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India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 2

Part 1 of this three-part series (Read Part 3 here) dealt with the traditional sources of energy – Coal, Oil, Natural gas, Hydroelectric and Nuclear. In this part, I will review three other sources – Solar energy, Wind energy and Biomass. Of these, Solar and Wind technologies are just rising while biomass, as an energy source, has been used for centuries by people. While burning biomass leads to carbon pollution, it is still the most popular source of energy in India. Its local use and possibility to develop clean energy from it may make it an attractive source of energy.

 

Solar resource map of India (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Solar energy:

The numbers associated with solar energy are mind-boggling. The amount of solar energy reaching the surface of the planet is so vast that in one year it is about twice as much as will EVER be obtained from all of the Earth’s non-renewable resources of coal, oil, natural gas, and mined uranium combined. India receives 600 terawatts of energy every year and states like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are superbly positioned to harvest this energy. Given we have most of energy coming from coal and other dirty fuels today and given most of India experiences frequent load-shedding, solar power would be a boon for a country like India.

So whats holding us back? Turns out that solar panels are expensive. According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal costs 7 cents/watt while solar energy costs 22 cents/watt. In a country like India where 40% of the population lives below $1 a day, it is difficult to justify such expense. However, in recent years, the costs for solar panels have dropped significantly due to a ramp in production by China and the US. Several companies in India – Reliance, Adani, Moser Baer, Tata, Mahindra & Mahindra etc. – are getting into the solar business. The government has pledged to invest $19 billion in solar power through 2020 through the National Solar Mission. All of these choices literally make the future for solar power bright in India.

Small wind turbines and solar panels on lamp posts in Shanghai (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Wind energy:
In 2011, India had an installed capacity of ~16000 MW of wind power, which is a minuscule 1.6% of the total power generated. It is estimated that the total power that can be generated through wind energy is ~65000 MW. Wind energy is abundant in India, however, it is hardly tapped. As compared to India, China, which is the world’s leader in wind production, produced 62,000 MW, of which almost all of the capacity was installed in the last five years. As compared to that, since 2005, India has added only ~10,000 MW of wind capacity.

One reason why China raced ahead in the wind game is because the wind turbines are manufactured in China at extremely low costs and are shipped to other countries at a profit. However, the policy paralysis in India and lack of incentives to clean, renewable power generation has significantly stunted the Indian wind industry. For example, Suzlon, a wind-turbine manufacturing Indian company is facing economic woes due to competition by China. Also, in 2008, wind power in India cost Rs. 3.5/kWh as compared to Rs 1.5/kWh for coal, thus making it almost twice as expensive.

However, with enough government interest, more efficient turbine designs and cheaper manufacturing, India can indeed move to harness wind power in a greater way than so far. A prime example in this case is Tamil Nadu, which has made enormous progress in tapping its wind energy potential. At certain times of the year, up to 40% of the power grid is fed by its massive wind farms. This proportion is next only to Denmark, the world leader in wind energy.

 

Biomass:

Biomass use is not considered “installed capacity” because most of the biomass use occurs in villages and on a very local scale. People burning leaves and wood for heat, using cowdung-cakes for cooking, biogas for energy are all examples of how biomass is used in India. By some estimates, almost a third of the energy in India comes from biomass (56% of biomass-energy comes from wood). The biggest advantages of biomass are its cost – its almost always made from natural waste – and its local generation, which gives the power to control it in the hands of the people.

Both of these issues are also what make biomass unattractive in its current form. Since biomass is largely carbon, burning it releases toxic fumes and greenhouse gases. Also, since the production is not regulated, the process is highly inefficient, and a lot of biomass in the fuel is left underutilized. Finally, biomass use in ecologically threatened areas can lead to wildfires or environmental degradation.

Current challenges, however, call for a redrafting of the biomass-energy strategy. Biogas plants, for example, are an attractive source of local and community energy. The biggest biogas plant in India is in the Patan area of Gujarat. The plant is continually fed by cowdung of the large number of cows in the nearby villages. Large biogas plants are also being set up in Haryana and other states, however, a significant interest by the Central Government is needed in this area.

Another source of biomass-energy thats piquing interest worldwide is biofuels. Plants like corn, switchgrass, jatropha etc. as well as unicellular fatty-acid producing algae are being actively researched for biofuel production. Research on biofuels is abysmally low in India. These fuels can help us reduce our dependence on foreign oil as well as help us reduce our carbon footprint.

The final part of these three part series will try to synthesize the two parts of this short-essay and will try to build a coherent picture of the energy policy in India.  Stay tuned!

 

India’s energy choices and their environmental impacts – Part 1

A solar panel array (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Several odes have been written about the Gujarat Solar Park. With its capacity to produce ~1000 Megawatts (MW) of clean, pure energy when finished in 2013, it will partially satisfy an energy-hungry country. Although it will satisfy only a small fraction of the total energy requirement of the country, the National Solar Mission aims to create 20GW of solar energy by 2020 – which will be almost 10% of the installed capacity. However, India is expected to ramp up its energy production to 1000GW by 2050 if it is to satisfy its economy. To provide electricity access to its entire population, an investment of $135 billion is needed in the energy sector, according to International Energy Agency estimates.

How can we increase the production of electricity in India without polluting the already polluted environment and destroying the already fragile ecosystems?  This is an important question in front of the Indian nation today. I decided to do a quick survey of various available methods and their impact on environment. There may be more points to talk about…I have only included ones that I thought were the biggest concerns.

In this part, I talk about the traditional methods of producing energy (primarily electricity) – Coal, Hydroelectric, Natural Gas, Oil and Nuclear Energy. In Part 2, I will talk about the alternative popular sources – Wind, Solar and Biomass. I’m omitting other sources like Tidal energy and Geothermal energy because their contribution to energy production in India (and around the world) is minimal.

This is, by no means, an expert or a comprehensive review. I encourage readers and experts to comment, point out errors if any and provide their own insights!

Technology

Advantages Impacts/Issues

Comments

Coal Coal is cheap. India has the fourth largest reserves of coal in the world. 53% of India’s energy requirements are met by coal today. Carbon Capture and Storage (Clean coal/CCS) is being touted as the solution to coal’s polluting nature. There are doubts regarding India’s coal reserves. Most of the coal-reserves are in Maoist affected areas or in national parks/national forests. Coal mining destroys mountains, rivers, groundwater and other habitats. Coal is a dirty fuel and is responsible for 20% of the greenhouse gases emitted today. Coal use is being phased out in developed nations, but developing nations are still largely dependent on it. Also, CCS technologies are still not economically viable for global application.
Hydroelectric India is a land of rivers. Hydroelectricity accounts for 22% of electricity generation today, producing about 38GW. There is capacity of ~90GW possible. Dammed water can also be used for irrigation. No GHG emisisons. Building dams submerges land, displaces people and all the living fauna of the land. Dams cause an obstruction in free flow of water, thus fragmenting habitats of animals like Gangetic Dolphins. Hydroelectric power should be used but with caution. Proper environmental assessment needs to be done to ensure that endangered species are not being lost. People displaced should be properly rehabilitated.
Natural gas 11% of our energy comes from NG. India has huge reserves of natural gas – mainly off Mumbai/Gujarat coast (Bombay High) and now in Krishna-Godavari basin in AP. NG is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal and oil – NG plants produce less than half the CO2 emissions as compared to coal and oil fired plants. Natural gas extraction requires boring inside either sea or land. This affects natural habitats of many species and can lead to water and soil pollution and land erosion. NG production does produce methane, but to a lower extent than other fossil fuels. A recent process called fracking allows more extraction of NG from soil. However, it has been severely criticized to contaminate groundwater. In India where droughts are rampant, groundwater contamination is not acceptable.
Oil Oil is primarily used for transportation/agriculture/industrial purposes and not for power generation. However, increased load-shedding is making industries and households to use diesel run generators. Oil and coal have been the primary energy source for much of the 20th century. Extraction processes are well-standardized and large investments have been made. Enough has been already written about the dirty nature of oil combustion – in cars or in generators. Fossil fuel burning causes release of GHG, environmental pollutants and soot that are detrimental to individual and community health. India’s oil reserves are meager and we’re in competition with China, USA and European nations for the same oil fields. This is a geopolitical challenge. It is no new knowledge that weeding the country off oil is an immediate priority. However, as GDP rises, more cars get on the roads. Given India’s poor infrastructure and lax pollution control measures, there is ample “encouragement” given to vehicular pollution.
Nuclear Around 5000 MW (2.5%) of today’s electricity output is from nuclear power. Govt. has plans to increase this to 32,000 MW by 2030. Nuclear power doesnt emit GHG and has been reliably used worldwide for the past 40-50 years. Emission of nuclear radiation causes genetic defects which can last for generations. Chernobyl and Fukushima are prime examples. Waste generated after energy production is also radioactive and hazardous. Disposal of this waste is difficult and is a contentious issue. Uranium reserves in India are meagre. Sanctions, such as after the Pokhran blasts, can impact supply of fuel and can shut down plants. Nuclear companies say that disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima occurred because of old technology. New methods are significantly safer. Govt. has opened up the nuclear market in India but there has been a big debate about who’s liable if an accident occurs.

It has now become crystal clear that India cannot afford to meet its energy requirements the way its been doing for the past 60 years. We do need a higher proportion of our energy from renewables and the Gujarat Solar Park is a glorious example of how we can make it work. The next part will take a look at the emerging clean technologies – Solar Power and Wind Power – and the traditionally used fuel source in India – Biomass – along with the development of Biofuels.

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

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