Lost in transmission


Efficient use of power resources can make India’s energy planning more meaningful

EAS Sarma

Illustration: Samia Singh

IN THE WAKE OF the public protests against his ministry’s hasty clearance for the Jaitapur nuclear power complex, Minister for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh said in his inimitable style, “From an environmental point of view, it is really tragic that nuclear energy is a red rag to the green bull… All the greens are anti-nuclear… It’s paradoxical. All the greens want clean energy to control global warming… The current debate on Jaitapur, it is more political than technical.”

For a minister who is engaged in serious global climate negotiations, the fact that 38 percent of the greenhouse gases in India are contributed by electricity generation is genuinely worrisome. At the time he made this statement, he was perhaps blissfully unaware that his predecessors had already cleared 1.46 lakh MW of highly polluting coal-based generation projects, most of which are not really required, according to the electricity demand estimates of the Central Electricity Authority, for the coming decade. Nor is it correct to say that nuclear power is either “green” or “clean”, as one could discern from the aftereffects of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, where several reactors have melted down, spewing out toxic radioactive isotopes into the air, the surrounding land and the ocean.

The word ‘green energy’ has indeed become a misnomer. Large centralised power projects — nuclear, hydro, coal and gas-based — displace thousands of people and deprive them of their livelihoods, apart from destroying the local environment. Solar power sounds attractive but the per-MW land requirement for solar photovoltaic energy is as large as for these conventional power plants. Moreover, the manufacture of solar equipment leaves a large carbon footprint upstream. Incinerating either garbage or biomass for power generation can be a highly polluting activity. Wind power could be green but its contribution is limited, location-and-load specific. So is the case with the other forms of renewables.

We need to change the way we perceive ‘development’ for a sustainable energy system

Against this background, the question to ask oneself is whether we have been using the energy we produce efficiently and if` we can adopt an energy system that is ecologically sustainable. For example, the efficiencies of the devices we use for lighting (bulbs), heating (cooking) and motive power (fans) are abysmally low. One-third of the electricity produced is lost in the transmission network for delivering electricity from the power plant to the consumer. The thermal efficiencies of the coal and gas-based plants are low. If we can invest on efficiency improvements in each of these segments, we can save new megawatts (‘negawatts’) that are more cost effective than new megawatts. The present energy planning approach is unfortunately based on increasing the supply without focussing attention on these demand-related measures that cost much less.

THERE IS something more fundamental about ‘green’ energy planning. It has something to do with our lifestyles and the economic growth models we have adopted. We close our buildings to sunlight and depend on electricity for lighting. Our urban agglomerations are energy intensive, as they require people to travel and use energy where it is not needed. We prefer setting up large centralised power plants whereas smaller distributed electricity generation plants could serve the local needs and avoid transmission losses. Unless we can think of a paradigm change in the way we perceive ‘development’, we cannot visualise a sustainable energy system.

If one were to take into account the loss of the livelihoods that a power plant causes, the pollution hazard it generates and the destruction it inflicts on the ecology, the long-run marginal social cost of a kilowatt-hour in the coming decades is going to be enormous. The question is not whether we should prefer one kind of an energy source to the other, but whether we can reduce the energy intensity of our lives. The essence of “greenness” in energy planning lies in this.

EAS Sarma is a former energy secretary. 


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