Growth might dry up

GDP growth is not a fool-proof measure against climate change

By Samir Nazareth
Published: Sunday 31 October 2010

Samir NazarethThe cold wave in 2009 that led to the shutting down of Eurorail and flight delays in Europe and the US indicates an inverse relationship between technological advancement and vulnerability to natural elements.

But Indian policymakers, by and large, hold economic growth and technological advancement as panacea to climate change. In this context it is important to evaluate the preparedness of the country’s power sector. Steady power supply is needed to achieve the growth rates that the government hopes will help people attain the economic capacity to adapt to climate change. But high growth rates depend on thermal power that is subject to the vagaries of water supply.

Power generation from conventional fuels like coal and uranium is somewhat similar to boiling water for tea. Such fuels super heat the water to generate steam that runs the turbines. Such technologies also need water to cool down the steam. This poses a problem in summer when there is high demand for both electricity and water. The water a nuclear or coal power plant consumes in summer is already hot, reducing its efficiency to generate power. Coupled with this predicament is the decreasing water level due to evaporation.

So it is not surprising to find newspaper articles with titles such as ‘Power demand shoots up, firms unprepared’ or ‘Water crisis could shut two power plants in the state’.

A sample of statements made by various people in the government indicates the defencelessness of the power sector against the climate: in 2002 Kerala had a power crisis because of lack of rain. In 2008 when Karnataka faced the same problem, the state’s power minister K S Eshwarappa said, “Load shedding (disruption in power supply) is inevitable if rains fail.” The August 5, 2009, Nagpur edition of The Times of India quotes the general manager of Chandrapur Super Power Station S B Kharabe: “We are encountering a major challenge because of lack of rain.”

imageThe 2009 Budget document states: ‘‘The growth in electricity generation by power utilities during 2008-09 at 2.7 per cent fell much short of the targeted 9.1 per cent.” The document blames lack of rain for this crisis.

To be fair, this affliction of the Indian power sector is not a typical developing-country syndrome. In early 2008, the US media was rife with speculation that nuclear power plants in the southeastern part of the country might have to be shut down because of drought. In fact, the 2006 heat wave did shut down a reactor operated by American Electric Power Company in Michigan. The same year, in Europe, a heat wave caused the Santa Maria de Garona reactor in Spain to shut down while French and German reactors had to lower their generation capacities.

More blues

As of December 2009, India’s power capacity was 156,092.23 MW; 99,861.48 MW generated by coal, 36,885.40 MW by hydro, 4,120 MW by nuclear and 15,225.35 MW by renewable energy sources. By 2030 India’s power requirement would be between 800,000 and 950,000 MW which would be met mostly by water-guzzling, non-renewable energy sources.

According to the National Commission for Integrated Water Resources Development of the Central Water Commission, the power sector demand in 2025 could be more than three times what it was in 1998. A recent World Bank report states that 60 per cent of India’s aquifers are likely to dry up in 20 years with current levels of water usage. Adding to this is the fact that rainfall contributes 67 per cent of India’s replenishable groundwater resources. So what we have is the making of a disaster—while aquifers dry, the demand for water will increase and water recharge will be dependent on increasingly unpredictable monsoons.

Samir Nazareth is an independent researcher in Bengaluru

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