Thursday, June 13, 2013

Meeting India’s Energy Needs: A Challenge to the Scientific Community

Dr M N Buch, 
Dean, Centre for Governance and Political Studies, VIF

It is a paradox that India, which is the fifth largest producer of electricity at approximately 2,12,000 MW, is also the lowest per capita consumer of electricity at 704 units as compared with 13616 units in the United States of America, a world average of 2752 units, with even China having a per capita consumption of 2328 units. There is obviously a total mismatch between the size of our population and the quantum of power generated by us. Of the power generated, a whopping 66.91 percent is accounted for by thermal power. The fuel largely used for thermal power is coal, with coal based generation accounting for 57.42 percent. Hydro power, which is clean and relatively cheap, accounts for 18.61 percent of production, nuclear for 2.25 percent and renewable sources such as wind, biomass, bagasse cogeneration accounting for 12.20 percent of the total power generation. Thus, more than two-third of power generation in India is based on fuels which are polluting and create a large carbon footprint.

It has been officially stated that for India to have even a reasonable availability of power by the end of the year 2013, we should increase our power generation from 2.12 lakh MW to at least 2.50 lakh MW, with an eight to nine percent growth of generation per annum, which leads to the level of 10 lakh MW of power by 2050. That amounts to a terawatt of power. In the twelfth plan, the proposal is that 88000 MW of additional power be generated which, taking into account increased demand, would still not close the gap between power availability and power demand which, at present stands at 11.6 percent, rising to 15 percent during peak load.

In the matter of generation, what are the options available to us? It is planned under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission to add 22,000 MW of power through solar sources by 2022. Solar radiation is high throughout India and, therefore, we should be able to expand the programme substantially, but for one factor. Conversion of solar energy into electricity has a very low efficiency factor, hovering around 20 percent. To take the analogy of railway traction, the steam engine had a conversion factor of about 30 percent, which rose to about 60 percent with diesel electric traction. With all electric traction this goes up to between 75 and 80 percent. In a process of power generation in which the efficiency of conversion is only about 20 percent, can any generation infrastructure with such a low plant load factor be a truly effective instrument of delivering power on a national scale? Disaggregated generation and use of solar power directed at the household or a small community seems to be perfectly in order. Massive production of solar power to feed the grid is a completely different proposition. I state this not as an argument against solar power, but as a caution about whether conversion of solar energy into electric power is necessarily the best and most economical solution to our power requirements.

Thermal power, even with all the devices such as electrostatic precipitators, filter systems which capture particulate matter and even systems of carbon recovery only partially deals with the problem. Apart from its carbon footprint, a coal based thermal power station is prodigal in its use of cooling water and the fly ash generated by such a power plant has created waste management problems on a gigantic scale. Considering the preponderance of thermal generation, regardless of environmental issues, one does not see a reduction in the role of thermal generation in the foreseeable future and we have to try and reduce the negative factors.

Hydro power is cheap, nonpolluting and should be a major source of energy in a country where it is the hills and mountains in which our rivers, both Himalayan and Peninsular, rise, with steep gradients in the early part of their courses as they plunge towards plains. There is an almost unlimited source of hydel power available to us, but there are major problems associated. Had the present day environment activists existed then, the Gersoppa and Jog falls would never have been used for hydel generation, nor would Jogindernagar have existed. The problem with hydel generation is that one has to create a barrier across a river, such as the Bhakra Dam, both impounding water and creating a vertical drop which would enable hydel generation through turbines driven by the rushing waters. Environmental activists, including Sunderlal Bahuguna, are totally opposed to any dams. Their arguments are based on the assertion that there is lack of safety because of seismic activity in fragile mountain areas, the acquisition of land involved in creating a lake, the felling of trees in the basin of the lake and interference with the course of flow of our mountain and hill rivers. The environmental lobby has been so powerful that the second phase of Maneri-Bhali on the Bhagirathi River has been scrapped. Virtually every single dam is opposed and, therefore, hydel generation has come under severe threat in India. Common sense demands that a balance should be struck between hydel generation and environmental issues because both are important, but the positions taken are so extreme that it is almost impossible to find a via media.

One single example illustrates this point. The Narmada, which arises at Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh, flows for more than 85 percent of its length in Madhya Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh is not only the upper riparian – it is also the major user or, rather, should be the major user of Narmada water. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has opposed projects on the Narmada tooth and nail. The Gujarat Government, on the other hand, where the largest dam on the Narmada, Sardar Sarovar, is located has made the Narmada waters an article of faith. The Supreme Court and the State High Courts have sometimes been facilitators but more often obstructionists. The Narmada is supposed to have 29 major, 450 medium and 3000 minor projects on it and its tributaries. Most of the projects are stalled, many of them after hundreds of crores of rupees have been spent. Sardar Sarovar is the only one which has been completed and benefits of it are flowing throughout Gujarat, with a major share of power coming to Madhya Pradesh. What some people choose not to believe is that the Narmada can be a major source of hydel generation and Sardar Sarovar alone generates 1400 MW of clean power Omkareshwar and Maheshwar should double this, but thanks to NBA, the projects are making very slow headway. Without going into the merits of the agitation, one can safely say it is a symbol of how a major source of generation of clean power has been stymied.

India has set itself a target of generating 20 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2017. Can we achieve this? Not at the present pace. For example, in the matter of grid interactive renewable power, the target for 2011-12 for wind power was 2400 MW. We have achieved during this period generation of 833 MW, that is, approximately 35 percent of the target. In the case of micro hydel projects, as against a modest target of 350 MW, India has achieved only 111.3 MW, which comes to 31.8 percent of the target. In the case of solar power, only 2.5 percent of the target has been achieved. Gujarat and now Madhya Pradesh are striving to push solar energy, but how soon the results would be achieved remains to be seen.

That brings us to nuclear energy as a major source of power generation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even put his government at risk in order to push a treaty with the United States of America which would enable India to move out of the pariah category in the nuclear world and be accepted as a global partner in the peaceful use of nuclear energy. With many ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, the treaty went through, with the Prime Minister arguing that if India were to become energy sufficient and through a clean source of generation, we had no option but nuclear power. The entire nuclear power generation programme is based on the premise that it is the cleanest form of energy because there are no emissions, nuclear power stations do not add gaseous or particulate matter to the atmosphere, there is no carbon generation and there are no mountains of fly ash such as one finds in a coal based thermal power station. The only danger is a Chernobyl type explosion which released radioactive material, or a Three-Mile Island type of melt down which, fortunately, was contained. Then, of course, one had Fukushima in which the nuclear power station was wrecked by a tsunami and it is only the heroic sacrifices by dedicated Japanese engineers which prevented this mishap from being converted into a disaster which would have devastated Japan.

In India, new nuclear plants include the one which is in the process of becoming operational in Kudankulam in Tamil Nadu and two which are in an advanced stage of planning. These include Jaitapur in Maharashtra and a proposed plant in the Mandla District of Madhya Pradesh. Activists and even a section of scientists are strongly opposed to these plants on account of safety. In some ways, the Fukushima disaster has triggered grave doubts about nuclear power plants located near the coast because it is feared that a tsunami can overtake them, leading to devastating results. There have been large scale and continuing protests Against Kudankulam and Jaitapur. . The Prime Minister and the entire nuclear science establishments have no such doubts. Their way to reassure the people about the safety of these power plants is to virtually guarantee that neither Chernobyl nor Fukushima can ever be repeated in India. Those who are opposed these plants refuse to buy the government’s arguments, not only because they question the scientific basis of certifying the plants to be safe, but also on account of very little credibility remaining with government as one financial scandal after another hits India. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was asked on his return what passed through his mind as he blasted into space. His reply was, “The first thought I had was that every single part of the moon rocket had been supplied by the lowest tenderer”. Even in the United States, doubts have be expressed about quality and with our penchant for cutting corners when tendering and then trying to recoup any loss by substandard work, one certainly shares some sympathy for those who question safety guarantees. Nevertheless, the government has argued vehemently that India has no option but to adopt nuclear power generation as a major source of energy in the years to come.

The whole debate centres around the absolutely unavoidable need to increase our generation capacity if India is to modernise. If power is viewed as a commodity, then as in the case of all commodities, there is both a demand and supply of the commodity. Our present approach to electricity is focused only on supply because it is taken as given that demand will ride a rising curve and that if India is to modernize, demand must be made to rise very sharply. That scenario leaves us with no option other than increasing our generation capacity. Depending on finite resources, there is bound to come a time when we cannot increase power supply and then we would run into a massive problem of a demand driven economy being brought to a halt because the supply side has failed.

Is electricity necessarily a commodity? Is it not a convenience? Before power traction came on the scene, travel was a function of the human muscle, animal power, water power and wind power which moved sailing ships. Many things which we take for granted today were not available, but there was an ecological equilibrium the value of which we have never taken into account. We certainly cannot revert to the pre-automobile engine era and that this convenience, electricity, has become more than a convenience, more than a commodity because it has become a vital necessity. It is, therefore, necessary to accept that India needs electrical power for its electronic application. Once this is established, then the question arises from where will it obtain this power? Unfortunately, the country not really seriously looked at the demand side. Electricity is a prime mover, which is defined by the Chambers Twenty-first Dictionary as “the force that is most effective in setting something in motion”. That means that the more cumbersome, more inefficient a thing which is to be set in motion is, it will require a much larger quantity of the prime mover, in this case electricity. Traction motors largely use electricity as the prime mover. Let us take the case of a ceiling fan whose motor uses between 60 and 100 watts of power. If the motor were to be made so efficient that it consumes only 10 watts, we would have a 600 percent saving of power on a ceiling fan. Multiply this by crores of ceiling fans in use in a hot tropical country and the mind cannot even grasp how much power would be saved by this one improvement. Take every other motor, whether it be the traction motors of a railway train, the motors which drive heavy machinery in an industry, the motors which drive pumps which lift water for irrigation and one would find that by substantially improving the conversion factor of power to motion one could probably make do with about half the power we generate today. We could then concentrate on making our power stations more efficient, increase the plant load factor to almost a ratio of 1:1 and also in the process reduce pollution from these power plants to an acceptable level. It is only after this new equilibrium is established that we should think of more forms of application of electricity and, therefore, additional power generation.

I am not a scientist but have seen how Japanese scientists took the old valve radio set, transferred the circuitry to a button size transistor and gave us a radio set about the size of a pack of playing cards and transformed the entire information technology scene. Today semi conductors, the micro chip, the integrated circuit allow all sorts of equipment to function on a 1.5 volt battery and have eliminated the need for continuous mains supply to these appliances. I have suggested to the Indian Institutes of Technology that they should have a very strong research programme which looks at power demand and then come up with solutions which reduce demand as suggested above. The research would not be glamorous because it will deal with such mundane items as submersible pumps for lifting water from a tube well. It will not drive a Ferrari or a Lamborghini. It will be used by common cultivators, but such research would transform the entire power scenario in India and the world. Will any of our institutes of technology take up the challenge? My humble submission is that the route to the Nobel Prize does not necessarily lie in fundamental research. Applied research which takes electricity and makes it a truly thrifty servant of man can also lead to a Nobel Prize.

What is stated above is only a commonsense approach and one wonders why neither activists, nor scientists, nor the technologists are pushing it. A standard argument is that research which leads to efficiency of virtually every appliance which uses electric power would be very expensive and would push the cost of the commodity beyond ordinary levels of affordability. Perhaps this is true, but only so far as the prototype is concerned. Replication of a prototype does not call for cost to be incurred on research and when the prototype is tested, proved and found to be acceptable, its mass production would bring the unit cost down to not more than what the present appliance costs. Look how expensive were the original cumbersome, slow and clumsy computers. Refining, fine-tuning and mass production have brought the computer within the reach of every common man. This is true of mobile telephony. Why should it fail in the massively wide spectrum of electrical and electronic goods which have now become a part of our daily life? Industry, government, the scientific establishment and our Institutes of Technology must come together with a very specific and determined programme to make the use of electrical energy so efficient that a little bit goes a long way. There can be no tokenism in this programme because if India is to survive as an ecologically and environmentally healthy, modern nation in which power is harnessed for man’s needs and there is enough power for everyone, then efficiency of everything which needs power to operate has to be central to our philosophy of use of power. Whether we put a man on the moon or not is not very relevant. Whether we can make one megawatt of power perform the same function as a hundred megawatts of power is vital to our survival. Will our scientific and technological establishment respond favourably?

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