Bickering scuttles power-saving project

Two non-resident Indians blame inter-organisational rivalry for the rejection of their proposal to use compact fluorescent lamps, which will reduce the load on energy generation.

By Koshy Cherail
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Bickering scuttles power-saving project

Saving power: An upmarket clot (Credit: Pradip Saha / cse)EVERY summer, power cuts torment residents of most Indian cities. However, a report submitted to the Union ministry for power by two non-resident Indian energy economists suggests that while technologies that would put a lesser load on the country's groaning power generation system are already available, animosity among organisations have crippled their utilisation.

A J Gadgil and M A Sastry, of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory of the University of California, have alleged that inter-organisational tensions were responsible for scuttling their attempts to demonstrate the operation of a "household lighting scheme that would have resulted in considerable saving of the electricity consumed by this sector".

The Bombay Efficient Lighting Large-scale Experiment (BELLE) project sought to promote the use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), which employs the same principle as in tubelights, instead of conventional bulbs, in Bombay's residential areas. However, this project did not take off because it failed to obtain crucial foreign exchange assistance from the United States Agency for International Development's Programme for Acceleration of Commercial Energy Research (PACER). BELLE proponents alleged this was because of pressure exerted on the committee set up by PACER to review BELLE.

As CFLs use less than a quarter of the electricity used by conventional bulbs, Gadgil and Sastry had proposed 60-watt lamps be replaced with 15 watt CFLs. These would deliver 900 lumens each, which is about 25 per cent more than that provided by the 60-watt bulb. Moreover, CFLs had an average life of 8,000 hours -- 10 times that of conventional bulbs.
Promotion strategy The researchers set up a consortium of institutions, which developed a strategy to promote the use of "high first-cost, high efficiency, longer lasting" appliances. The consortium included Phillips India Ltd, the Bombay Suburban Electric Supply (BSES) and the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR). Phillips India was to buy CFLs from Phillips Illuminacion in Mexico and supply these to BSES, which would then make them available to consumers on a hire-purchase basis. The lease instalments were to be recovered by BSES along with electricity bills. The IGIDR was to be responsible for the overall design and coordination of the experiment.

BELLE was to offer CFLs on a four-year lease at a monthly charge of Rs 7. This was to cover the cost of the CFL and its installation, including the interest for the lease period. Each CFL was expected to entail a saving of Rs 8.85 per month.

J P Painuly, head of IGIDR's energy division, says the widespread use of CFLs would result in a "reduction in peak demand as this largely corresponds with the duration of the peak residential lighting load". The power thus saved, he says, could be diverted to industrial consumers who can be charged higher rates. Lower peak loads would also mean substantially less investment in power generation equipment, he adds.

Shortlived bonhomie
PACER officials initially went along with the consortium's proposal of using 100,000 CFLs to enable a detailed examination of the project. However, the bonhomie was shortlived. The committees evaluating BELLE included officials of the Union power ministry, public enterprises in the power sector and what Gadgil calls "one private organisation in the energy sector which regarded energy efficiency as its own purview". These bodies, maintain Gadgil and Sastry, saw BELLE as "a threat" to their dominance in energy research. Though their report does not name the organisation, Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI) director R K Pachauri says his organisation "saw to it that BELLE did not get PACER's approval".

Opposition to BELLE resulted in the review committees successively scaling down PACER's promised assistance to the experiment. Within six months of the first review, the number of CFLs to be used were reduced to 22,000. Besides, both government as well as TERI representatives were critical of the fact that only one manufacturer had been selected to participate in the project. "How could a multinational be allowed to be the sole beneficiary of the PACER aid?" Pachauri asks.

While TERI spokesperson B Natarajan claims the organisation was above reproof and had objected to the project on technical grounds, his counterparts at IGIDR believe TERI was more interested in "hijacking" the project. They point to TERI's successful lobbying to get a second manufacturer, Surya Roshni Ltd, admitted into the BELLE consortium. And predictably, once they were members of the consortium, Surya Roshni representatives began to press for TERI's inclusion. To counter this move, the original promoters of BELLE brought in three more manufacturers into the consortium.

Drastic change
The devaluation of the rupee altered the situation dramatically. Unwilling to share the higher tab for CFL imports, all the manufacturers withdrew from the project, except Phillips India, which was willing to put up the additional Rs 28 lakh. However, at this point, just as the BELLE consortium had begun to feel confident it had finally met all PACER's requirements, the review committee rejected the project.

Painuly says BELLE's rejection was based on the erroneous argument that several manufacturers would soon producing CFLs on a commercial basis. A number of public sector representatives on the review committee, therefore, recommended that "initial production (of CFLs) can be taken up in the public sector undertakings and commercial establishments". Painuly asserts this argument "indicated a lack of understanding of the project's objectives, which was to promote energy-efficiency in residential areas". Moreover, he points out, Indian manufacturers' plans to produce CFLs remain on paper.

Pachauri contends "CFLs had not been successfully tried out in any developing country. Even in the developed countries, its use was limited to large commercial establishments." Gadgil, however, points out there was sufficient precedence of successful, controlled experiments using CFLs, of which the review committee members were well aware. "In fact," he asserts, "the relevance of the BELLE approach is indicated by its adoption in several countries where the consumer profile may be rather similar to that of Bombay." In some of these, such as Hungary, Ukraine and Egypt, plans for replication and refinement of the project have been drawn up.

Prohibitive cost
Another point raised by the committee was that the cost of CFLs, which were high even before the devaluation of the rupee, would become prohibitive if the prevailing duty rates were applied. Supporters of BELLE point out that Phillips India had already agreed to bear the additional cost of the project. Pachauri also criticises the CFL technology, but BELLE's supporters dismiss this as a case of mere pique.

Interestingly, J S Gururaja, advisor to the Union ministry of non-conventional energy resources, who also served on the PACER review committee, says, "It was unfortunate the BELLE project failed to take off." In his opinion, the active involvement of electricity companies, appliance manufacturers, and consumers is the key to the success of any scheme that intends to introduce norms of higher efficiency than those currently prevalent.

But such opinions of BELLE are not expressed by those who decided its fate. Union power ministry officials are still reticent about the report on BELLE written by Gadgil and Sastry, claiming to have received it "only two months ago". But a joint secretary, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said, "When we at the power ministry are making our own efforts at energy conservation, it would have been more appropriate for Gadgil to have first put forward the BELLE proposal to the ministry to identify the participants and the beneficiaries." Was it mere pique that killed the BELLE project?

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