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The power to choose

By Darryl D'Monte

During the Copenhagen summit, a seminar on renewable energies was held on the island of Samsoe, entirely powered by windmills and waste-to-energy plants. But Samsoe has a population of just 4,000. What will it take to switch a substantial part of India and China to renewable energies?

While much of the wrangling in Copenhagen revolved around specifying cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and deadlines for implementing these, along with funding and technology transfer to developing countries, the underlying issue before all countries -- industrial and developing -- is what energy paths should be followed in the decades to come, if the world wants to avert the catastrophic effects of climate change.

One weekend during the Copenhagen summit, the Washington-based International Centre for Journalists held a ‘Future Energy’ seminar in the idyllic Danish island of Samsoe, all of whose energy needs are met from renewable sources. Samsoe has achieved worldwide fame for being the first such community to go completely green, and now even exports energy to the mainland. The island’s high-tech information centre was a fitting locale for international journalists to be briefed by a spectrum of experts on some of the likely scenarios. 

Inevitably, different forms of energy were promoted by specific interests, making it difficult for the impartial observer to decide on the ‘power to choose’. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), which represents the interests of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation) countries -- the leading industrial nations of the world -- looks to 2050, when industrial countries have agreed that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by half. With business as usual, world energy consumption will rise from 27 giga tonnes (Gt) in 2005 to 62 Gt in 2050. An alternative path would ensure that emissions drop to 14 Gt, a massive reduction of 48 Gt.

Interestingly, energy efficiency can account for a little more than a third of this reduction, the biggest chunk. This is seldom emphasised in India, where losses during transmission and distribution of electricity, for instance, can be as high as 29%. In other words, if India merely tightens up on transmitting power from remote stations and distributing it -- including stopping rampant power theft -- it would obviate the need to set up more power stations and save a tremendous amount of resources. Only belatedly, under the proactive Bureau of Energy Efficiency, headed by Dr Ajay Mathur, all cars and electrical appliances are being rated for their energy consumption, sending a strong signal to consumers.

Renewables can account for one-fifth of the potential reduction. However, it is one thing to power a small island like Samsoe and its 4,000 residents with windmills and waste-to-energy plants, and quite another for giants like India and China to switch in a major way, particularly since developing countries want to industrialise to raise the living standards of their populations. The IEA looks to the controversial technology ‘carbon capture and storage’ (or sequestration), commonly abbreviated to CCS, to account for another 19% reduction in emissions. However, there are only four or five experimental projects in the world; none has so far proved feasible.

Industrial countries, including those with large coal deposits like the US, Australia, and Germany, are interested in promoting this technology so that they can tap huge markets in China and India, among others. The UK, for instance, has raised between £7.2 and £9.5 billion to cover the cost of one to four CCS plants by taxing electricity suppliers. The US has allocated almost $7 billion. The IEA believes that CCS will only work if a price of between $40 and $70 a tonne of carbon is fixed, which provides an incentive to bury this greenhouse gas in the earth. Environmentalists understandably have grave reservations about this method, not least due to the hazards it could pose if there are earthquakes or other disturbances.

Even more problematic, of course, is nuclear power that has got a fresh lease of life with current concerns about climate change. It is considered a ‘clean’ source of energy. India officially lists nuclear among the options it will exercise to embark on a low-carbon energy path.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) in Washington cites IEA and World Bank projections to show the connection between the provision of electricity and prolongation of life, which would appear to make out an irrefutable case for nuclear energy (among other sources). Thus, a Japanese or American can expect to live for a little over 80 years, as compared to 60 in India. The comparative figures for the percentage of people with access to electricity, respectively, are 100% in these two countries versus 58% in India in 2005. By a similar token, the two agencies draw a connection between access to electricity and per capita income.

Last year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “However we look at it, we will not secure the supply of sustainable energy on which the future of the planet depends without a role for civil nuclear power.” Also last year, G8 energy ministers stated: “We note that, in the opinion of a growing number of countries, the use of nuclear power can diversify the energy mix, contribute to energy security while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” And, most pertinently, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the top bureaucrat in this UN department, has stated on record: “I have never seen a credible scenario for reducing emissions that did not include nuclear energy.” Finally, Dr R K Pachauri has endorsed nuclear energy as “the best option to curb carbon emissions”.

In the US, which virtually shut the door on nuclear power after the Three Mile Island incident, there has been a resurgence in the nuclear industry, at least partly to tap the international market with this technology, as the Indo-US nuclear deal underlines. It accounts for a fifth of the electricity generated, and the cost per kWh is far lower than even coal. Its proponents demonstrate how, in 2008, the industry saved emissions equivalent to those generated by 133 million cars. The US government hopes to add 96 giga Watts of new nuclear capacity by 2030, equivalent to 69 new plants and amounting to a third of such capacity.

Globally, there are 436 commercial nuclear power plants in operation, providing 15% of total electricity; 47 plants are under construction. The US is by far the leader, generating 806 billion kWh, followed by France (which has the highest proportion of nuclear energy in its total mix) and Japan. China has the most ambitious programme currently. The NEI cites how six reactors are under construction in India, 23 new reactors are planned, and another 15 proposed with US, French and Russian designs. India is also developing a large prototype fast-breeder reactor. Asked about the Indo-US nuclear deal, Paul Genoa, the NEI’s policy director, noted that it was an outcome of the Indo-US Business Council negotiations and was part of “the US strategic partnership”, where there was synergy between the two countries. “We are doing well by doing good,” he added. “My sense is that we are ready to go with you guys.”

But for all its much-vaunted claims, the nuclear industry remains mired in controversy over safety and its actual lifecycle cost, which would include effective storage of radioactive waste. Once that is factored in fully, the cost will rise appreciably since nuclear waste remains radioactive for hundreds of years. The Indian nuclear industry’s recent and past record doesn’t inspire much confidence in the country’s capability.

What about renewables? Solar power is certainly on the ascendant, with India planning a massive 20,000 MW programme by 2020. According to the US Energy Information Administration, of the world’s total electricity, only 1% was contributed by solar energy, as against 18% by other renewables. Companies like Sunpower in the US see the world market as worth $1 trillion, while global solar power demand will roughly double by 2025. In the same vein as proponents of other forms of energy, protagonists of solar energy claim that it can play a major role in stabilising the climate, along with wind, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectric power.

Spain is easily the market leader, with 2,500 MW, and Germany a little under 2,000 MW -- both way ahead of the others. The industry sees a bright future in rooftop solar photovoltaics, with efficiency around 18%, which it hopes to increase to 24% within five years. Countries like Cyprus in the Mediterranean are going in for it in a big way. However, it is certainly a distant dream in places like India, due to its prohibitive cost. Schemes like TERI’s 1 billion homes being lit by solar lanterns are laudable, but they provide only the barest minimum light. In most Indian urban homes, solar power can become a useful supplement rather than the sole source of energy.

There has been some speculation as to whether huge solar power projects can be installed in the Rajasthan desert, similar to those erected by Spain, where steam is generated to rotate turbines to produce electricity. There is no consensus on which solar technology is most appropriate here -- crystalline silicon, thin film, or solar concentrators, a la Spain.

Given the abundance of coal in India, it will be a long time before solar or wind power can compete with coal-fired power stations in terms of cost. Solar thermal is a more cost-effective option. In industrial applications, for instance, water can be pre-heated before it is converted to steam with conventional energy, resulting in substantial savings.

There are also little-known applications in remote rural locations. One of the reasons for high infant mortality rates is that in north Indian winters, babies are exposed to low temperatures in their cots; premature babies are even more susceptible. The installation of solar heating could help replicate rudimentary incubators in areas with no access to electricity. This is how renewables can literally prove the difference between life and death.

The Danish wind energy company, Vestas, which manufactures a third of all turbines in the world, is, to a large extent, responsible for helping Denmark produce a fifth of its electricity from wind. Today, the US has overtaken Germany in installed capacity to become the leading wind energy nation, followed by Spain, China and India in fifth place. Suzlon, with its aggressive worldwide marketing policies, has contributed substantially to this surge. The industry is looking to offshore wind energy generation, such as is visible off the coast of Samsoe. This takes care of the land required for wind turbines, even as it exploits the most favourable sites for wind. There is also going to be a ‘repowering’ of smaller turbines with larger ones.

Despite attempts by the International Centre for Journalists to find energy experts from developing countries to address the seminar -- someone from TERI dropped out at the last minute -- there was unfortunately no one to put forward a different perspective to that of major industrial countries, institutions and companies. The realities on the ground in most developing countries tell an entirely different story. Around half the people on this planet -- some 3.5 billion -- use biomass as their main source of energy, and 1.5 million of these don’t have access to electricity. How are their energy needs to be met, without, at the same time, contributing to climate change?

There are no easy answers. But if one assesses the primary need for energy in the poorest societies, it is surely a clean and inexpensive source of fuel to cook with. As it is, climate scientists are pointing out how the use of inefficient chulhas in South Asia and China is causing what was originally called the ‘Asian Brown Cloud’. This pall of soot hangs over the Asian continent; when it sits on the Himalayas, it exacerbates global warming and hastens the melting of glaciers. There is therefore an urgent need to replace such means of cooking with improved stoves, to which little or no attention is being paid by global players in the energy market.

Although biogas has been a victim of benign neglect, it could still prove to be a valuable source of cooking energy in rural households, particularly with the use of animal and farm waste. Biogas is now being seen as a technology whose time has passed. One wonders whether this is because there are no multinationals or other influential players in the sector. After all, it still has a role to play as a cheap and decentralised technology until more advanced renewables become affordable to the vast majority of people.

Infochange News & Features, January 2010