"Some power is better than none"

With the country, reeling under an intensifying power crunch, and various authorities only predicting a darker future, the search for alternative energy sources becomes that much more important. N B AMIN, chairperson of the Gujarat-based Sardar Patel Renewable Energy Research Institute, is championing the cause. Recently, he shared his views with RAJAT BANERJI

Published: Friday 15 March 1996

On the demand and supply equation with respect to the power sector:
The power situation in the country-presents a rather grim picture. This is mainly because of the limited generating capacity which- has resulted in a shortfall of 18-20 per cent in supply. Under the Eighth Five Year Plan, we could barely generate 20,000 megaz watt (mw) as against an estimated 38,000 mw. There is an urgent need to fill this massive gap.

One method of overcoming this shortage is to encourage private investment. But efforts at doing so have been hindered by numerous controversies that have surrounded the agreements with private parties. Moreover, importing technologies and systems for such a venture would escalate the cost per unit, making power generated by private investors much more expensive than that supplied by the state electricity boards. As it is, one has witnessed unprecedented inflationary trends over the past 12-15 years. Privatisation is bound to aggravate the situation.

On how all this would make any difference to consumers if they are prepared to pay higher prices:
The situation in our country is very complex. While consumers like industrialists may meet the escalated costs, the heavily subsidised agricultural sector is our Achilles' heel. This sector alone accounts for about 35-40 per cent of the coun&y-wide demand for power. There should be a public committee to oversee the distribution of power and check the costs levied to ensure parity. Such a practice is followed in many countries where everyone in the commercial sector pays the same rate. Even in our country, if subsidies were to be removed, many problems would be solved. Power subsidies are neither rational nor long-term solutions to the problem. They only fulfil electoral obligations and narrow objectives.

On whether the situation has encouraged sources of renewable energy to step in and play a significant role in solving the problem:
Yes, it is the shortfall in supply that has promoted the development of alternatives. If plans for the future are carefully charted, at least 10 per cent of the shortage can be made-up by sources of renewable energy. Non-conventional energy currently accounts for only 0.9 per cent of our energy outlay. Apart from research and development and aggressive promotion, policy decisions in favour of renewable energy need to be taken. We can develop cheap alternatives but unless the government promotes them, they cannot be made viable even in the rural areas. Disseminating information on alternative sources of energy is almost as vital to the sector as money is. The lack of power must be regarded as a problem as urgently in-need of a solution as our exploding population. Without power, there can be no development.

Till a few years ago, we were complacent about the coal stocks used for feeding thermal power stations. But now, thermal plants have to import coal from Australia. Currently, we import 40 per cent of our oil requirements too. Indications are that our oil imports would rise even more after AD 2005 when our -reserves would further deplete. Besides, we do not seem to be identifying fresh reserves of any significance.

On the possible role that sources of renewable energy could play in rural areas:
Even though conventional sources of energy may not be well suited to meet the demands of industry, their use in rural areas must be prioritised. This is mainly because we do not generate the required amount of energy to develop the interiors. Subsidies for smokeless chullahs and solar cookers have already been provided. These concepts can gain currency very easily in rural areas. Similarly, we possess the know-how to develop biogas and other similar systems for use in rural India. Therefore, the scope of using renewable energy in villages is immense.

On the availability of adequate technology to aggressively promote the use of renewable energy:
If we are importing technologies for conventionza power generation, why cannot we do the same for generating non-conventional energy? These are commercially viable technologies, even though there may be teething problems. It would 'be wrong to expect renewable energy to perform better than the conventional sources. Do not thermal and nuclear power stations have their drawbacks? In fact, they occasionally break down too. How then could the non-conventional sector be faultless?

On the significance of organisations like the Sardar Patel Renewable Energy Research Institute under present circumstances:
We have developed several technologies that can easily be used in rural areas. We are involved in producing devices that can be maintained by the user, assisting in their installation and at the same time ensuring their viability. But we cannot go any further unless policy decisions assist our endeavour. We are in touch with institutes abroad and have identified sources of energy such as biogas and biomass for which we have the ability to provide the necessary back-up.

On the feedback received from industry:
Industries that are badly hit by the power crisis are on the look out for alternatives. Rice mills can use rice husk to generate power or gas. Similarly, other types of material like groundnut husk can be used for meeting energy needs. Although a 50 per cent government subsidy has been provided to industries using non-conventional energy, they would ultimately have to pay.

There are times when industries in Gujarat have to shilt-down for two days a week. Either we suffer collectively or we seek alternatives. The industries would be well- advised to be as self-sufficient as possible and maintain their own generating units. Some power is better than none. The Rajasthan government has floated tenders for setting up 50-150 mw solar energy plants. Who would have thought of this five years ago?

On the role played by the ministry of non-conventional energy in these efforts:
It is obvious that necessary attention is not being paid as there appears to be a lack of understanding. The belief that conventional sources can meet the demand still exists. A decision favouring the use of renewable energy must be taken, keeping all facts and statistics in mind. If this is done, we can evolve a better way of dealing with the situation.

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