'I don't think future generations will be very happy with our performance'

Michael Jefferson is vice-president of the London-based World Energy Council (WEC), an international association covering all energy forms. Jefferson has co-chaired 2 main commissions of the WEC, the latest one involving more than 500 people. Nine Regional Working Groups, covering the world, provided local experience, pragmatism, and priorities for the future. He has also co-chaired the WEC's Renewable Energy Resources Committee, which published its report New Renewable Energy Resources: A Guide to the Future in July 1994. Jefferson is the director of British Energy Association. He was in New Delhi recently to participate in the International Conference on Energy, organised by the Indian Member Committee of the WEC 1994, a forerunner to the 16th Congress of the World Energy Council to be held in Tokyo in October 1995. KOSHY CHERAIL talked to him on WEC and its work, and developments in the Indian energy sector.

Published: Wednesday 15 February 1995

What are the recommendations from the study, Energy for Tomorrow's World, that are relevant to India?
Energy for Tomorrow's World is a global study, where no particular country has been specified. But 1 of the 9 regional working groups was on South Asia, and the people involved talked confidently about the local realities and priorities.

First, there is tremendous scope for conservation in the developing countries. The high per capita consumption of energy in the industrialised countries misleads one into concluding that the greatest scope for conservation lies there. This raises all sorts of questions about the ways in which people use energy in the industrialised countries. But in developing countries, there is enormous scope for economising on the energy front by availing of the latest fuel-effecient technologies.

In India's case, one looks at 2 or 3 areas. Obviously, first comes power generation. About 400 million people in India use fuelwood and dung instead of electricity. This is highly inefficient, and causes severe localised pollution in residential areas -- and, as a result, some 6 million people die in India yearly from respiratory diseases.

When it comes to the actual availability of electricity, we find that the capacity utilisation is about 10 per cent higher than it was 10 years ago. This is still very low, and only in the order of 60-61 per cent on an average. The plant load factors vary widely; the average is only 31 per cent; and in some eastern states, it is as low as 28 per cent or even less. This compares with the best available coal-fired plants, about 43 per cent in some industrialised countries. So, again there is scope for improvement.

Are there areas of concern besides these which conservation efforts have to focus on?
There is tremendous scope for conservation in the transportation sector. Road transport and the railways are major consummers, and the share of air transport is growing rapidly. With almost 120 people for every private car in India, one can see an enormous expansion of 4-wheeled vehicle usage -- and that will pose local environmental problems, and traffic congestion. Improving the infrastructure may encourage the supply of motor vehicles, which is the beginning of a vicious circle. Even though the ownership of cars is low compared to the advanced countries, you are already facing problems regarding congestion and high levels of emission, with regard to 2- and 3-wheeled vehicles.

These things need to be tackled in an integrated manner, in terms of urban planning systems, traffic control and calming systems. So you have to build a link between rail, road and air systems, taking into consideration settlement patterns which reflect the mobility requirements of the people. Here, India may have things in common with other countries.

The WEC is preparing for the 16th World Energy Congress in Tokyo in October this year. What do you expect will be the main issues of discussion?
The theme of the Tokyo Congress in October is The 21st Century: What will future generations expect of us? This will give us an opportunity to reflect on the past, and ask future generations to look back at us and review what we are now doing. I don't think they will be very happy with our performance.

Saving energy, conserving natural resources to reduce import bills, and using the resources thus freed to supply energy for development purposes -- these are also important issues. They should be the frontrunners in the effort to develop a core agenda, which includes cleaner fossil fuels, and cost-effective renewable forms of energy. Then you can tackle the high-priority local environmental issues, which are the principle concern of developing countries. Issues regarding global climatic change, a major concern of industrialised countries, will also feature substantially.

The ministry of nonconventional energy sources (MNES) of the Indian government has set up an ambitious target for power generation from nonconventional energy sources, and promoting the use of renewable energy to meet the basic requirements in rural areas. Our experience of decentralised systems has not been very encouraging. What would you say is the best way to develop the renewable energy sector?
I am aware of the observations made by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India. The CAG Report of March 1993 for the period 1985-1993 discussed the failure rates of biogas systems, solar photovoltaics (SPV) for street and domestic lighting systems, and solar water heaters.

It is good that the failure rates are pointed out -- 69 per cent for biogas systems, 57 per cent for spv street lighting] for it highlights the problem areas.

Such information should be dealt with independence and objectivity in order to make it a part of the learning process. Mass education about maintenance requirements, and the consequences of failing to meet these requirements, is essential. The authorities have to set up institutional backup required for the smooth running of existing systems.

The MNES also includes in its ambit venturing into frontier areas like solarthermal, geothermal, fuel cells and hydrogen energy. Should a country like India spend its scarce resources in the frontier areas of renewable technologies ?
One should be choosy about technology, and keenly follow the fastest runners, and the ones that can be implemented immediately. Solarthermal is a challenging area. If you observe the overall long-term scenario, then the future for solarthermal is good.

The WEC's report, New Renewable Energy Resources: A Guide to the Future, published in July 1994, holds that while the total renewable energy and modern biomass, and large hydro-electric power are now the 2 main players, after AD 2100, solar power will play the major role. It will account for 50 per cent of the total new renewable energy (NRE), where traditional biomass and large hydroelectric power are excluded.

All this requires substantial technological developments at the global level, particularly in the areas of transmitting and storing energy.

How should a country like India set its priorities in the renewable energy sector?
India should have a balanced approach in a resource scarce situation. One has to make sure that the best available minds and technical resources are applied to these problems. But if the work is not being done in a manner and direction suitable to Indian requirements, then of course national resources should be spent. There is scope for cooperation at the regional level, between developing countries in similar situations, in order to achieve a degree of independence from imports.

Despite the promises made at Rio, the developing countries face many hurdles in obtaining new eco-friendly energy conserving technologies from the developed countries. High cost is a major obstacle and renders them unaffordable. Why is there this antagonism towards development efforts in developing countries?
It is true that for very smallscale technologies, there are a number of international players who readily make available the required equipment at a relatively low cost. But this raises a more fundamental question: to what extent should the real transfer of technology and finance take place to countries that do not have the finance to pay for it. And here one has to be pretty straight, and say that even in the industrialised countries, there are significant pockets of poverty.

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