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Non-Fossil Fuel Electricity Generation, Shri R V Shahi, Former Secretary, Ministry of Power

Evolution of modern society in different parts of the world has been a continuing process. Developed economies in the world began this process centuries ago. Developing economies like India commenced industrialising decades ago, and there are several economies in the world which started industrialising just in the recent past. But, if we analyse the process of industrial revolutions in 17th and 18th Centuries, and also in the last 100 years, in different parts of the world, we find, apart from many other factors, a common characteristic that industrialisation revolved around massive dependence on fossil fuels. If we see, for example, the developments of the U.S.A. and U.K., we find that both of them had their industrialisation heavily dependent upon use of coal for power generation, for locomotive transportation and for other industrial uses, in extensive manner. Same has been the approach and process in most other countries. If we also try to analyse the reason for such an approach, we could conclude that coal was perhaps one of the easiest fuels to extract and produce and it was possible to make it amenable to be used in different types of technological processes. Subsequently, other fossil fuels emerged such as petroleum fuels, in a significant way in the 20th Century. And, towards the end of 20th Century, it was believed that Gas might be the fuel of the 21st Century. Thus, both coal as well as petroleum fuel viz. liquid petroleum and gas, which constitute most of what we call as fossil fuels, dominate the global energy profile. There are very few countries, such as France, in which nuclear fuel occupies the commanding position. Similarly, there are very few countries in which hydro (water) potential has been used in the form of power generation in an extensive manner.

This process has continued for centuries with inevitable consequences of consuming fossil fuels and increasing green house gas emissions. Global warming has been considered and projected to be an issue in last few decades. Environmentalists, a number of energy professionals and NGO's continued bringing out the ramifications of massive use of fossil fuels leading to excessive CO2 emissions alongwith consequences of climate change arising out of global warming. These concerns, no doubt, did not go unnoticed. Kyoto Protocol was the most powerful initiative around which whole world agreed to formulate an appropriate strategy. Though it cannot be stated that the objectives of Kyoto Protocol and expectations of the world as a whole, with reference to the response of developing and developed countries in regard to committed actions, have achieved a good degree of success, yet, it is important to suggest that the issue came into focus all over the world and a large number of countries did respond, though in a modest way.

Fossil fuel use with resultant carbon emissions started getting into sharper attention with a view to containing the existing level or curtailing the CO2 emissions in recent years. After the Fourth Report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) came out in the later part of the last year (2007), with details of consequences of global warming and with the suggestions that urgent actions are called for if we wanted to reduce the extent of devastations and hardships that could be caused on account of ever rising CO2 emissions, the issue has received much wider attention at senior most levels in the Governments throughout the world.

There is no denying the fact that developing countries will need to pursue their expansion programmes on energy production with a view to increasing the levels of energy consumption. The present low levels of per capita consumption of energy places these countries at a very disadvantageous position and therefore they will need to accelerate the capacity base for increased production of energy. For example, in India a growth rate of 8 to 9% in respect of the installed capacity of electricity has been suggested by the Integrated Energy Policy for next 25 years. How do we achieve this type of an expansion? Even if we avoid the debate whether fossil fuel must continue to occupy the present trend or not, the fact of the matter is that the availability of fossil fuel is limited as we do not have infinite reserves. An 8% growth in installed capacity, with present proportion of coal based generation to remain, shall mean that we would finish off all the stocks that our coal reserves could provide, in next 40 years or so. Gas reserves could at the most provide support for 6 to 7% of the total requirement and that too for a period of 20 years or so. These options will continue, though with improved technologies. Climate change concerns are genuine and need to be addressed.

Under the circumstances, non fossil fuel based electricity generation needs to have special emphasis in the energy strategy of all the countries, but particularly of such countries as either have higher levels of per capita carbon emissions or are having ambitious programmes of capacity expansions. India is a country in the latter category and has massive expansion programmes for next few decades. The India Energy Forum organised its 8th Non-Fossil Energy Summit 2008 at New Delhi on 26th November, 2008. In the Inaugural Session I had an opportunity to speak and we had Secretary Power, Government of India, National Hydro Electric Power Corporation, CMD and Member (Power), Planning Commission (who inaugurated the Conference), sharing their views in this Session. I briefly outline the issues discussed in this Session:

  • In spite of the best of intentions, the electricity generation through new and renewable sources continue to play a marginal and peripheral role. If we consider the electricity generation throughout the world, overall proportion of renewable energy generation is less than 2%. Though in terms of installed capacity, the proportion may be higher, since the Load Factor of such plants, for example, Wind Turbines, Bio-mass, Solar etc. are significantly less (almost half to one third) than the fossil fuel based conventional power plants, the proportion of generation in the overall profile of power generation works out to be much less.

  • Fossil fuel, to play a major role, will require a technology revolution. If we analyse last fifty years of efforts on research and development, aimed at bringing about significant changes in the technology in non conventional energy generation segment, we would observe the following:

  1. On Wind energy, there has been a modest success. We used to set up small capacity wind turbine units in KW range just ten years back. In the last few years, we have entered MW range. In terms of capital cost also there has been marked improvement. Though without the support of depreciation benefits, and benefits coming out of CDM Schemes, the power plants under this category have not become commercially viable fully, the gaps between the cost of power from wind turbines and from fossil fuels systems have reduced considerably. It is expected that in coming 5 to 10 years, they will be fully competitive with the conventional power generation.

  2. Bio-mass systems have yet to establish complete viability and trouble free plant operations. There are a few plants in India in the range of 5 to 10 MW (some of them even of higher capacities). They have also brought down the cost of power within acceptable limits. But availability of bio-mass at prices assumed, which made these projects viable, does pose problems in many of these plants. There is a need for identifying the issues and supporting bio-mass power generation in a big way.

  3. Solar power has not reached anywhere near the acceptable range of pricing. The subsidy support of almost Rs. 10 Kwhr by the Government as per latest decision, at the most would be a sustainable proposition for a very small capacity.

  4. On other sources such as tidal power generation and geo-thermal energy, we have yet to achieve any visible breakthrough.

  • Ten years back, telecommunication infrastructure and electricity infrastructure were more or less equally placed in terms of coverage and affordability. Rural India and a large proportion of even urban India did not have access to any reasonable level of tele-connectivity. In the last 10 years, the situation has changed dramatically. It is primarily on account of technology revolution that these changes have happened globally and in India. Another example of technology revolution is in the field of information technology. Couple of decades back, computers were within the reach of select few. Today, I.T. facility is available to common people with the enormous advantages that this system brings not only in the field of access to knowledge and information but also it has positively influenced our working and enhanced quality of life.

  • Similar technology revolution is needed if we have to bring non fossil fuel based electricity generation to its rightful place. Each area of energy source, be it solar, tidal, geo-thermal, bio-mass, wind, hydrogen etc. has to be brought into right priorities from the point of view of research and technology development.

  • Even on the conventional power generation, fuel efficiency in the power generation process has to receive appropriate attention. There is no justification that even after more than 100 years of steam power based on coal as the fuel, efficiency of the whole cycle to remain around 40%, and balance 60% of energy being wasted in the process of conversion to electricity. Super critical technology is, no doubt, an improvement but that should give us no satisfaction at all because even in this case we have not been able to improve the conversion efficiency beyond 41% or so.

  • On the conventional power generation based on coal, IGCC has been talked over a long period of time. Some work has been done in the world, but that is not entirely relevant to Indian coal which is unique. We can ill afford to keep waiting for someone else to discover and invent appropriate technologies suited to our coal. This is our problem and we have to develop clean coal technologies on our own.

  • On the non fossil energy front, a lot of directional and strategic initiatives have been identified in the National Action Plan on Climate Change launched recently by the Prime Minister. It covers both the issues - (a) concerning available technologies and their deployment for scaling up, and (b) for initiating long term research and development actions for developing new technologies. In a way, this document is the most important recent approach on the subject which, at one place, brings out what needs to be done and is being planned to be done.

  • A few specific suggestions which emerged during the Inaugural Session, are outlined below:

  1. Of all the non fossil fuel based power options, for India, hydro electric potential is the highest. But, these projects are located in hill States and have complex situations of connectivity and access, dense forest, invariably wild life habitation etc. in order to harness these potentials to the maximum, steps need to be taken, in most cases with Government Initiatives include - (i) Providing highway connectivity throughout these areas in North-Eastern States, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir, (ii) Forest Clearance and clearance by Wild Life Board requiring each specific case to go to Supreme Court needs to be streamlined in order to make the procedure simple and fast. The specific action needed is to approach the Supreme Court to review the earlier judgement, (iii) Transmission system connectivity from these States to pool power from various hydro electric projects and transmit it across various regions of the country needs a co-ordinated and time bound action, (iv) Above all, the most essential need for a faster development of hydro projects is the "Water Act" which should cover all inter State rivers and should be able to address all the problems that stand in the way in development of these projects because of the differing and difficult stances of various State Governments.

  2. On the wind based power generation, substantial progress has been made. With more than 10,000 MW of installed capacity, India has emerged one of the three largest wind energy power producers in the world. If we have to harness the huge potentials that remain to be tapped in deserts of Rajasthan and in Kutch areas of Gujarat and such other areas, transmission connectivity in a co-ordinated manner would be an essential requirement. No individual developer can do it on his own in an optimal manner. In the past experience of the Scheme of subsidy linked to depreciation benefit has been mixed. Therefore, the option of having the subsidy linked to actual generation of power is a positive development.

  3. Bio-mass based power generation has good prospect particularly to cater to the needs of rural India. In view of the economies of scale not having been reached, the per Kwhr cost of power is comparatively high without support rural consumers may find it unacceptable. Two things need to be done - (i) enhance the size of operations by encouraging thousands of sets of different ratings to be established in different parts of rural India. This will give the manufacturers considerable scope not only to further improve upon the technologies but also to effect drastic reductions in capital costs, (ii) Piggy back this approach on the existing Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojna through Decentralised Distributed Generation to be implemented on the basis of Public Private Partnership model.

  4. The recent developments on the nuclear front transform the whole prospect of energy scenario. In the last about 50 years, we have been able to develop a total capacity of the order of 4,000 MW. Our inadequate Uranium reserves, but more importantly Uranium produced, have been unable to meet the requirement of even the present 4,000 MW capacity. After the initial teething problems, our technical experts were able to fully stabilise our nuclear power plants. By 2001-02, these plants started producing at about 85% Plant Load Factor comparable to even well run coal based power plants. But the PLF has gone down to less than 60% because of inadequate supply of Uranium. National Electricity Policy (2005) has provided a clear direction that nuclear option should be pursued with seriousness and in order to accelerate the growth of nuclear power plants both public and private sector should participate. On the technology front, right in the beginning of the atomic energy programme, it was envisaged that we would have a three stage development of nuclear power technology. Till the time we are able to implement the recycling of the nuclear waste and thus be capable to multiply the capacities, we need to continue with the strategy which is already under implementation. Agreements with the nuclear supplier group nations will facilitate accessing nuclear fuel. It is planned that by the year 2020 our nuclear power capacity may exceed 20,000 MW. However, even then the overall proportion would be only around 5% of the total capacity. If we need to expand our base, it is important that Atomic Energy Act 1962 is amended to provide for multiple strategy in terms of institutional framework to develop nuclear power projects. Only Government organisations may not be adequate, though in the next few years we may need to transit through Government organisations for variety of reasons - strategic, safety etc.

  5. One of the issues which is common to all the non fossil fuel based projects is the constraint of financing. Unless longer tenure of loan is arranged, the viability of the projects in many cases gets into question. To accelerate the non fossil power capacity we need to think in terms of long term finance of the order of 20 to 25 years beyond the moratorium period to allow for the construction and completion of projects.

Finally, for harnessing solar energy, our efforts have to multiply manifold. Government, public private sector companies and large private groups have all to integrate their efforts. Solar mission needs to scale up operations and develop time bound programmes. Global developments do indicate positive trend of costs going down. But, even now the solar power cost is excessive. The aim of technology development in this field is to make it cost effective. As mentioned earlier, we need telecom type of technology revolution to harness solar energy.