The renewable imperative

Print edition : November 05, 2004

As oil prices shoot up to historic highs, India must immediately redouble its renewable energy programme, with a strong emphasis on rural energy security based on biomass and wind power, with employment generation tied to it.

FIRST, the bad news. Crude oil prices, which recently ruled at $40 a barrel, have broken the $50 barrier and reached a historic high. The spike is partly fuelled by speculation about a likely steep rise in demand for space heating in winter in Europe, and partly by transient factors like rumours set off by a fire at a Nigerian pipeline. But the underlying long-term uptrend is unmistakable. It is highlighted by a 66 per cent rise in demand this year.

Windmills in farm near Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu.-K.K. MUSTAFAH

Now, worse news. It is unlikely that oil prices will fall soon to levels prevalent before Iraq's invasion. The impact of high prices on Third World economies that have been profligate in energy use will be particularly harsh. India falls within this group, with an oil-consumption intensity per unit of gross domestic product (GDP) addition triple that of the more energy-efficient economies of the First World. As elite consumption drives up demand, India must spend an additional Rs.3,000 crores for every $1 rise in global oil prices. This will further erode the government's capacity to provide essential public services.

Finally, the good news. India's renewable energy programme is looking up under the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES). While its expansion is nowhere near the potential for - or imperative of - growth, its overall performance has improved significantly with energy capacity doubling over the last four years.

As of now, renewable sources contribute 5,077 MW in electrical capacity to the 100,000 MW-plus national grid. Off grid, their capacity appears even more modest - just 130 MW (70 MW from solar photovoltaics and 60 from biomass gasifiers). But some of this energy lights homes (some 800,000 of them) mainly in remote villages where darkness would otherwise rule for years. In addition, India has 850,000 m{+2} of solar-thermal collectors mainly for low-temperature applications. Of the grid-connected power from renewable resources a little over one-half comes from wind, about 1,600 MW from small hydro-electricity projects, and just under 700 from biomass.

The most impressive story here is that the growth of wind-driven power generation, capacity of which has doubled over three-and-a-half years. Last year, its growth rate rose to 100 per cent. According to MNES sources, wind generation today contributes an electrical capacity of 2,731 MW. Quite simply, wind energy has just overtaken nuclear power generation, which according to the Nuclear Power Corporation (NPC) web site, has a capacity of 2,710 MW spread over six stations. At this moment, another 60 MW is being added to India's wind farms.

By this current financial year, wind generation is expected to notch up a total of 3,200-3,300 MW. After that, some big projects, in the 500 MW range, are expected to come on line. (The Oil and Natural Gas Corporation and Reliance have already tendered for projects in that class.) India now boasts of Asia's biggest wind farm (298 MW) at Satara in Maharashtra. It could soon enter into the same league as Denmark, Germany and California in total wind-generation capacity. Indian companies, which started with small 20-50 kW turbines, are beginning to instal big generators with capacities that are a couple of orders of magnitudes higher - 2 MW each.

All this has taken place without a fuss, without huge publicity, and without massive public investment in research and development and other subventions or big subsidies - unlike, say, in the case of nuclear power. The expenditure budget for 2004-05 of the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) is Rs.4,470 crores. Its principal research and development organisations alone absorb over Rs.1,200 crores a year. The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre annually costs the exchequer Rs.954 crores, the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, another Rs.164 crores, the Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, Rs.101 crores and Kolkata's Variable Energy Cyclotron, Rs. 76 crores.

True, there is a varying element of subsidy for wind generation that is determined by state-based electricity regulators. But this is moderate, usually under Re.1 a unit. The point is, wind generation can deliver power commercially at Rs.2.70 to 3.50 a unit - and make a profit.

Any renewable energy source which is clean, does not leave a huge stream of waste, and which does not contribute to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, emphatically deserves generous public support. Its real, long-term social costs are considerably lower than those of conventional energy, despite deceptively low short-term claimed costs. Wind is growing remarkably fast even with modest to moderate support.

There is a case for subsidising wind energy further, especially in coastal States which started off well but soon became laggards (for example, Orissa, Kerala, West Bengal). There is an urgent need to correct regional imbalances too. Currently, Tamil Nadu leads in wind generation, with 1,529 MW. Maharashtra, a distant second (411 MW), Rajasthan (221 MW) and Gujarat (213 MW) are all growing fast. And the great potential of Karnataka (225 MW) and Andhra Pradesh (101 MW) must be tapped. Perhaps, a good subsidy model is Maharashtra which levies a 5-paise cess on all power for industrial and commercial use to fund renewable resources. Bank-based initiatives, such as seed loan finance, are equally worthy.

IT must be conceded that wind farms have problems. They are noisy, aesthetically unsuitable in some places, and often occupy too much space. (There is also the unproven belief in Maharashtra that they interfere with rainfall.) But these disadvantages must be weighed against both the merits of wind and defects of other technologies, for example high levels of pollution and GHG emissions from fossil fuels.

Impressive as the potential for wind generation is - now raised to 45,000 MW (gross) nationally - it is still seen primarily in terms of grid-linked power. But it should be used in decentralised stand-alone modes, specifically for rural applications. Generally, what India needs is not just electricity, that most refined form of energy, but also energy to power different services - lifting water, cooking food, motive power for a variety of machines, heat to dry agricultural produce and so on. This is where purposive public action is imperative.

The greatest renewable resources in this respect is biomass, with its amazing versatility and its omnipresence. India, as has been said, is a biomass-based society. This is especially true of rural India, where 72 per cent of the population lives. Almost a third of all energy consumed in India comes from non-commercial sources like fuel wood (220 million tonnes), and animal dung and agricultural wastes (130 mt.).

Villages are the site of India's gravest energy crisis, both commercial - commercial forms are dear and scarce - and non-commercial - because biomass sources are becoming less accessible and more expensive and because common property resources are being privatised. Officially, over five lakh of India's six lakh villages are "deemed" to be "electrified": defined as a minimum of 10 per cent of households being connected to power supply. This rarely translates into access to power, however reliable, for a majority of village homes.

Only 44 per cent of India's 138 million rural households use electricity for lighting - a particularly efficient and desirable application of power. Over 55 per cent still use kerosene - a grossly inefficient source, which is increasingly becoming expensive too. In recent years, rural India's dependence on fossil fuels has grown thanks to an appalling power supply situation, and greater reliance on diesel for irrigation pumpsets and other agricultural applications.

At the same time, shortages and high prices of biomass have created greater dependence on petroleum or raised costs of cooking food, and added to the drudgery suffered by women. This also affects rural industries like brick making, silk reeling, agro-processing, and spices and rubber drying, with harmful impact on employment generation and income.

There is a compelling argument for a holistic approach to rural energy, which focusses on the demand side (or on the services that energy is meant to provide), which strongly relies on locally available resources, and which is environment-friendly, sustainable and affordable - in accordance with the paradigm developed by Professor Amulya Kumar N. Reddy, a pioneer in rural energy systems analysis and one of the world's greatest energy planning experts. His work, launched through ASTRA (Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas) of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, in the 1970s and since carried forward, remains a guiding beacon in this regard. (He has since further refined his analysis in the International Energy Initiative.)

The MNES has now embraced this very approach, and drawn up a plan for creating energy security in villages based on biomass. Briefly put, its scheme aims to meet the total energy requirements of cooking, electricity and water pumping through locally available biomass resources. The strategy relies on plantations of fast-growing trees and oil-bearing plants raised by local communities.

The plan has modules of 100 households. It has three main components besides energy plantations: cooking energy; electricity generation and supply; and motive power for irrigation pumps, and so on. A successful village energy plan should eliminate all use of diesel and kerosene, improve cook stoves, supply adequate biogas, and generate enough electricity for lighting homes, schools and clinics, and powering rural industries.

The crucial link between biomass and power is the gasifier or biomass engine, which generates producer gas (containing carbon monoxide and other products of controlled combustion). This technology was used during the World War to cope with acute scarcity of petroleum, and has been further developed since, including in India. MNES has identified about 15 manufacturers of gasifiers, who supply units of up to 500 kW capacity. So far, 1,850 gasifiers have been installed.

Another important plank of the plan is biofuels produced from oil-yielding plant species such as jatropha, karanj, mahua, kusum and so on. The Botanical Survey of India (BSI) has identified more than 400 species that can yield oil, which can be burnt in place of diesel in an engine powering an irrigation/drinking water pump.

The MNES plan seeks to use biomass of various kinds: woody biomass and agricultural wastes, animal dung and leafy biomass, as well as oilseeds. The dung and leaf/waste would be digested in biogas plants to generate 72 cubic metres of cooking fuel for the 100-household villages. The gasifier, accounting for about half the total cost of the project, would provide enough fuel to generate power for five and a half hours a day for all households, run three irrigation pumps for three hours a day for 100 days, and supply 5 kW to rural industries - an annual total of 50,000 units, a little over 70 per cent of it for domestic and community use. There would be some additional income from oilcake made by expellers too.

The total cost of the project per village works out to Rs.20 lakhs - no mean sum, but by no means unaffordable if loan and grants are given. The MNES reckons that such a rural energy security plan could deliver power at about Rs.4 a unit to industry/irrigation, and supply adequate power for basic use (two light bulbs, and an optional fan or a TV set, and so on) to every household at a cost varying from Rs.60 to Rs.135 a month (depending on how much money is given as loans or as grants). In addition, it will make each home self-sufficient in cooking energy, and power needed for irrigation - and totally independent of diesel and kerosene.

The plan is eminently worthy - the more so because it promotes a bottom-up approach. It must be tried out through people's participation and self-help groups' involvement on a large scale, for example, perhaps 20,000 villages, so it can be fine-tuned to different climatic conditions and energy-use patterns before it is universalised to all panchayats. This could be usefully combined with resource-mapping surveys by local students and creation of networks of young people who learn to maintain the various systems.

The village energy security concept offers tremendous possibilities for grassroots-based planning and energy-user cooperation from below. Above all, it has the merit of creating jobs - on plantations, in biomass collection, oilseeds processing, power distribution, and rural industries. The future of energy security of India's villages lies in this direction - and away from petroleum.

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