Equity must begin at home on green energy

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Wind power In 2010, the Centre decided to set mandatory targets for how much of the electricity produced should come from renewable sources
Wind power In 2010, the Centre decided to set mandatory targets for how much of the electricity produced should come from renewable sources Photo: AP

IT WAS the morning of 15 August 2004. Television sets across the country relayed pictures of the newly appointed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Addressing the nation from inside a bullet-proof glass box at the Red Fort, Singh promised that all villages in the country will be electrified by 2012.

The year came and went and electricity was still a distant dream for 300 million people in the country. That same year, standing yet again inside the box on the occasion of Independence Day, the prime minister once again promised that in the next five years every corner of the country would get 24×7 electricity. But as energy expert Justin Guay wrote in the Huffington Post, “these grandiose plans are an illusion”.

Within the next five years, under the 12th Plan, the government aims to set up coal-based thermal power plants that will generate an additional 62,695 MW of electricity. A herculean task, considering the government admits it doesn’t have sufficient coal and will have to import a record 150 million tonnes to meet the domestic electricity demand. Not to mention this will sustain as a long-term problem. As Guay calculates, this “huge pipeline of thermal power plants will require approximately 2.4 billion tonnes of coal by 2030. That’s nearly five times the amount of coal India produces at the moment.” Now assuming that Coal India, the lone supplier of the fossil fuel in the country, can mine coal at a 7 percent annual growth rate (which is next to impossible), even then the country would only manage to get 1.5 billion tonnes.

Clearly, the prime minister, standing in the glass box, was not only detached from the public, but the reality as well.

Coal will always remain in short supply. Yet our government promises to build our energy security on something that will eventually run out. We are investing billions in building new thermal power plants only to realise that they will have to run empty one day. When will we realise that we are building bridges in the wrong direction?

Surprisingly, that moment came five years ago when this sun-soaked, windswept country made a promise. To reduce India’s dependence on coal, we as a nation promised to harness renewable energy resources and embark on a journey towards a greener future.

In 2008, India promised before the international community to be a worthy ally in the “War against Climate Change”. To add value to its pledge, in 2010, the government decided to give renewable energy an aggressive push and came out with a policy of mandatory Renewable Purchase Obligation (RPO) targets. RPO targets decide how much electricity produced in the country should come from renewable sources and hence is a good judge of the improvements being made in clean energy.

The government set a target that by 2012, 7 percent of India’s total electricity generation would come from clean energy resources. By 2020, this figure will go up to 15 percent. To achieve this, each state was asked to come up with an RPO target. But the plan went for a toss.

According to a Greenpeace report released last month, only seven states out of 29 met their mandatory RPO targets set for 2012. That is, the country not only failed in keeping its promise of ushering in renewable energy and offsetting billions of tonnes of carbon emission, it also failed in producing clean electricity that would have powered over 70 lakh households. Meanwhile, India continued to burn coal and became the world’s third largest carbon emitter after the US and China.

The RPO policy has its heart in the right place but it has been marred by a bad script. When the Centre handed out the policy to the state governments, it failed to pass on its enthusiasm. The Centre wanted to generate 7 percent electricity from renewable sources, but it gave state governments the freedom to decide the collective national figure. Result, unambitious states downsized the national target to 5.44 percent. The actual performance dropped even further.

While a few states like Tamil Nadu over-achieved their targets by over 200 percent, those like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh fell short by over 50 percent. Capital offenders like Delhi and Goa did not achieve even 1 percent of their RPO targets. Worse, lack of a penal mechanism in the existing framework made sure that “not-interested” states remained uninterested. High power consumption states like Delhi, Goa and Punjab refused to break the status quo and continued to usurp other states’ right to electricity. Sadly, RPO targets got side-stepped and the policy was reduced to something not even worthy of all the paper that it was printed on.

But the story doesn’t end here.

In every climate change summit that happened, India has time and again stressed on the historical responsibility of the rich nations. Our government’s repeatedly quoted argument is that the developed countries must take more responsibility for the bulk emissions as they are the ones who burned coal rapidly and industrialised. Further, the “rich nations have high per capita income, which gave them the highest capacity to bear the burden and provide a workable solution to fight climate change”. Strangely, neither principle is followed in India’s RPO framework.

A CLOSER look at the figures from the Greenpeace report reveals that the states that failed to achieve their RPO targets are the rich, developed ones. Delhi, for example, estimates that its power shortage this summer will be 400 MW. Had it achieved its RPO target of last year, the state would have been able to reduce this shortage by at least 120 MW. In fact, it has the resources to eliminate the entire power shortage. But it continues to consume, not produce electricity.

Poor states like Rajasthan and Bihar, on the other hand, outshone expectations. In the past three years, Bihar spent Rs 5,748 crore to build infrastructure that will provide reliable ‘decentralised’ electricity generated from renewable sources to one-third of the entire state. Currently, only 16 percent of the people in Bihar have access to electricity.

If India harps on equity as a key principle in the international arena, then it must bring the equity within as well. Going by India’s international stand, rich states like Delhi or Maharashtra are the ones who got electricity to industrialise and they now have high per capita income that gives them the capability to bear the burden of renewable energy.

The RPO mechanism needs to be rewired to include this equity principle. Each state must develop a mandatory RPO target which is ambitious and takes into account the power consumption and per capita income of its people. An effective compliance mechanism needs to be set in place which penalises nonaction and encourages commitment. The government must make sure that the renewable energy burden is distributed equally.

Take Tamil Nadu, for instance. Coal shortage has pushed the state towards a crippling power crisis with outages ranging from 14 to 16 hours. To top it up, the state government’s scheme of subsidised electricity has forced the utility to sink deep in red. The state now relies heavily on the seasonal winds to power its homes and industries during the peak wind season. Tamil Nadu already produces 40 percent of India’s total wind power and last year announced an ambitious solar energy policy, but lack of payments to wind power producers has made the investments in the state’s solar sector jittery.

It should be a matter of concern that performing states like Tamil Nadu are being forced to reverse the growth made in the renewable energy sector. Moreover, the state’s experience should ring alarm bells for non-performing states like Delhi and Punjab who rely heavily on coal to meet the energy needs of their people and economy.

Renewable energy is no longer a matter of choice. It is our only option. If India wants to become energy secure, renewable energy must be made everyone’s responsibility.

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