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Devangshu Datta: Shifting India to clean energy

What may happen if India's energy demand were met by an almost complete shift to solar, wind and other renewables

Devangshu Datta 

Devangshu Datta

By 2022, India aims to have an installed solar energy capacity of 100 gigawatts (Gw) and wind turbine capacity amounting to another 60 Gw. In total, it hopes to have 175 Gw worth of renewable energy (RE) capacity by 2022. The next target is to double this, to 350 Gw of RE by 2030.

Assuming all targets are met, about 40 per cent of total power capacity will be RE by 2030, with solar and wind forming the backbone. (Much less than 40 per cent of actual power generation would be from renewables because RE load factors are low. )

RE has been enthusiastically supported across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was an early advocate of solar energy during his days as chief minister of Gujarat. The Bharatiya Janata Party has ramped up the targets set during the United Progressive Alliance era. Solar and wind costs have dropped to competitive levels, compared to thermal.

There are many positive public associations with renewables. It is assumed that the environmental footprint is small. In tree-hugger circles, it is believed that woes like anthropogenic global warming, conflicts in petroleum-rich regions, atmospheric pollution, environmental damage and conflicts caused by coal mining etc, will ease off as RE becomes a larger part of the energy mix.

The reality does not bear such a close resemblance to Disneyland. Solar, wind et al, will mitigate some problems. But renewable technologies have significant downsides. Solar and wind will also cause major and messy shifts in employment patterns.

Huge sums are required. Solar alone needs $95-100 billion equivalent of investments (at Rs 65/USD) to meet the 100 Gw target of 2022. To put that in perspective, the current outstanding bank credit to the entire Indian power sector (conventional and RE) is $85 billion equivalent.

There are also enormous technical challenges in integrating intermittent power generation via solar and wind, with conventional grids. Grid-balancing becomes tricky - they must get much smarter, which is of course, a good thing. Smart solutions for net metering - adjusting power bills to reflect RE generated and put on the grid by the consumer - will also be required.

Solar and wind need specific natural conditions (sunshine, wind consistency). Both place pressure on land and other resources. Instead of being dependent only on imports of crude, gas and coal, India could end up dependent on rare earth imports as well as crude and gas. The only big exporter of rare earth metals is China and it has put the squeeze on that market many times.

In environmental terms, everybody focuses on the bright side of RE. So, let's look at the dark side.

First, wind. Wind kills birds. it is estimated that literally millions (by some estimates more than 10 million) of birds are killed all over the world every year by wind turbines. Plus, each turbine installation consumes large amounts of concrete and steel, PVC and fibre-reinforced plastics. These are all materials with nasty footprints. Wind can coexist with crops. But it needs a lot of land with consistent wind speeds.

Ideally, wind turbines can be located offshore where noise doesn't matter, and there are fewer birds to kill. But then there are problems connecting to the grid, due to the necessity of laying undersea cables. Offshore facilities also incur much higher maintenance costs due to the corrosive effects of sea water.

Now, solar. India is well-suited to solar because it averages nearly 300 days of sunshine across a very large tropical region ("high solar irradiation" in the jargon). Still, enormous amounts of land is required.

Setting up a capacity of 50 Mw in India needs about one square km of land. A Gw (1 Gw=1,000 Mw) therefore, needs about 20 square km and 100 Gw will require upwards of 2,000 square km. Delhi city (area 1,485 square km) currently consumes over 6 Gw. In fact, 40 Gw of that by 2022 is to be built on roofs. Gujarat has built arrays on top of canals.

That brings us to another requirement. Solar needs water (or lots of manual labour) to keep panels clean. Installations in deserts must solve that problem. And yes, some solar energy concentration technologies also kill birds by flash frying them in large numbers.

Labour is another interesting factor. Solar and wind are more labour-intensive than conventional power. Manual supervision is required to install, maintain and repair installations, quite apart from the labour requirements of factories manufacturing RE equipment.

The high labour intensity is welcome in India. But there could be loss of employment and loss of revenues in two major employment-generating industries as RE takes hold. RE requires far less construction activity compared to conventional power (or hydro, or nuclear). Construction employs over 40 million people at present. Second, there would be an impact on coal mining and the associated value chain. The transition phase where coal miners and construction workers are laid off would have to be managed well.

As with all new technologies, RE will bring some new problems in its wake. Of course, the net effects of diversifying the energy mix and reducing the environmental footprint should be positive. But there will be downsides and some of those could be destabilising. We should be prepared for that.

The Long View is an occasional series that analyses different scenarios

First Published: Wed, January 20 2016. 21:44 IST