Burning twigs can't secure energy needs of 1.2b

If India has to attain a 9 to 10 per cent growth of the economy, the management of the energy sector and its evolution in the coming future would need immediate attention by the country's leadership.

The Government of India was host to the Clean Energy Ministerial held in New Delhi on April 17 and 18. This global forum focuses on actions by which the entire energy cycle can be made cleaner and with reduced emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in particular. The energy sector requires a major transformation in technology, which would also involve changes in infrastructure as well as the mix of energy supply in the future. It is obvious that if India has to attain a 9 to 10 per cent growth of the economy, the management of the energy sector and its evolution in the coming future would need attention by the country's leadership and every section of society.

Much attention is being provided by the public and the media to the problem of coal supply for the power sector, and according to recent reports much of the capacity installed for power generation, which in any case is inadequate, would be unable to deliver because of the problems in the supply of coal. At the same time, the streets of several cities and highways connecting them are suffering from growing congestion and traffic delays as the number of private vehicles increases and the share of public transport in the total movement of goods and passengers continues to decline. These are, of course, symptoms of a much larger problem, which is compounded by the fact that almost 400 million people in the country are still without access to electricity, and around twice that number still depends on biomass, often of very poor quality, to meet their cooking needs. About 800 million Indians depend on biomass for cooking.

Dealing with the twin challenge of ensuring adequate supply of energy to meet the basic needs of the 1.2 billion people of India and to fuel economic growth at a satisfactory level requires a long-term vision and a policy framework that would bring about efficient use of resources. Power plants, for instance, have a long gestation period, and measures for the adequate supply of fuel to produce electricity often longer. At the same time, the growing energy dependence of the transport sector, in particular on petroleum products, is added to by the growth of captive power generation, using diesel oil and other petroleum products. This adds to the challenge of planning effectively for the supply of energy in a growing economy like that of India.

If we look at the future, the problem of energy security acquires growing importance, and raises some alarm. With rigorous modelling carried out by TERI, it has been found that if we continue with business as usual, by 2031 India would need to import about 1,200 million tonnes of oil equivalent of coal. This would be a staggering volume, which would require matching growth of port capacity as well as inland transportation, assuming that India would be able to purchase this quantity in the international market. In the case of oil, the demand in 2031 would be over 750 million tonnes. Hence, based on reasonable projections of indigenous production in 2031, India would be importing 90 per cent of its oil consumption. There is every reason to believe that India's consumption would influence coal as well as oil prices in the international market appreciably with these quantities of imports. That would make the Indian economy even more vulnerable to global developments, particularly with sudden price increases. There is, of course, the accompanying problem of energy security for the poor, because with a large number of people having no access to modern forms of energy as mentioned above, we would certainly not be creating conditions for secure livelihoods for a large number of our citizens. The country, therefore, needs to address the issue of energy security by exercising a long-term vision, and investing on a timely basis on research and development by which new technology can be developed and disseminated on a large scale.

One segment of the energy sector which acquires high priority is in the field of renewable energy production and supply. India is one of the countries in the world which receives the largest flow of solar energy incident on its land area. We also have substantial wind energy potential. In addition, India produces large quantities of agricultural waste which makes biomass an attractive option for conversion to modern fuels both through gasification on a decentralised basis, and possible conversion to liquid fuels on a diverse scale through technologies that are being worked on across the world, though not adequately in India.

In the case of solar energy, the Jawaharlal Nehru Solar Energy Mission, which is a part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change, has made a good beginning, but needs ambitious translation of plans into practice expeditiously. A policy framework also needs to be developed by which financing, inflow of technology and creation of domestic capacity can help achieve existing targets and preferably even exceed them substantially.