According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world will need almost 60 percent more energy by 2030 than what it had consumed three decades ago, and fossil fuels are expected to meet most of our energy needs. We depend on oil for 90 percent of our transport, food, pharmaceuticals, chemicals and the entire bedrock of modern life. But oil industry experts estimate that current reserves will only last for about 40 years and will become very expensive. No wonder, recently a barrel of crude oil had hit a price of around US$145.
While pessimists predict production will start declining within 15 years, the optimists say we won't have to worry for a century, though rising prices are likely to push us towards alternative energy sources anyway. Gas, often a suitable replacement for oil, won't last indefinitely either. There's plenty of coal, but it's still usually hard to use without causing high pollution.
If everyone in developing countries like India used the same amount of energy as the average consumer in high-income countries, the developing world's energy use would increase more than eightfold by 2050. In the last decade, US oil use has increased by almost 2.7 million barrels a day -- more oil than India and Pakistan use daily altogether.
Not everyone depends on the fossil trio, though. Nearly a third of today's world population has no electricity or other modern energy supplies, and another two thirds have only limited access. About 2.5 billion people have only wood or other biomass for energy -- often bad for the environment, almost always bad for their health.
Where our energy comes from is a very important question as energy sources are often long distances from the point of consumption. There is plenty of coal, but it can cause major pollution. Centralized energy generation and distribution systems are fairly new. A couple of centuries ago virtually everyone would have depended on the fuel they could find within a short distance of home. Now, the energy for our fuel, heat and light travel vast distances to reach us, sometimes crossing not only continents but political and cultural watersheds on the way. These distances create a whole host of challenges, from oil-related political instability to the environmental risks of long-distance pipelines.
But even if we could somehow indefinitely conjure up enough energy for everyone who wants it, without risking conflict and mayhem in bringing it back home, there would still be an enormous problem: how to use the energy without causing unacceptably high levels of damage to the natural world.
A Case Study -- India
The energy scenario in India is a complex mixture of a variety of energy sources being utilized to meet a variety of needs in urban and rural areas. Though the use of conventional energy sources is expected to continue increasing steadily, there are several constraints, like a quantum of proven reserves of coal, quality of product, transportation bottlenecks and environmental degradation.
According to the Government of India's official sources, as on July 31, 2008, the country has an overall installed capacity of 145,587.97 MW consisting of 64.6 percent of thermal power (i.e., 77,198.88 MW of coal, 14,716.01 MW of gas, and 1,199.75 MW of diesel); 2.9 percent of nuclear (4,120 MW); 24.7 percent of Hydel (36,158.76 MW) and 7.7 percent of renewable energy sources (12,194.57 MW). The overall power generation during 2007-08 stood at 704.45 billion units (BU) or over 135,000 MW. India has more than 144 million consumers of electricity. The country's energy transmission and distribution are handled by 13 State Electricity Boards (SEBs); six State Electricity Departments (SEDs); 36 State distribution companies plus seven private distribution companies.
Up to March 31, 2008, more than 488,353 (out of total 593,732) villages have been electrified. There are 105,379 villages yet to be electrified.
India's power deficit is over 14 percent from an average energy shortfall of 9 percent during non-peak hours. It varies from state to state and the more industrialized you are, the higher the demand.
India's per capita commercial energy consumption is less than a tenth of the world average. However, within this low average figure, there is a vast disparity between the urban areas, which consume 80 percent of the total energy use with only 20 percent of the population, whereas the rural areas, which have 80 percent of the population, consume only 20 percent of the total energy.
India must harness renewable energy in mass scale
India is well endowed with renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, ocean, and biomass. Being a tropical country, it receives sunshine of about 1,648 to 2,108 kWh/sq. meters per annum in nearly 250 to 300 days. The daily solar energy incidence is between 5 and 7 kWh/sq. meter at different parts of the country. The solar energy received by the total land of India is around 19 trillion kWh/day, which is about 2.2 million tonnes of coal equivalent or 1.52 million tonnes of oil equivalent.
Although there is a huge potential for harvesting more than 84,776 MW through renewable energy sources, so far India could harness only 11,272.13 MW, consisting of 605.80 MW of biopower (agro residues and plantations), 7,844.52 MW of wind, 2,045.61 MW of small hydro projects, 719.83 MW of cogeneration (Bagasse), 55.25 MW of waste-to-energy generation, and 2.12 MW of solar power.
People should realize that a day passed without harnessing the potential of wind, solar, hydro and ocean is loss of energy forever, because, like time, these energy losses can never be recovered.
In 2007, of the estimated 80,000 MW added in renewable energy worldwide, China added 69 percent, with the U.S. coming in a poor second at 4 percent, and India just 2 percent.
The bearable cost of energy, the availability of energy, and the quality of energy are the keys for greater economic growth. India's economy is growing fast, nearing a double-digit growth rate. To fuel this growth, more commercial-use electricity is needed in addition to meeting residential demand. India has supply shortages in both residential and commercial electricity, including peak time supply.
Solar electricity may help fill India's demand-and-supply gap to some extent, especially in peak time demand. Many of India's remote villages are not connected with electricity grid, and solar offers a solution for this, along with other local small-scale renewable electricity generation technologies.
The government of India has recently announced subsidy plans of US$750/KW for installed capacity of residential or commercial use, with a maximum of US$1,250/household. For community and institutional use the subsidy is higher, at US$1,250/KW. The government has also announced feed-in-tariffs of up to US$0.30 per unit (KWh). This is up to 75 percent of the generation costs of PV (photovoltaic), which range between US$0.38 to US$0.75 per unit.
India has abundant solar resources, receiving about 3,000 hours of sunshine every year, and has a potential of about 20 MW/sq.km., according to energy researcher Shirish Garud at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), based in New Delhi. However, the high price of PV electricity remains an issue. He adds that with higher volumes and economies of scale the prices are expected to come down as the market expands in the next few years.
PV offers many potential applications in India. The telecom industry has used it to power relay systems and telephone exchanges in rural areas. Railways have used it for remote applications, signaling and for operating unmanned gates.
Use in telecom towers is another potential application. Dr. Bharat Bhargava, a Director in India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), said that in India, "Solar makes possible stand-alone, distributed and decentralized electricity available to rural, remote, difficult areas and unmanned applications. The rule of thumb today is that where reliability and unmanned operation are important -- for example, telecom, etc . -- solar offers the best solutions."
With the flexibility of PV in generating electricity from milliwatt to megawatt, it offers a wide range of applications. Solar lamps and other consumer applications of PV are a large potential market in India, especially in underpowered rural areas and high-tech uses like personal and business computing.
"India has the capability to provide global leadership in the area of developing renewable energy technology," noted former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Peace Laureate Al Gore had said while inaugurating the India chapter of The Climate Project, a U.S.-based non-profit organization that supports the former vice president's efforts in promoting climate change activism globally. "India has proven its capability in sectors like information technology and can be a leader in the world in developing new renewable technologies to combat climate change," he added.
Recognition of renewable energy as a sustainable energy
In India, the importance of the role of renewable energy in the transition to a sustainable energy base was recognized as early as the 1970s. At the government level, political commitment to renewable energy manifested itself in the establishment of the Department of Non-Conventional Energy Sources in 1982, which was subsequently upgraded in 1992 to a full-fledged Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources (MNES), and then rechristened in October 2006 as the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE).
During the past 25 years, the renewable energy program in India has evolved in three distinctive stages. In the first stage, from about the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the thrust of the national effort in this field was directed towards capacity building and R&D, largely in national laboratories and educational institutions. The second stage, from early 1980s to the end of the decade, witnessed a major expansion with accent on large-scale demonstration and subsidy-driven extension activities.
The extension programs generated a vast network of institutions and non-government organizations, right down to the level of self-employed workers and organizations at the grassroots levels. In the third and current stage, extending from the beginning of the last decade, the emphasis has been more on application of mature technologies for power generation, based on wind, small hydro, biogas cogeneration and other biomass systems, as well as for industrial applications of solar and other forms of energy.
There has also been a gradual shift from the subsidy-driven mode to commercially driven activity in the area. Since 2006-07, new impetus has been given to research and development of cutting-edge new and renewable energy technologies such as next generation solar technologies, hydrogen and fuel cells, and biofuels.
Renewable energy applications have brought about significant changes in the Indian energy scenario. Apart from electricity generation, which has now started contributing significantly in the national electricity mix, the application of these technologies has benefited millions of rural folk by meeting their cooking and other energy requirements in an environmentally benign way.
The social and economic benefits include reduction in drudgery among rural women and girls engaged in the collection of fuel wood from long distances and cooking in smoky kitchens, minimization of the risks of contracting lung and eye ailments, reduction in deforestation, employment generation at village level, and ultimately the improvement in the standard of living and creation of opportunity for economic activities at village level.
India has been pursuing a threefold strategy for promotion of renewables:
- Providing budgetary support for research, development and demonstration of technologies;
- Facilitating institutional finance through various financial institutions; and
- Promoting private investment through fiscal incentives, tax holidays, depreciation allowance and remunerative returns for power fed into the grid.
The Indian renewable energy program is primarily private-sector driven. It offers significant investment and business opportunities. A large domestic manufacturing base has been established in the country for renewable energy systems and products. Companies investing in these technologies are eligible for fiscal incentives, tax holidays and depreciation allowance apart from the remunerative returns for power fed into the grid.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that the renewable policy design should reflect the following five key principles:
Nuclear power from the killer atoms
- The removal of non-economic barriers, such as administrative hurdles, obstacles to grid access, poor electricity market design, lack of information and training, and the tackling of social acceptance issues ("not in my backyard" - NIMBY), with a view to overcome them -- in order to improve market and policy functioning;
- The need for a predictable and transparent support framework to attract investments;
- The introduction of transitional incentives, decreasing over time, to foster and monitor technological innovation and move technologies quickly towards market competitiveness;
- The development and implementation of appropriate incentives guaranteeing a specific level of support to different technologies based on their degree of technology maturity, in order to exploit the significant potential of the large basket of renewable energy technologies over time; and
- The due consideration of the impact of large-scale penetration of renewable energy technologies on the overall energy system, especially in liberalized energy markets, with regard to overall cost efficiency and system reliability.
Nuclear power was the technology of the future in the 1950s. Half a century later, the promise of energy "too cheap to meter" remains an unfulfilled dream, the fundamental problems of catastrophic risk and long-lasting, highly radioactive waste still unsolved. With nuclear power construction grinding to a halt in wealthier countries, the industry has turned its sights to Asia, trying to sell its technology as a climate-friendly solution to the continent's burgeoning energy demand. However, nuclear power cannot play a significant role in solving the energy needs of the vast majority of India's population, much less do so in a way that offers any net environmental gains.
Nuclear plants today generate less than three percent of India's electricity and less than one percent of its total energy needs. Even under the most optimistic scenarios nuclear power will only be able to double or triple its contribution by the middle of this century. Investing the immense capital needed to construct nuclear plants in energy efficiency measures, instead, offers far larger payoffs for reductions of carbon emissions. Nuclear power, the most expensive form of centralized electricity generation, is an inefficient way to deliver energy to India's vast unserved rural population.
The single most pressing "security" issue of the 21st century will be assuring the essentials of a healthy, dignified life for the billions of people who are left out of a global economy focused on delivering mass consumption items to urban middle classes, luxuries to wealthy elites, and weapons to enforce this inequitable status quo. In the rising global awareness of both global warming and limits on oil supplies, there is an opportunity for a different path of both technology development and trade. This path would stress decentralized energy strategies and technologies, first to serve the basic needs of unserved populations, moving as quickly as possible to the use of renewable energy sources rather than fossil fuels. This approach to energy development has other positive consequences as well, e.g., improving public health by reducing open fuel burning for cooking and heat, slowing deforestation where wood is used for fuel, and creating large numbers of jobs broadly distributed geographically and in skill levels, from technology development through manufacturing to widely distributed work installing equipment for decentralized energy generation and use.
Mass production of renewable energy generation equipment and developing the technologies will both reduce their cost and encourage further innovation, providing growing opportunities for reducing the energy crunch in India.
The new advocates of wind energy are businessmen who make "money" from the "barren lands" and the "blowing wind". It is economics that will bring about the age of wind energy, an age long deferred but now about to dawn on our dwindling fossil-fuel economy. As well, the people who did not turn to using the sun and the wind because they appeared to be merely an elegant idea will do so when they see a house down the street that draws its heat, cooling, and hot water from the sun, or a wind farmthat powers a tiny village. Very soon they may opt for electricity from such tax-free, silent, abundant, non-polluting, shock free, smokeless and safe natural resources.
To conclude, it is quite obvious that by the middle of this century, the possibility of large-scale use of solar energy as a principal power source will cease to be regarded as a Utopian fantasy. Now, as never before, solar energy is an idea whose time has come.