Renewables option

Print edition : March 23, 2012

Instead of imposing nuclear power upon unwilling people, India should join the renewables revolution for handsome gains.

PRIME Minister Manmohan Singh has stooped low by alleging that the large-scale protests against the Kudankulam nuclear power station in Tamil Nadu, sustained impressively for six months, are inspired and financed by American and Scandinavian non-governmental organisations. Invoking the foreign hand to vilify those who question official projects means denying that Indian citizens have the ability to think for themselves. This is particularly offensive coming from a leader who wants to hitch India's energy future to imported nuclear reactors and whose own economic policy has long borne an indelible foreign imprint.

In reality, the only foreigners in Kudankulam have been the Russian engineers invited by the Nuclear Power Corporation. The people's organisations leading the agitation are serving defamation notices upon the Ministers who levelled malicious accusations against them instead of engaging them and convincing them of the project's safety.

Equally pernicious is the Prime Minister's allegation that the thinking segment of our population certainly is supportive of nuclear energy. Recent statements by some Indian intellectuals, such as the historians Romila Thapar and Mushirul Hasan, the economists Amit Bhaduri, Jean Dreze and Deepak Nayyar, the political scientist Rajeev Bhargav, the ambassador Nirupam Sen, the artists Krishan Khanna and Vivan Sundaram, and P. Balaram, Director, Indian Institute of Science, belie this claim. In fact, after Fukushima, there is a close congruence between popular perceptions and the intelligentsia's concerns about nuclear hazards.

The slander campaign against the Kudankulam activists is clearly a prelude to a crackdown to thrust the nuclear plant down their throats. But Manmohan Singh should know that this will not quell the growing, determined popular opposition to nuclear power in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and indeed Kudankulam itself.

Using brute force to impose nuclear power plants on an unwilling population has dire implications not just for India's energy sector but for democracy, our greatest post-Independence achievement. It will usher in a police state, an authoritarian nuclear state that rides roughshod over people's rights and promotes a dangerously callous technocracy, as writer Robert Jungk famously warned. India's nuclear zealots seem to have no compunction in outlawing dissent in pursuit of their obsession. This is a frightening prospect, which should make Indian policymakers pause and think. If indeed they want to improve access to electricity, denied to two-fifths of the population, and equitably promote a low-carbon, safe and climate-friendly energy economy, then a historic opportunity now presents itself in the renewable energy revolution that is sweeping the globe. Renewable energy today accounts for one-fifth of the world's power capacity and delivers 18 per cent of global electricity and primary energy supply, besides 24 per cent of heat supply.

Grid-connected solar photovoltaics (or PV, which is the direct conversion of sunlight into electricity) have been growing annually by 53 per cent and wind power by 32 per cent. Deployment of other renewables such as solar thermal, biomass, tidal and geothermal energy is also growing rapidly. The renewables revolution seems unstoppable and developing countries are playing an important role in driving it.

New investment in renewables has defied the general global investment downturn since 2008. Investment rose to $150 billion in 2009 and further jumped to $243 billion in 2010, up 134 per cent since 2007 and almost five times higher than in 2004.

By contrast, the number of nuclear reactors worldwide peaked at 444 in 2002 and is now down to under 400 (counting those shut down in Germany and Japan). Their contribution to global electricity supply, once 17 per cent, has fallen to under 13 per cent. They account for only 2 per cent of the world's final energy consumption (less than 1 per cent in India) compared with 18 per cent for renewable energy worldwide. More than 150 nuclear reactors are set to retire in the next two decades, and only about 60 are planned to replace them.

The so-called nuclear renaissance that George W. Bush wanted to instigate has not materialised. No new reactor order has matured in the United States since 1973. Western Europe has not had a single new reactor commissioned since Chernobyl (1986).

Areva's European Pressurised Reactors, or EPRs (also meant to be installed at Jaitapur in Maharashtra), under construction in Finland and France, have run into grave trouble with regulators. They are over four years behind schedule, 95 per cent over budget, and mired in legal disputes.

Renewable energy is growing by leaps and bounds because it is flexible, modular, and increasingly competitive, thanks to rapidly falling costs. It takes only months, often weeks, to install a PV facility or wind turbine, in contrast to 10 to 13 years for nuclear reactors. The timeline is crucial from the climate viewpoint. World emissions must peak by 2020 if global warming is not to exceed 2 C.

Not to be discounted is the abundance of renewable energy resources, enough to meet the world's energy needs 3,000 times over. Renewable energy is amenable to decentralised and stand-alone applications as well as to grid-based systems. The first characteristic is particularly relevant to India, where tens of thousands of villages remain deprived of electricity and where home-lighting systems could transform the quality of life. Renewable energy fits in snugly with energy efficiency improvement, and the two uniquely complement each other.

In India, new renewable energy (wind, PV, solar thermal, small hydro, and so on) deployment, barely a decade old, is growing annually at 3,500 megawatt and already exceeds the capacity of nuclear reactors fourfold and generates twice as much energy as they do. Wind generation is in true costs already cheaper than coal-based power. The cost of PV is decreasing dramatically. At the latest 130 MW auction under the National Solar Mission, the lowest generation-cost figure quoted was Rs.7.49 a kilowatt-hour, less than half of the EPR's power. Global costs are even lower at 12-15 U.S. cents/kWh, and falling. They are expected to halve within the next few years and become grid-competitive with fossil fuels. The opportunity this offers to sun-blessed India cannot be exaggerated.

Renewable energy sources have lower life cycle carbon dioxide emissions than not just gas and coal but also nuclear power. Although nuclear fission does not directly produce greenhouse gases, the entire nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining to fuel fabrication and transportation, to reactor construction, and fuel reprocessing and waste storage, has a sizeable carbon footprint.

The CO {-2} emissions of renewable energy sources range from as low as 3 to 7 grams a kWh (wind) to 8.5 gm to 11 gm (concentrated solar power), and 19 to 59 gm (PV, although these are expected to fall). The figure for nuclear power ranges from 68 gm to 180 gm.

Unique opportunity

India has a unique opportunity to join and lead the renewables revolution. India stands at a cusp. It has not yet been locked into centralised grid-based generation and can develop a new energy system that uses decentralised applications and smart two-way grids, which allow consumers to sell power from PV or windmills to the grid when there is a surplus.

Unlike in the West, where renewable energy must adapt to already developed centralised grids, India can build a far more flexible electric system that is appropriate to its distributed consumption pattern spread across six lakh villages, thousands of small towns and power-starved slums in cities.

Indian energy planners have persistently exaggerated power demand and underestimated the potential of renewable energy. For instance, the official estimate of onshore wind potential was until recently as low as 49,000 MW (49 gigawatts); it has just been revised to 102 GW. This is huge, more than one-half of India's total installed power capacity (180 GW). But it ignores both the low land-footprint of wind turbines and recent technological improvements that allow wind to be harvested at heights such as 80, 100 or 120 metres instead of the assumed 50 m.

More updated estimates, including one by U.S.-based Indian researchers and published by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, range from a staggering 750 GW to over 2,000 GW. Even if the lowest-cost resources were to be tapped at the most favourable wind sites, they would still yield 200 GW, probably taking India's total installed power capacity beyond adequate levels. These are not the only renewable energy sources to be tapped. There is renewable biomass, which alone can meet all our energy needs through biodigesters and combined generation with solar thermal power. Not to be ignored is the potential held out by improved high-efficiency stoves that use different kinds of waste and reduce indoor pollution, a major killer of women and children.

India can join the renewables revolution and benefit if it aggressively promotes such energy through a renewable purchase obligation on distribution companies, institutes feed-in tariffs (to offset initial fossil-renewable energy cost differentials), and encourages local manufacture while adapting programmes to the needs of the underprivileged.

Equity is pivotal here. The technological superiority, economic viability and ecological sustainability of renewable energy are largely settled matters. That battle has already been won. The crucial issue is who will control renewable energy. It cannot be left to corporations alone. The poor must have the first claim to affordable renewable energy, and local communities must have a say in its development and use. That is the way forward.

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