Silicon Valley to work, inter alia, on achieving what he calls “longevity escape velocity”. His idea is to keep people alive long enough for them to benefit from the next life prolonging innovation — and thereby to achieve immortality.

The world is replete with examples of individuals and institutions whose dreams stretched rational credulity but whose efforts altered our lives . These people did not allow conventional wisdom to constrict their imagination. This article draws from these examples to encourage decision makers engaged with our energy sector to also break out of the conventional straitjacket and to think differently about our energy future. It suggests that they look outside the box and study the counterfactual question. What will it take to flip the shares of coal and renewables in the energy basket, so that by 2050, renewables account for 75 per cent and coal 25 per cent of our energy consumption basket? What must be done to generate the “velocity” to escape from the black hole of dirty fuels into the cleansing world of renewables? This exercise may appear academic but who knows it might trigger thinking that leads eventually to a disruptive but better future.

The writer is chairman and senior fellow, Brookings India

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