India should accelerate renewable energy

Role of energy as a prime mover for socio-economic development of a nation cannot be over emphasised. Indeed, energy is a common thread that runs through all the Millennium Development Goals. In an energy-starved country like India, renewable energy has to be viewed against this backdrop. Its importance also needs to be recognised from the point of view of providing universal energy access. And to emphasise the vital role of energy in all walks of life, the forthcoming Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2014 (DSDS 2014) focuses on 'Attaining Energy, Water and Food Security for All'.

Many a times, renewable energy takes the blame whereas the problem might have been related to components such as electric motors and batteries.

However, for any energy source to be utilised on a large scale, its reliability and affordability become the key parameters. While reliability and affordability of the conventional, fossil fuels has been well proven over long period of time, being new in the game, questions are often raised about renewable energy. Let us examine these two factors, namely, reliability and affordability of renewables, in detail.First, let us take the issue of the reliability. Renewable energy technologies have come a long way from the time when they were more of prototypes than the sophisticated devices that they are today. In a diverse geographical conditions and applications, renewable energy systems have shown their mettle, from Ladakh to Jaisalmer and from solar lighting systems to multi-megawatt capacity wind turbines. For instance, over 19000 MW of wind power spread over very difficult terrains-constantly pumping electricity in to grids-speaks for itself.

Even at the household level, for example, there are not questions anymore about the solar water heating systems. But given the fact that the operation of renewable energy systems depends heavily on local conditions, unlike the conventional energy systems; their design, optimisation, and installation becomes very critical to their reliability. Many a times, renewable energy takes the blame whereas the problem might have been related to 'conventional' components such as electric motors and batteries. The only way of ensuring the reliability of renewable energy systems is to focus on (a) appropriate design, (b) correct installation practices, and (c) proper after-sales service. These in turn call for trained human resources at different levels. In other words, it would be incorrect to question reliability of renewables as a sweeping statement because rather than being a generic issue, there could be a few cases where if probed in detail, the reliability problem can be directly linked to compromise on these crucial aspects.

Let us now take up the affordability aspect, which essentially is very contextual. For instance, it takes a different meaning altogether for a household in a remote village that has never seen an electric light. If viewed through the lens of socio-economic development of rural populace, how will one measure the affordability of electricity being provided through renewable energy resources? Can it be quantified through traditional paradigm? As has been said once, "the true cost of not providing electricity is much more than that of renewable electricity" because one has to factor-in the lost opportunities of education and income generation. One of the subthemes of DSDS 2014, titled 'Ensuring and expanding access to energy, water and food' examines such issues at length.

At another level, while it is true that the first costs of renewable energy systems are high, they work out to be cheaper over their operational lives. So in a sense, the question of affordability becomes more of a question of how to defray that higher, first costs. And that can be addressed by devising easy-to-access financial products on the lines of those that are already been offered for many of the consumer durables. Similarly, the cost of financing of large projects can be brought down substantially by addressing banks' risk perceptions, thereby making the end-products more affordable. In any case, today many services being provided using renewables, like heat or electricity, can compete with those based on conventional fuels. Indeed, today solar electricity is actually cheaper than that from DG sets.

Therefore, what is required actually is to put things in right perspective and then evaluate pros and cons of renewable energy technologies. Moreover, considering that fossil fuels based energy technologies had been perfected over many decades, and have benefitted from the enormous economies of scale, any critique of renewables need to be recompensed appropriately. Given the fact that the developing countries like India need all kinds of clean energy sources to power its inclusive and green growth, accelerated utilisation of renewable energy must be encouraged while finding out ways and means to address constraints in a constructive fashion.