Green Energy

The gleam of solar power is blinding India to the challenges of switching to renewable energy

In a country where power-for-all is still a distant dream, a rapid transformation to green energy is unfeasible.

The narrative of our rapid transformation to a renewable energy-powered planet is suddenly dominating headlines.

In India too, news of a shift away from coal power and towards clean energy has been doing the rounds. The Bloomberg New Energy Finance New Energy Outlook 2017 report released last week estimates that renewables will comprise 49% of India’s power generation by 2040. Solar and wind energy prices are also plummeting in India after a series of record low bids in auctions across the country and are seemingly competing with coal-fired power plants.
The government is planning India’s energy future based on the goal of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2022 and according to the draft National Electricity Plan released late last year, we will have a capacity of 275 GW of renewable energy by 2027.

However, this optimism of a swift transition to green energy is premature and doesn’t take into account the hidden costs and difficulties of transitioning from fossil fuels.

Is it the right goal?

While there has been a plethora of analysis on whether India will meet the 175 GW goal by 2022 – the overwhelming consensus is that it will not, as the current capacity stands under 60 GW and the country is adding less than 15 GW per annum – few have stopped to ask if such a goal is even desirable.

The record low renewable energy prices also masks the facts. First, renewable energy continues to be generously subsidised in India, so there is no fair basis for arguing that it is cheaper than coal or other fossil fuel. Second, particularly in the case of solar power, the prices are so low that they are unsustainable.

The low bids pose significant risks over the lifetime of the project, which are being ignored in the race to gain a foothold in a booming solar industry – in short, this is a bubble. The falling prices are mostly a result of the significant drop in manufacturing cost of Chinese-made solar panels, meaning the Indian solar energy industry relies heavily on cheap Chinese imports.

This poses many problems. The financial basis of these projects will be threatened if the Chinese government alters its policy of offering generous subsidies to its domestic manufacturers. The reliance on imports is also hurting Indian solar panel manufactures, who are now aggressively lobbying for government support from foreign competition, which, if realised, will drive up prices.

Thirdly and most importantly, the metric of Rupees/KWh or Levelised Cost of Electricity, which reflects the full life-cycle costs of a power-generating technology and is used to compare electricity prices, is a flawed measure for evaluating intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind energy, which add significant integration costs to the grid.

Grid troubles

The basic problem of wind and solar generation is that it cannot run all the time as it is dependent on the availability of the energy sources. For instance, in India, the peak power demand is at 6 pm, when solar energy is not available.

As the share of intermittent renewable generation increases in the grid, managing variable renewable energy will become increasingly complicated. The draft electricity plan estimates that renewable energy generation will contribute about 20.3% of the total energy requirement in 2021-’22 and and 24.2% by 2026-’27 respectively, if targets are met.

However, in countries like Germany, where renewable energy penetration is relatively high, operators find it difficult to maintain grid reliability despite significant grid interconnectivity within Europe and infrastructure systems that are far ahead of India, where the primary grid-balancing mechanism is load-shedding.

Germany also has one of the highest prices for electricity in the world, with the renewables revolution paid for by consumers.

To manage the rising share of renewable energy in the grid, thermal power plants will have to be ramped down, so that the grid can take in power from renewable sources whenever available. However, thermal plants cannot be shut down completely, because when solar and wind energy are not available, alternatives will be needed to provide more power to the grid. Lowering the output of thermal power stations affects their profitability, as they lose out on revenue. This unavoidable presence of financially struggling thermal power plants will therefore become inevitable in a high renewable energy system, as seen in the case of Germany.

The other way to manage the intermittent nature of renewable energy is greater connectivity between regions, so that excess power from one region can be transferred to another. However, increasing inter-regional connectivity and strengthening transmission lines is expensive. Lastly, if the share of renewables in the grid increases beyond a certain level, the grid will reject it and it will be wasted. This is already happening in Tamil Nadu, for instance, which has a high renewable energy share.

Meanwhile, even as the government is pursuing an ambitious renewable energy goal, progress on electrification continues to be dismal. India now has a power surplus, which may sound like good a thing but it isn’t. Vast areas of the country continue to lack access to the grid, which artificially lowers the power demand. Pushing for intermittent and expensive renewable energy sources at all costs is a perverse bet on the future of the faceless many who lack basic and cheap power.

Renewable energy should not become a goal in itself. The advantages offered by wind and solar power need to be weighed against a host of other considerations such as cost, grid dynamics, the social contract of electricity provision and other related challenges, such as land acquisition. This is not an argument in favour of coal power – far from it. India needs to take ambitious action on climate change and phase out coal power plants. This will also boost its leadership credentials in the international arena at a time when the US is ceding ground – having exited the Paris Agreement in May – and help tackle other critical issues, such as air pollution.

Much of India lives in darkness. Photo: Shammi Mehra/AFP
Much of India lives in darkness. Photo: Shammi Mehra/AFP

Way ahead

Phasing out coal while sustainably increasing the share of renewable energy in the grid requires a three-point plan.

First, India needs to increase nuclear power share in electricity generation as it is economical and also supports our climate action goals. The Union Cabinet’s decision to build 10 new indigenous nuclear reactors is welcome, but this is just a start.

Alongside nuclear plants, investing in natural gas infrastructure such as pipelines, regasification terminals (to turn liquified natural gas back to vapour) and Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plants (in which a gas as well as a steam turbine is used and which is said to be more efficient) is critical. Diplomatic efforts to secure gas imports must run in parallel. Replacing coal power plants with Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plants, that perform well with respect to helping integrate renewables and have half the emissions of coal is an important step to a future low carbon grid.

Lastly, the government needs to stop importing cheap and low-quality Chinese solar panels. While that may drive up costs in the short term, it is likely to help develop a healthy domestic solar panel industry and invite sustainable bids from project developers in the long run. Additionally, dynamic auctions for renewable energy with transparency in bids and market information is important and will ensure rigour in project bids, restoring confidence in India’s green energy future.

Switching from coal to gas, scaling up nuclear power and building a sustainable domestic renewable energy industry are sensible goals for an ambitious climate and energy policy. Transforming the mammoth electricity grid, when faced with significant infrastructure and economic challenges, is unfeasible. Changes in our energy system will be complicated and slow, given that we are yet to even fulfill the basic requirements of round-the-clock-energy access for all.

For a high share of renewable energy in India’s future power grid, investments into improving grid reliability and ancillary services, scaling up flexible baseload sources (that can provided the minimum amount of electricity needed at all times), and fixing the electricity market to introduce spot pricing and other mechanisms are urgently required. A dose of realism need not dampen ambition but can instead help ground it in more informed policy-making.

Aniruddh Mohan is a Humboldt Foundation International Climate Protection Fellow for 2017-18 and research fellow at Tandem Research.

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How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

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Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

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Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.