Still a pipe dream

Still a pipe dream

The global discourse on climate change in recent years has brought renewable sources of energy into sharp focus. Different countries are announcing goals for power generation from renewable sources. Germany leads the brigade with a clear roadmap for transition from fossil and nuclear power to renewables. Germany is trying to secure commitments to similar shift from other members of G7, ahead of the summit scheduled for June this year. China too is moving aggressively in large scale rollout of solar and wind power.

Though India began its journey in exploring non-conventional sources of energy way back in 1982 – much before climate change became imperative – it could make little progress due to sub-critical investments and lack of focus and political will. It is only in the past decade or so that contribution of wind and solar to national power kitty has become visible. For the first time, a goal-based national programme for solar power generation was announced in 2010 in the form of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission with the objective of deploying 20,000 megawatt (20 gigawatt) of grid-connected solar power by 2022.

Now, the government has revised its targets for renewable electricity, aiming for 100 gigawatt of solar and 60 gigawatt of wind by 2022. At the recent Renewable Energy Global Investors Meet organised by the Centre, commitments were made to install renewable energy power totaling 266 gigawatt by Indian and foreign companies, banks and public sector suppliers. This is indeed an astronomical number, considering the fact that the total installed capacity from all renewable sources (including mini hydro power) in January 2015 was 31 gigawatt and that total installed capacity from all sources is 258 gigawatt.

As per independent estimates, translating all the commitments made at the investor summit into reality would call for investments to the tune of $310 billion to $350 billion. If India were to achieve 266 gigawatt of solar and wind power, India would not need fossil fuel-based power at all and this would make India renewable energy capital of the world. It is a different matter that the government probably does not believe in these claims about renewable energy. Otherwise why would it be on its knees to woo American nuclear suppliers and willing to compromise on the vexed nuclear liability issue in order to attract investors in nuclear power generation? If renewable energy can meet all our energy needs, then why go after the costly option of nuclear power at all?

The viability of wind and solar energy are now well recognised – both in terms of their potential as well as ability to compete with coal and other sources of power generation. The costs are constantly dropping. For instance, new wind projects at the point of generation are most likely to be cheaper than power from new thermal power plants based on imported coal.

Similarly, solar photovoltaic generation costs are said to be cheaper than the cost of generating power from a natural gas-based plant. These calculations take into account initial high capital costs required for solar and wind power plants and the fact that their running cost is very low since practically fuel costs are zero. Lead time for rolling out solar and wind power farms is also much lower than time required for setting up a coal or gas based power station.

While all these are positives of renewable sources, one can’t ignore other
side of the story. Land and water requirement for renewable source, particularly solar, is significant. Environmental impacts of setting up wind farms in ecologically fragile forests and hilly regions also need to be accounted for. The output of wind and solar photovoltaic is variable, and in the case of wind is also subject to uncertainty. Integration of renewable power with regional and national grids, therefore, faces greater challenges.

A slew of legal, administrative, regulatory and management changes will have to be effected if we are serious about harnessing renewable sources of energy. At the macro-level, a token move has been made by having a common minister for conventional and renewable sources of energy as well as coal. But ministries of power, coal, renewable sources of energy continue to work in silos. Nuclear energy is still is a subject administered by the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE). Ideally, the power generation wing of the DAE should be under the umbrella of power ministry, just like renewables.

Drawing a roadmap
A national energy roadmap – not separate roadmaps for renewable sources, nuclear and so on – should be the next step. The roadmap should clearly spell out the energy mix, short and long term targets and way forward to achieve each of them. For instance, if the roadmap envisages that India will have half or more of its total power generation from solar and wind in a given timeframe, then investment and policy environment necessary for it should be developed.

Till now, we have been fixing targets for different sources of energy in five-year plans and trying to achieve them independent of each other, without thinking of the big energy picture in terms of energy security, fuel imports, environment impacts, research and development, risks and benefits etc. Planning additional nuclear plants in a state like Tamil Nadu which is leading in wind power generation proves the point.

If we wish to succeed with renewable sources, we will have to think out-of-the-box, rather, out-of-the-grid. A third of our population has no access to electricity. Power utilities and discoms are struggling to provide even minimum supplies to villages which are not connected by grid. Investments made in rural electrification programmes all these years have been marred by delays and inefficiencies.

Renewable sources of energy offer hope to correct this situation through options like decentralised and off-grid power generation as well as development of systems like solar-operated agriculture pump sets and such appliances. Renewable power companies will have to become service providers and work with local communities. The possibilities are immense. It is time we stop being romantic about renewable energy and start getting real.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based columnist and author)

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