It's dark outside the TV grab

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 15 February 2006

In this day of television grabs, policies are about slugfests. The logic of the grab is that any discussion must be heated, with sharply divided positions -- clear proponents and opponents. It is a caricature of the world; in it, for instance, if one is an environmentalist then s/he must be against nuclear energy, even without logic or rationale; the grab allows it so. But let's discuss India's nuclear option, not as an absolute given or the mother of all things evil but as a possible energy source in a growing and starved nation. What does the future hold?

India wants to grow at 8-9 per cent per year. To sustain this, it badly needs energy. The Planning Commission's expert committee on integrated energy policy forecasts that to sustain this growth, the country needs by 2031 a power generation capacity of 778,095 megawatts (mw), increased primary energy supply -- by three to four times -- and increased electricity supply: five to seven times the current consumption. Add to this our overdependance on domestic coal for power generation. The situation becomes grim. The committee estimates that even at 5 per cent increase in production, all known and extractable coal reserves will be exhausted in 40 years. This will then add to the import burden, to the crippling cost of buying petroleum to meet energy needs.

It says even if India uses all options -- from investment in renewables, to improving efficiency and demand side management -- it will still need the nuclear option: "Nuclear theoretically offers India the most potent means to long-term energy security." This when, after a 20-fold increase in nuclear power generation capacity, this source of energy will provide a mere 5-6 per cent of our needs, estimates the expert group.

Now let's dig a bit deeper. Three facets emerge: little energy, unreliable energy and expensive energy. Officially, 85 per cent of households have been electrified in the country. But the government accepts 45 per cent of households remain in the dark. Thus, bad supply and shortage forces farmers, industry and households to buy diesel and become independent generators. This when energy costs in the country are supposedly the highest anywhere, crippling development. Fact is a large number of people in India can't afford energy at current rates. That's why we need to know if nuclear fits the bill.

Energy is a little like water. In the last 60-odd years, even as planners have focussed on large surface irrigation systems, Indian farmers have switched to private and decentralised sources of water: they use groundwater because it is more efficient, cheaper and timely. This source has been privately created (over 19 million wells, according to a recent government census) and supports 60-80 per cent of India's irrigated land. The surface systems, which involve large-scale conveyance of water, much like the energy grid, require large capital investment, roughly Rs 2.5 lakh per hectare of newly irrigated land. It is also inefficient, with 20 per cent of potential unutilised and efficiency at 30-40 per cent, at best. The capital costs and systemic inefficiencies are offloaded to farmers, who cannot pay. The scale of the system is such that the rent collectors cannot collect -- again, much like state electricity agencies that cannot collect from users across regions

The question is: if the demand is decentralised, will distributed supply be more efficient? The world is beginning to understand the force of micropower -- decentralised energy sources, and negawatt -- doing more with less megawatts. The World Alliance for Decentralised Energy (wade), a grouping of industry and researchers, estimates that decentralised resources generated 52 per cent of energy in Denmark, 39 per cent in the Netherlands, 16 per cent in Japan and 14 per cent in China. This includes combined heat and power (co-generation) gas turbines of up to 120 mw, wind and solar photovoltaics, but not other sources like biomass and hydropower.

wade data shows micropower has overtaken nuclear in the global market place. As in fact it has in India, where installed wind energy capacity is more than nuclear energy capacity. This when the nuclear sales force possesses the world's most powerful people, including us president George Bush. Indeed, our own prime minister and his team like to dedicate hours of their energy in securing a nuke-future.

Amory B Lovins, a highly respected energy expert, writes in the magazine Nuclear Engineering International that the most powerful force competing with nuclear may well be the legion of small, fast and simple microgeneration and efficiency projects. Even in the us, central thermal stations are no longer the cheapest or most reliable sources of delivered energy, because generators now cost less than the grid. The cheapest, most reliable power is typically produced near customers. These disaggregated systems, says Lovin, are run by swarms of mighty ants busily re-building the energy security edifice.

But ants, however mighty, need armies of supporters. It is here that I have a quibble with the nuclear grand plan. If money is no consideration, then our energy policy can afford to build nuclear plants with safeguards for waste disposal. More importantly, the actual cost of putting in these safeguards as well as the cost of waste disposal can be crafted into the energy price. But if money is a consideration, this price has to be evaluated for our needs and our pocket. A careful choice has to be made.

This is exactly the point at which an issue such as the nuclear option refuses the tidy simplicity of the television grab. Choices such as these are too momentous to be aired in a polarised fashion. They require a greater attention span. Especially if the discussion includes the inattentive president of the world's most television-addicted nation.

-- Sunita Narain

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