Energy and environment in 21st century India

Decentralised small grids hold the key to India’s energy impasse

By Meghna Krishnadas
Published: Tuesday 03 March 2015

Decentralised small grids hold the key to India’s energy impasse


Energy is the crucial currency of the modern era. An indubitable requirement of a growing economy like India, energy is the lifeblood of manufacturing, transport, construction, communication, and mobility. Wars have been fought, countries subjugated, governments overthrown and established to literally fuel global demands for energy.

This post-industrial revolution demand for fossil fuels has strained our planet’s ecological health. The damage caused by burning the vast quantities of carbon-based fuels needed to run our development engines and modern economies is well known now. We are looking at increasing atmospheric temperatures, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns, failing agriculture, drought, floods, and rampaging rivers. Not to mention the health detriments, deteriorating quality of life, and economic costs of pollution from fossil-fuels. Also, fossil fuels are in increasingly short supply.

Compounding the problem is the fact that in many nations including India, energy sources like coal and minerals such as iron, manganese, and aluminum lie under some of the last wilderness areas. Areas that are vital watersheds, carbon sinks, and home to many endangered plants and animals. So, how we decide to plan our resource needs and extract energy from finite sources will be crucial determinants of India’s social, economic, and environmental sustainability.

The rising demand for power associated with simultaneous growth of urban centers and modernising rural areas is placing a huge burden on our coal-based energy sector. While current power plants are creaking under the strain, alternative sources like hydropower or wind seem to have limited scope for large-scale power generation in a country where land is tightly contested. Some "renewable" energy modes also come with attendant environmental and social costs if poorly planned, as has already been witnessed with windmills and small-hydel plants in the Western Ghats. Further, inefficient transmission systems cause massive losses of scarce power.

Part of the answer perhaps lies in decentralised, small-scale energy grids. In decentralised models urban, semi-urban, and rural centers can be designed to have their own grids based on a variety of local power sources. Shorter powerlines can help cut transmission losses. Simultaneously, buildings can be made more energy efficient by changing energy consumption through efficient usage, and integrating solar power generation into building architecture can make rural and urban homes self-sufficient.

To further cut fossil fuel use, smarter cities should be built to have work-residential complexes that reduce daily travel. Improving public transport will encourage a majority of city dwellers to use this travel option, helping decongest roads and decrease pollution. Importantly, developing such cutting-edge infrastructure across the country can provide vast opportunities for governments and businesses to tap into the emerging ‘green economy’ sector.

However, current infrastructure is locked into centralised power generation and distribution of fossil-fuel energy. Decentralised models are not in our national psyche, and for a vast majority of the rural populace the idea of ‘development’ is inextricably linked to a connection with the few big power grids. Outreach and education is going to be a crucial component of changing energy models. In the meantime, our old systems of coal and petroleum extraction and use will have to be systematically overhauled to allow for newer distribution models. Much research and discussion is needed to find alternative sources of large-scale power generation that are safe, reliable, and long-term. Of course, any of this can only work with honest, efficient, inclusive and transparent governance that can adaptively respond to knowledge and information.

In the backdrop of these demands, ecologists and conservation biologists are tasked with the job of emphasising the need to keep aside land for wildlife. Not being land-use specialists, we cannot answer many of the planning conundrums we pose, which sometimes earns us bad rap as anti-development luddites. So, let me try clearing the slate. While saving wilderness and wild species is usually our primary motivation for thinking and talking about larger questions of sustainability, ecologists and conservationists are only one amongst a wider cast of actors that can make this happen. For a country’s development to become sustainable, teams of well-trained experts need to collaborate and reach consensual solutions to best tackle the diverse issues. Engineers, land-use planners, developmental economists, social scientists, architects, and agriculture scientists have to gather at the table, recognize the ripple impacts of decisions taken within their narrow domains and try to find cross-disciplinary solutions to the knotty issues of sustainability.

Perhaps a positive point is that energy is the principal hub that links many aspects of a nation’s development. Which means that a good plan for energy-efficiency can solve many other associated problems that come with economic growth—such as wildlife and environmental concerns. Collective knowledge can help plan a sustainable future for India, but to meet the ambitious sustainability targets of the 12th Five Year Plan between 2012 and 2017, we have to institute appropriate regulatory frameworks for energy use, and respect the instruments and mechanisms needed to enforce them. The systems we create today will determine whether India will use natural resources judiciously and provide future generations a cleaner, healthier, and more productive environment.

Meghna Krishnadas is doing her PhD at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

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