Watts in it for me?


A LEAFY VILLAGE in Kerala, Pathanpara, never found access to India’s electricity grid. That is why for the last several years, this village has been generating its own electricity.

Raju, a dhoti-clad cashewnut farmer, operates Pathanpara’s five kilowatt (KW) micro hydropower plant. He lives in the village and earns a salary of Rs 2,250, paid by the People’s Electricity Committee (PEC). The power generated is shared equally by the village, following a code of conduct laid down by the PEC. Driven by a sense of collective ownership, each household in the village knows it cannot ‘overdraw’. Once a year, villagers gather for a day of voluntary work to remove excessive silt deposits that may hinder the functioning of the plant. The PEC decides the tariffs and collects payments. It now has a surplus of Rs 60,000. With the money raised, the PEC has already paid the loan it took to buy land for the water tank.

Further north, in Bihar’s Tanuka village, the midnight kerosene lamps have been replaced by fluorescent light bulbs. This became possible when a start-up that calls itself Husk Power Systems designed a technology to generate power using rice husk, available in abundance in the village and usually discarded after rice is harvested. When heated, the rice husk releases gas that can be used to power electric generators. A small rice husk plant can light up several hundred homes for more than six hours at a time. First implemented in 2009 in Bihar, this project has since been replicated in 60 villages in India. It is, in part, supported by the Indian government

This same biomass gasification method was attempted by the villagers of Uranturai panchayat in Tamil Nadu using locally available wood. When they realised it would lead to extensive deforestation and wasn’t sustainable, they called it off. The village then decided to collectively invest in a windmill. The electricity generated from the windmill directly feeds into the state electricity grid. For supplying this electricity, the village earns Rs 8 lakh per year from the electricity board. This method, known as the feed-in-tariff mechanism, is most popular in Germany.

In Germany, several homes have rooftop solar panels directly linked to the grid. The solar electricity generated automatically feeds into the grid. This removes the need for a back-up battery — one of the drawbacks of the solar energy option. The grid becomes the storage point, and the household turns from consumer to producer of electricity. An attached meter records the units consumed and produced. Tariff or income is calculated on the difference.

Back in India, several hundred kilometres from Mumbai, a man is shot dead in police firing in Jaitapur in Maharashtra — one of India’s top 10 biodiversity hotspots. Local protests against the proposed nuclear power plant there are quelled with lathi charges and villagers arrested for murder, to push through a 9,900 MW power project. Further east, in Andhra Pradesh’s Srikakulam district, another four people are killed in police firing while protesting proposed thermal power plants planned on wetlands. (See report on page 38)

The story of two Indias is repeated so often, it has become a tired cliché, and yet in every policy debate, in every national riddle, when you look for the core issue, it is the same story that floats up through the layers: the story of the India that gains at the cost of the India that loses.

The people’s anger in Jaitapur and Srikakulam captures India’s energy riddle: how to provide affordable electricity to a country of 1 billion in a sustainable, environment-friendly way? Every form of energy generation brings opposition. Hydro projects have adverse impacts on ecology and affect the livelihoods of people living downstream. Thermal projects bring high carbon emissions, the health hazards of fly-ash, the downsides of coal mines and, when located on coastlines, the damage of hot water released into the oceans. Wind energy on a large scale requires vast tracts of land. Biofuels mean diversion of land use from food crops to fuel crops. Solar power does not seem to have the necessary upscale. And Fukushima is terrifying proof of the vulnerabilities of nuclear power. Which direction should India move then?

The grassroot experiments traced above are hopeful signposts, marking possible routes to the dream of complete rural electrification. But are these innovations capable of generating enough power for the high energy needs of urban lifestyles, manufacturing units and big industry? What about the unfulfilled aspirations of those who have not? Can one legitimately deny rural India the luxuries of air-conditioning and 24-hour electricity the rest of India enjoys?

‘India’s power sector is a leaking bucket; the holes deliberately crafted by stakeholders that control the system,’ said Deepak Parekh

But who will bear the price for it? Urban India rages when there are power cuts. Rural India rages when plants are built on its back. No Indian would say no to electricity. But each one would say: Don’t generate it in my backyard!

So what really is the heart of the matter?


Nuclear Power

of the power generated right now is nuclear energy, which will go up to 5% by 2032, according to the Planning Commission.

Rs 20 cr/MW
is the cost of an Evolutionary Pressurised Reactor (EPR) as opposed to Rs. 8 crore for an Indian Pressurised Heavy Water Reactor (PHWR).

10,000 MW
generation can be supported by India’s uranium reserves. To achieve 2.75 lakh MW of nuclear power by 2052, India will need to import uraniumthorium heavily.

reactors in China are being reviewed post Fukushima. Germany has temporarily shut down 7 reactors.


More investment. More jobs. FDI. Mega dams. Mining. Thermal plants. Hydro-projects. Nuclear power. And now, the world’s largest nuclear park. All of this is meant to create a more developed India. Meant to sustain an 8 percent growth rate. Meant to widen the net of the middle class. Meant to lift the masses out of poverty.

Why are the people of Jaitapur and Srikakulam angry then? Sixty years ago, India had 1,000 MW of power. Today we have 170 times that. Yet every major power project in the country is ridden with conflict. It is the masses who are opposing them.

What lessons should the government draw from this?

Too often, the opposition to power plants is read as an opposition to development. Those who question such projects are bracketed as ‘anti-growth’, while its ardent supporters are bracketed as ‘anti-people’. To solve this riddle, perhaps it is time to sift through the real issues. The first lesson is, often the opposition to power projects is not necessarily to the projects themselves but the manner in which they are bulldozed onto people and the manner in which their benefits are allocated. The costs are borne in another backyard, but the benefits only trickle out. Trickle up.

Too often, power projects are sanctioned in the name of the poor but the power generated never reaches them. Land is seized unfairly; the compensation is insufficient; environmental impact assessments are fudged; health hazards are not mitigated; the best technology is not used; honest costbenefit analyses are not done; and the access to benefits is unfairly skewed. At the core of India’s energy riddle then is the absence of best practices: the absence of trust.

Of course, there are other issues. The absence of efficiency. The challenge of determining real demands. The challenge of asking, is it possible to re-train consumer needs? How is one to bridge the gap between rural India’s search for basic light and a fan and Mukesh Ambani’s monthly electricity bill of Rs. 70.69 lakh? How is one to find the middle point that is sustainable? How is one to find the balance?

ELECTRICITY FOR All’. That was India’s stated objective in its National Electricity Policy 2005.

Six years later, 400 million households do not have electricity supply. India’s flagship rural electrification programme — the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna (RGGVY) — instituted to bring free electricity connections to all BPL families, has not met any of its targets.

A 2009 Parliamentary Committee on RGGVY said: “The Committee is deeply concerned to note that the Ministry of Power has lost sight of its target of 100 percent rural electrification due to unrealistic planning and poor implementation.”

Meanwhile, according to research by Bharat Jhunjhunwala, former IIM Bangalore professor and author of The Economics of Hydropower, we require only 2 percent of our present electricity generation to provide lifeline consumption of power to unelectrified villages. According to RGGVY, 30 units per month are enough to meet the energy needs of a village household. “Going by that rate, we need 1.2 billion units per month. We are currently producing 67 billion units per month,” says Jhunjhunwala.

Clearly, efficiency is a major hurdle to achieving our energy goals. India’s current installed power capacity is 1,73,626 MW, with the Central government providing 31 percent of the share, the private sector 21 percent and the rest coming from the states. The Ministry of Power estimates that in order to sustain an 8 percent growth rate, India needs 4,45,000 MW by 2021-22.


Thermal Power

thermal plants are proposed to come up in a 15-km radius In Nellore.

4.5 lakh
tonnes of coal would be guzzled every day by 24 plants. 1.25 lakh tonnes of ash would be turned out daily.

40 years
is how long coal reserves in India will last, according to the Integrated Energy Policy.

the projected share that renewable sources will have in the energy pie in 2031-32.[/box]

According to a survey by the Central Electricity Authority of India (CEA), we are consuming 8,04,000 giga watt hours of electricity. Their forecast: we will consume 9,68,659 giga watt hours in 2011-2012. “That means a jump of 10 percent every year,” says Jhunjhunwala. “This is highly exaggerated.”

Other policy experts agree. “We don’t require conventional power plants in these numbers,” says energy policy analyst Shankar Sharma. “Improving our existing system and fixing the leaks can alone give us 30-40 percent more power. We can continue without adding a single megawatt.”

According to the CEA, India’s current energy deficit stands at 13 percent while the losses due to transmission and distribution leaks are 28 percent. The worldwide standard is 10 percent. In a September 2004 statement, Deepak S Parekh, Chairman, Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation, said: “India’s power sector is a leaking bucket; the holes deliberately crafted by various stakeholders that control the system. The logical thing to do would be to fix the bucket rather than to persistently emphasise shortages of power and forever make exaggerated estimates of future demand. Most initiatives in the power sector are nothing but ways of pouring more water into the bucket so that consistency and quantity of leaks are assured.”

The inevitable question then: If India still needs to generate more electricity, how big a bucket of energy does the country really need? And how should one go about scaling up to the perfect size?

THE NUCLEAR debate is the most recent flashpoint in this power riddle. At the centre of this debate is the proposed 9,900 MW nuclear park at Jaitapur, which is facing stiff opposition from locals (See ground report on page 33). Displacement, compensation, rehabilitation, destruction of marine ecology, loss of local livelihoods, fear of the unknown — these causes of unrest mirror the problems of any large development project in India. But the Jaitapur debate also has a larger implication: Is India ready for nuclear energy?

There are currently 20 operative nuclear reactors in India; 2.5 percent of India’s electricity comes from nuclear power. According to the Planning Commission, nuclear energy will make up 5 percent of India’s power grid by 2032. While India’s uranium reserves can currently support 10,000 MW, India plans to have 2,75,000 MW of nuclear power by 2052. This will mean dependence on uranium imports.

Jaitapur, in a sense, embodies all the vexed questions around nuclear power. It is India’s first mega project after the Indo-US nuclear deal was signed and India came out of the nuclear apartheid imposed on it post-Pokhran II. Jaitapur, therefore, is not only about electricity or nuclear power. It allows India to import technology and uranium from France. It is of strategic and diplomatic significance, it is what Prime Minister Manmohan Singh risked his government on: securing India a place in the new world order.

But that place is fraught with both high costs and high risks. Of the six nuclear reactors proposed in Jaitapur, two will be Evolutionary Pressurised Water Reactors (EPRs) supplied by Areva, a state-owned French company. The trouble is, there are only four EPR reactors in the world — all of them in different stages of construction. One in France, one in Finland, two in China. Detractors point out, therefore, that EPR reactors are untested.

While Fukushima triggered intense concern across the world, the Indian N-establishment is assuring the public that nothing can go wrong

Luc Oursel, Areva’s Chief Operating Officer, counters this. “This reactor has been developed after consolidating experience from our reactors all over the world. It was designed after decades of feedback from more than 100 nuclear power plants and incorporates lessons learned from previous accidents, including Chernobyl. It can even withstand a large airplane crash. The EPR reactor would have withstood the Japan tsunami. The energy supply wouldn’t have stopped in an EPR reactor. There are four emergency diesel generators. Each of them individually can supply the amount of power required. But each generator is backed by another two. In total, there are six generators to produce the power needed to keep the plant safe in case of an emergency.”

The question is, how long can the power back-up last? It was a power back-up failure that triggered the disaster in Fukushima.

THERE ARE other challenges. A train journey from Paris and a bus ride through rural Normandy gets you to Flamanville 3 —Areva’s EPR site under construction in France. This reactor was to be completed by 2012; the new deadline is 2014. Its costs have risen from 3.3 billion to 5 billion euro.

To build the EPR plant in Flamanville, 2 lakh cubic metres of sea water was drained out; 7 lakh tonnes of rock extracted. 300 mine blastings occurred. The site has 3,000 tonnes of structural steel. Some of this will be replicated in Jaitapur. But there are other best practices that may not.

Two years before construction began in 2006, EDF—the builder company — approached the French Public Debate Commission, an independent authority. Over four months, 21 public debates were held across France to discuss the Flamanville 3 project. Even after the construction is underway, a local information commission in the area continues to meet to discuss public issues that may arise from the plant.

2% of our current power generation of 67 billion units would suffice for lifeline electricity consumption in unelectrified villages, according to former IIM Bangalore Professor Bharat Jhunjhunwala.

“We faced no resistance from the public. The land was bought at market rates. The government did not play a role in the acquisition, but the government’s go-ahead to build allowed EDF to buy land. It is an obligation to have a real debate and inform the people. There is no way but transparency and debate,” an EDF spokesperson told TEHELKA.

Oddly, it was the environmental impacts of thermal and hydro power, the climate change conversation, which gave a boost to the nuclear programme. The Fukushima disaster has put that under serious question. Post Fukushima, voices against nuclear energy have amplified. Many nations have called for subjecting their nuclear plants to special “stress tests”. Germany has temporarily shut down seven reactors, China has put 77 on hold. Even France has called 58 reactors to be subjected to tests. Before Fukushima, there were plans to have 750 reactors operational in the world by 2030. Now, at least half may not take off. Germany has declared that by 2050, 80 percent of its energy will come from renewable sources. Italy already has a moratorium on nuclear power. While George Bush created conditions for the renewal of USA’s nuclear programme, and there are at present 23 licenses pending, there’s been no new reactor in the USA since 1973.

MEANWHILE, NUCLEAR regulatory bodies in the European Union are trying to coordinate a European Specific standard. “We need a system where everybody obeys the same rules enforced by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Regulation will be the main discussion at the G20 summit. The aim is to have a pact that will apply to all G20 countries,” said sources in the French government.

28% of electricity is lost due to transmission and distribution leaks, compared to 10% globally. One of the biggest challenges for India’s power sector is efficiency.

But, while there seems to be intense concern world over, the nuclear establishment in India has remained largely unaffected. Even after the third explosion at Fukushima, Sreekumar Banerjee, secretary, Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) declared the crisis in Japan “was purely a chemical reaction and not a nuclear emergency.” Shockingly, Nuclear Power Corporation chairman SK Jain went a step further in his assurances: “There is no nuclear accident or incident. It is a well-planned emergency preparedness programme which the nuclear operators are carrying out.”

AFTER FUKUSHIMA, France’s nuclear safety regulatory body, ASN has created a call centre to address public questions and is doing daily press briefings. “We have lessons to learn. It will be a long process. It could take years just to get a precise understanding of what happened n Fukushima,” said a top ASN official. “We will review the robustness of all our current installations. We are not saying that an accident is not possible in France.” (Contrast this with our scientists who have been assuring the Indian public that it is impossible that Jaitapur will ever face a high intensity earthquake.)

Instruments of state An injured cop after the clashes in Sompeta
Instruments of state An injured cop after the clashes in Sompeta
Photo: Basheer

ASN carries out 2,000 inspections a year and reports to several international agencies. It spends 39 million euros on personnel costs, 80 million on technical expertise. Asked about any disaster in France, sources at ASN admitted that on an average 10-20 workers per year are exposed to radiation limits above the permissible 20 mm threshold.

In contrast, the atomic energy establishment in India operates under a cloud of secrecy. The Atomic Energy Act of 1962 gives the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) powers to not report to the Parliament. At present, almost all nuclear expertise in the country is concentrated within the DAE. The apex policy-making body in nuclear matters in India is the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The chairman of AEC is also a DAE secretary.

Most ironically, ASN’s counterpart in India – the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) — also reports to DAE, the very body it is supposed to regulate. A Gopalakrishnan, its former chairman, has publicly referred to the AERB as a lapdog of the PMO and the DAE, questioning its ability to operate independently.

“The lack of oversight and overview and the independence given to DAE certainly has to be corrected,” says R Rajaraman, Professor Emeritus of Physics at JNU. “Secrecy and lack of transparency has to be changed. So far they have been making bombs and reactors. Now that the Indo-US Nuclear Deal has separated the civil programme from the military one, there is no need for civil to be secretive.”

Perhaps that is why with opposition to Jaitapur mounting, in a joint press conference on April 26, Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan and Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh announced the formation of a new independent nuclear safety authority. While details of the body will become clear in the coming weeks, there are already doubts.

“One of the problems is that there is very little expertise outside the DAE. Whereas in the other countries, even universities have departments of nuclear energy, there is no such thing in India. When you are going to make a new regulatory body politically independent, that is a good thing, but where will the experts come from? They will all be retired personnel from DAE, part of the same biradari,” says Rajaraman.

Perhaps most worrying of all the downsides though is that, as sources in the nuclear industry in France admitted to Tehelka, there is as yet no long-term sustainable solution on what to do with radioactive waste. Even in a country like France which depends on nuclear power for 80 percent of its electricity, research is underway. Areva told Tehelka that 96 percent of its used fuel is recycled, but a research programme is underway to find solutions for the final disposal underground of the remaining 4 percent radioactive waste. That final disposal would be at about 500 metres below ground. For the time being, however, the hazardous waste of all French nuclear plants are temporarily stored at the Areva plant at La Hague, 20 km from the city of Cherbourg in Normandy, which has 80,000 inhabitants and is surrounded by several villages.

While radioactive waste is currently stored in containers on site in India, Jaitapur will perhaps be India’s first experiment with storing waste underground in lead containers. Any leak could contaminate ground water.

“But none of these are new issues,” says Rajaraman. “Whether to go for nuclear energy or not depends on how much energy you need and how good the other mechanisms are. If it is possible to meet energy needs without this, we should. But my understanding is that even if India uses all the current options at its disposal – coal, hydro and renewables – we will still have a shortfall. In that sense, nuclear power is a necessary technology. Who is to say what is evil? We live in a complicated world. We’re doing all sorts of things to have the lifestyle we do.”

Which brings us full circle back to the original riddle: Yes, we all want electricity. But not generated in our backyard!

Perhaps the first step to unravelling this will be for governments and corporations to insist on the very best practices possible – on humanitarian, environmental and technological grounds.

Tusha Mittal is a Principal Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]


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