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'We need to mainstream renewable energy'

Aug 27, 2008

If India were to replace fossil fuels, the government has to show its commitment towards the promotion of research in renewable energy, says Dr Prodipto Ghosh, member of PM’s Council on Climate Change. He laments that despite its huge potential, solar energy is still not commercially viable.

Currently a distinguished fellow at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Dr Prodipto Ghosh is also a member of the National Expert Committee on Climate Change, a member of the National Security Advisory Board, and a scientific consultant in the office of the principal scientific advisor to the Indian government. He has played a key role in helping the government prepare the National Climate Action Plan and assisting it with climate change negotiations at Kyoto and Bali.

Dr Ghosh is also a member of the Independent South Asia Commission on Poverty Alleviation (ISACPA). He chairs the taskforce on climate change of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), and is senior advisor to the World Bank on the economics of adaptation to climate change.

In an interview to Rashme Sehgal of Infochange, he discusses the various aspects of addressing climate change.

How important is it to move from non-renewable to renewable forms of energy?

We need to mainstream renewable forms of energy so as to ensure that they can substantially displace oil, gas and coal. We have a wide range of renewable energy forms, many of which are being used extensively in areas such as street signalling, remote area power supply, and in village homes.

The story of wind power is instructive. Thirty-five years ago, when the world began to look at wind power, it needed a great deal of government support and subsidy. In the late-’90s, when the global capacity of wind energy was increased to 65,000 megawatts, it became competitive with coal.

India could gain substantially from harnessing solar energy. When do you see it becoming commercially viable?

Yes, solar PVs are still not commercially competitive. A lot of research and development is being done in this area in order to bring costs down. Once there is a strong government commitment towards research and development, matched by strong policy and regulation and increasing scales of technology, the situation is bound to change.

A regulatory structure is being put in place with the government having announced the National Action Plan (NAP) on Climate Change. The National Solar Mission will work under the direct authority of the prime minister’s office; the details on all these different fronts are being worked out.

How difficult is it to tap these renewable sources of energy? During the monsoons, for example, one may not get sunshine for weeks on end.

One of the problems with renewable forms of energy is that they are dependent on primary energy, which keeps varying. Renewable forms have to be balanced with non-renewables. That is why renewables have to be stored and hybridised.

When one energy source decreases, an alternative power can take over the grid. So, if there is no wind power we cut it out and use gas power, or thermal or hydro. In a grid, at a small-scale level, we can house solar and wind, which is hybridised, thereby providing sufficient storage for the requirements of a household.

Basically, what you are saying is that it is not going to be an either/or scenario.

So far, hybridisation has not focused on small households. But that is where it will finally head. We can no longer afford to look at only one option. Use solar PVs, solar thermal, hydro, and when the sun is not visible one can turn to bio-mass.

But can some of the smaller renewables, such as hydro, be mainstreamed into the grid?

We can expect a lot of technological surprises once research and development and deployment get underway. These may produce 25 different options and it will be left to the market to decide what is best suited. We need a policy regime that protects the winners and therefore I maintain that all should compete. Promoting investments in research and development is different from providing subsidies. At present, most government money is spent in giving subsidies, not on research and development. That is why the scale of deployment has been limited to the availability of existing funds.

I believe funds should be cross-subsidised. We must not forget that all these different energy streams will help bring costs down. When the different streams feed into the grid we cannot distinguish between power, coal, oil or hydro.

How many players do we have in this field?

Three years ago I attended an energy workshop in Pune at which more than 300 exhibitors exhibited a vast range of renewable energy, some of which were very imaginative. The market for renewables is worth over 1 billion dollars a year though we are still some way off in terms of production.

There has been a heated debate over nuclear energy and whether India should go in for it…

Nuclear power plants at present generate 3-4% of energy, which is also distributed through the grid. As I stressed earlier, all energy is going to be grid connected. We are not going to see stand alone units any more. On the other hand, a paradigm shift is taking place in which we will see the entry of large players feeding energy into the grid. We will also see smaller players manning local centres. Basically, there is going to be space for all kinds of players.

How serious is the threat of climate change? And why is India being perceived as an energy-guzzling country?

Climate change is happening because we have used fossil fuels for too long. India, unlike western nations including Germany and Japan, has been very frugal in its consumption of fossil fuel. You will not find many Indian families wasting energy.

Fans are switched off when someone leaves the room; we bathe with one bucket of water; we recycle all our waste. Every household sells its waste to a kabariwallah. Indians, out of choice, are largely vegetarian. All this has a huge impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

I must point out that the price of energy being charged to industry is very high. But there is no doubt that India needs to grow at a faster rate, and this will require higher levels of energy consumption.

Won’t all this take place at the cost of preserving our natural resources?

There are many half-truths as far as this is concerned. We must not forget that India has reversed the whole process of deforestation and this is borne out by all the satellite data available with the FAO and other UN organisations.

With respect to our rivers, we have a serious problem with the Yamuna. But that is not the case with our other rivers.

What about the Ganga which is also considered one of our most polluted rivers?

The formal evaluation done with water from the Ganga by the Institute of Development shows that water quality in cities like Kanauj and Allahabad is very good. Except for some spots like Varanasi, where it is not good, water from the Ganga is drinkable in cities like Patna.

The key question that scientists raise time and again is why is our R&D so poor?

That perception is not entirely correct. We started building nuclear energy from scratch. Despite the technology denials, we developed power reactors and fast breeder technology to use thorium. In the same way we have done well in the field of space technology where our launch vehicles and satellites are doing very well.

Other areas where our scientists have done us proud are in making supercomputers and in the field of agricultural technology. They have come up with a regular flow of new crop varieties. There is no disputing the fact that they could have been more productive, but they are working on this too.

Scientists have been very keen to demonstrate their scientific prowess, but they have failed to develop technologies that can be used in Indian conditions. The government requires strategic thinkers so that what comes out of the labs can percolate down to other scientific institutions and to industry.

Take the example of biomass power. We are producing 540 metric tonnes of crop residue that is being generated from our huge scrub cattle population. They emit dung, which is burnt in homes. This is a huge waste of a major resource.

Instead, we should have developed gasifier-converts so that dung can be converted to run diesel power and to run turbines. I am not talking about high-tech technology but simple technology. We need to set up hybrid systems for lighting in villages, but no one in government has done the research and development.

Is this happening in all fields?

We have good expertise in turbine diesel, but our small hydro projects should be connected to home units. TERI has licensed this to some firms but it’s something that should be done by the government. The National Action Plan should give strategic directions.

For example, solar PV is a form of energy where 1% of India’s land area can supply all the electricity we need. Therefore, we do not need rocket science technology; we need to develop reflector design technology cheaply, which can be operated in our villages. Similarly, some private sector outfits have developed cost-effective ways in which to drive turbines. We need to have a policy by which a renewable portfolio standard can be made to operate at a 5% level this year, 6% the following year, then 7%, and so on.

The future thrust has to be on collaborating with the private sector. Dr Mashelkar tried to build up a partnership model with the private sector because only then can one develop competitive advantages.

There are three stages to this whole issue. First the basic knowledge laboratory scale. Once this receives the all-clear, we should develop a pilot project that will help us develop the production techniques. Then the private sector takes over to expand this. The bureaucratic establishment has not understood this. Science is all about skills and talent; we need a constant influx of new talent, new skills. We also need stability in terms of government policy. Unfortunately, only a few young scientists have been deployed to use all this infrastructure.

There is the issue of resource transfer of mitigative technologies. India wants the West to give them to us, but the West refuses to make a commitment on this score.

The procurement of mitigative technologies has to become competitive. These are the key issues being negotiated at the UN Framework Convention. If we require a certain technology, we must be allowed to license it without having to pay for intellectual property rights (IPR). This kind of energy efficiency has to be developed in all fields including our steel, cement and coal plants. It is equally applicable in power-generation and in developing vehicle industrial processes.

China, Brazil, South Africa and India can partner with the West to develop new technologies for greater energy efficiency. We have to move from monopoly supplier mode to competitive supplier mode. Unless this is operationalised in a mass way by the development of a contribution fund that will buy out all IPR monopolies, little will happen on the ground.

What about the area of bio-mass and ethanol development?

Biomass is a very complex area. The established energies for bio-resources are ethanol, which comes from the fermentation of sugarcane, which is used in cars, and corn and potatoes. Five per cent blending in gasoline has become mandatory in 26 of our states. And so it is competing with fuel supply.

But diversifying land and water will impact food supply. Jatropha is an oil producing seed that grows on wasteland. This will also have a significant impact in displacing diesel fuel. But the cost effectiveness still has to be worked out.

Bio-gasification can produce the equivalent of 540 million tonnes of coal equivalent. But to do this we have to get out of the subsidy regime. Solar water heaters/solar PVs should not be subsidised either. Their incremental energy costs are high, but these can be brought down.

If such a fund and technology transfer does not take place how serious will the problem of climate change be for us?

Unless a cultural climate mitigation fund develops we will require a serious diversion of resources, and that will prove to be a very expensive proposition. It is only if a fund transfer takes place that we will be able to move from coal-fired power plants to solar PV power plants.

The latter requires much higher investment costs and somebody must provide for it. Once the cost of power generation goes up substantially it will mean an economic cost to society, and someone will have to pay for it.

This will have a huge impact on growth. That is why I have always maintained that climate change negotiations are technically more complex than WTO negotiations.

Unless we make important systemic changes in the next 30 years, we will not be able to avert major climate change impacts. The best remedy for climate variability is to become better-off. It is the poor who find it difficult to survive drought and floods and so on. In order to reduce human vulnerability we have to ensure that there are no breaks in our growth.

Copenhagen, December 2009, should see the culmination of these negotiations. I hope by then all countries will reach an agreement.

Source : Infochange
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