Posts tagged environment

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

Genetically modified plants and agrobiodiversity

There is lot of buzz that is going on whether genetically modified plants (GMOs) should be given clearance or not. There are different points in favor and against this issue. Issues like safety for human and animal consumption, seed security of our farmers, adverse effects on land fertility are some of the most prominent issues which get headlines of all major newspapers and magazines. Another harmful effect of GMOs is loss of agricultural biodiversity. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, has already warned the world for the loss of agricultural biodiversity. According to their reports some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900 as a result of excessive cultivation of genetically uniform, mass-produced crop varieties. GMO plants are derived from genetic modifications of a specific variety of a plant which produce best phenotypes in terms of either yield or quality. So effectively, all the plants of a field where GMOs are grown are the product of a monoculture. In USA for soybean and maize, two most important crops, GM plants accounts for 93 and 52 percent of total cultivation, respectively. In a country like India, where government has limited control over the distribution of crops on agricultural land, uncontrolled cultivation of GM rice or wheat varieties could lead to a catastrophe. The scenario will even be more serious in case of plants which are the major source of food for the country. For example, a rampant use of GMO rice will result in extinction of many of the native varieties. Imagine a situation where GMO rice is being cultivated on 60% of our rice cultivating areas. Pathogens can always evolve and attack GM plant variety and destroy the produce for that year. This will bring down our economy on its knees.

World map of GMO production (2005). US, Canada, Brazil, China and Argentina produced 95% of world’s GMO crops. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

I once got an opportunity to ask this question to a top official from Monsanto. In his presentation he had shown the rosy picture how farmers in Gujarat are being benefited by GMO cotton and tried to make a case that India should give clearance to GMO rice. I asked him that if a situation arises that a pathogen has evolved against which your rice variety is very susceptible, then what is the minimum time in which we can provide a new set of seed of a resistant rice variety to our market. He said it can take minimum 6 months to flood the market with such new seed variety. That means it will take minimum 10-12 month that the next rice produce will reach to the market. The question is what will happen in these 10-12 months how will our government feed its citizens.

The protection of agricultural biodiversity is another very important point that our law makers and scientist have to ensure before giving clearance to the GMO plants which provide basic food to our country.

First published on Biodiversity of India 

Go to Top