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Shyam Saran: India and the new Energy Revolution

There is an urgent need for New Delhi to draw up its own renewable energy strategy

Shyam Saran 

The world is on the threshold of a transformational energy revolution. Established patterns of energy resource extraction and use are changing rapidly. The cumulative impact of these as-yet-incipient developments will result in very different structures of production and consumption as well as lifestyle.

In his address to the US Congress in 2009, President Barack Obama declared, “We know that the country that harnesses the power of clean, renewable energy will lead the twenty-first century.”

The history of energy use is a history of burning carbon, the most efficient known store of the primary energy of our sun. This carbon lies congealed in wood, coal, oil and gas. When the industrial revolution began in the eighteenth century, power was initially sourced from wood. That is how Europe lost much of its forests as well as its rich flora and fauna. The subsequent use of coal represented a technological leap forward, being the most efficient and economical means of generating steam power. This led to the modern transport revolution and facilitated the development of iron and steel, and textile industries. The twentieth century saw the advent of the oil and natural gas economy, which constituted even more efficient and cleaner sources of power. Today, by contrast, a decisive shift towards non-carbon-based renewable and cleaner sources of energy is increasingly evident. This is driven by the rapid depletion of finite fossil fuel resources and mounting concern over climate change-related impacts of their use. There have also been exciting advances in renewable energy-related technologies which have the potential of rivalling and eventually surpassing conventional power.

Despite the current economic crisis, lines are being drawn across the world for the next race towards economic and technological predominance. And this race will be centred on energy. Its impact will be as transformational as the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) revolution. Energy, like ICT, is a force multiplier since it impacts the entire spectrum of economic activities.

There are several sources of renewable and clean energy which are at the centre of strategies adopted by governments and corporates alike. These include solar energy, wind power, bio-fuels, wave energy, hydrogen fuel cells and, of course, nuclear energy. These have been known and exploited peripherally for decades. What is different today is the unmistakable shift towards making them the mainstay of economic activity. The pride of place is occupied by solar energy. This is the primary source of all energy and is infinitely renewable and inexhaustible. The constraints on its scaled-up use are the diurnal and seasonal variability of sunlight, the space intensity of its use and the lack of convenient and cost-effective storage. These constraints are the focus of intense R&D efforts in all major economies. The ideal is to create a solar-energy capsule or cartridge which may be slotted in to run a car or to light up homes and commercial buildings.

Wind power is being developed rapidly but technological constraints still limit potential capacity. It is, therefore, likely to remain a niche application for the time being.

Bio-fuels have a much larger potential and some promising R&D work is being carried out in countries which have strong capabilities in bio-technology and bio-chemistry. In India, an interesting project involves the cultivation of seaweeds in off-shore rafts to yield bio-fuels.

Nuclear energy is a fully tested technology but potential capacity is limited by the availability of uranium. However, with fast-breeder technologies becoming viable, the waste from each cycle of generation can be reprocessed to create fuel for the next cycle and thus qualify as renewable. India is one of the few countries which have an advanced fast-breeder reactor programme. It is, therefore, well positioned to take a lead.

Another promising recent advance is in the miniaturisation and portability of nuclear plants. The US and Russia have the lead here but India has the capability to join their ranks. The benefits that could accrue, particularly in decentralised and rural applications, are obvious.

Despite the promise of these new energy technologies, significant gains in the foreseeable future will have to come from increased energy efficiency. Energy service companies are now a big and growing business, offering turnkey technical and managerial solutions to industry and commercial buildings, and applying ICT to conventional power systems to create “smart grids”. These have reduced power consumption costs by at least 30-50 per cent.

Concerns over climate change are adding a compelling salience to this trend of enhancing energy efficiency and promoting renewable and clean energy. Climate change and energy are two sides of the same coin. Global warming is the result of greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels. But known reserves of fossil fuels cannot, in any case, sustain the rapid growth of continent-sized economies like India and China. Moving deeper underground or into the deep sea to extract more coal, oil and gas not only means greater expense but also creates greater risks to the earth’s fragile ecology as has been dramatically demonstrated by the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf off the Californian coast.

It is against this background that there is an urgent need for India to draw up its own renewable energy strategy. We must not be left behind in this new energy revolution. A number of countries, including the US, China and Germany, are investing significant human and material resources to developing renewable energy. China has recently announced a $740-million Solar Valley Project in northern China. It aims to increase its renewable energy portfolio from 9 per cent currently to 15 per cent by 2020. The European Union’s target is 20 per cent. Nevertheless, all major economies are still at the starting point.

Perhaps, to use a Formula-I analogy, China may be at the pole position and, therefore, enjoying an advantage, but the race is still wide open. India has made a good start with a well-conceived National Action Plan on Climate Change, aimed at bringing about a strategic shift from our current reliance on fossil fuels to a pattern of growth based on renewable and clean sources of energy. An ambitious National Solar Mission has been announced targeting 20,000 Mw capacity by 2022. The National Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency is designed to release significant energy savings through the promotion of energy efficiency. The Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement and the subsequent waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers Group have opened up expanded vistas for nuclear energy development. What is now required is a comprehensive strategy to weave these different components together in a synergetic manner and position India as a lead country in the unfolding energy revolution. Here is an opportunity for a technological leap-frog like the mobile revolution, only its transformational impact will be far greater. The key to success lies in effective public-private partnership, both at the policy as well as implementation stage. There will be need to work through multi-sectoral and cross-disciplinary processes and institutions. In India, both government and corporates still work in relatively isolated compartments permeated with hierarchical mindsets. This will have to change if we are to ride the crest of the energy revolution rather than be swept aside by it.

The author was India’s foreign secretary and until recently the prime minister’s special envoy

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First Published: Tue, June 08 2010. 00:38 IST