India's big test

If India is to meet a projected increase in demand for power and ramp up capacity by a factor of six over the next twenty years it will need to abandon old ways of thinking and embrace renewable energies.

India's energy thrust can wait no more. Experts say that to sustain a growth rate of even seven per cent for the economy, India needs to increase its electricity generation capacity six times over the next 20 years from the present 143 gigawatts to at least 800 gigawatts. That is no mean task given the sluggishness of the Indian response so far.

But that's not all. India's massive coal reserves (six per cent of the world's total) are high in sulphur and ash content which is hazardous to the environment. That reinforces the need to use clean technologies such as nuclear, bio fuels, wind and solar on a much bigger scale to ensure energy security for India without causing catastrophic damage to the ecological balance.

In terms of India's present energy consumption, the International Energy Outlook 2008 reports that coal accounts for 53 per cent of primary energy consumption, oil for 31 per cent, natural gas for 8 per cent, renewable sources including hydropower, solar and wind power for 6.8 per cent and nuclear energy for 1.2 per cent. This mix needs to change substantially over the coming years.

The Indian government's expectation is that growth in renewable energy will occur at a much faster pace than traditional power generation, with renewables making up 20 per cent of the 70 gigawatts of total additional energy planned from 2008-2012.

Among the green alternatives to coal, nuclear is the only technology with proven capacity with worldwide generation of 370 gigawatts of energy.

Solar energy has the potential to be one of the most pollution free and inexhaustible sources. But today it accounts for only about 1.7 gigawatts of power in India while the country's total need of electricity is over 130 gigawatts annually. Considering that most parts of the country receive clear sunshine for most of the year, harnessing this form of energy on a major scale would be a huge success.

Currently low oil prices make large investments in solar and wind energy appear commercially unviable. But just as the price of oil is not expected to remain low in the long run, neither is the cost of harnessing solar and wind power.

Carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power are the lowest. After the go-ahead given by the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the subsequent Indo-US civil nuclear deal, nuclear power is certain to get a big boost in coming years. Over the last three years, technology development has reduced the risks attached to nuclear energy with safety norms having improved.

The country plans to increase its nuclear power capacity to 20 gigawatts by 2030 from the current 5 gigawatts.

But there are hurdles along the way. India's natural uranium reserves are a modest 70,000 metric tonnes which is grossly insufficient to run the current and proposed nuclear power plants. India is scouting around for imported uranium but the biggest source – Australia – remains unresponsive due to the long-standing Labor Party position of not exporting uranium to a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Significantly, however, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said in a newspaper interview on his recent visit to India that dual-use technology (of interest to the civilian and defence establishments) is something that he was willing to look at if there was a specific request from India.

While renewable sources of energy and nuclear power can be enhanced substantially in the foreseeable future, India's reliance on coal, oil and natural gas can hardly be wished away. With the public sector's Oil and Natural Gas Commission having reached a virtual dead end in oil and gas exploration, it's fortunate that the privately-owned Reliance group has entered the arena in a big way.

A first-of-its-kind hydrocarbons production from any deep water field in the country, Reliance's Krishna-Godavari basin in the Bay of Bengal will account for 40 per cent of the country's current indigenous hydrocarbon production in about 18 months. The company estimates that the production from this will save India an annual foreign exchange outflow of $US20 billion.

With growing prosperity, India's per capita consumption of power which is a low 400 Kwh per year (against the international average of 2,400 Kwh per year) is bound to increase sharply. A huge power deficit stares India in the face which could well slow down India's growth. While a more concerted effort is needed to harness various forms of energy, it would be unwise to ignore the huge losses suffered in transmission through pilferage.

The Australian experience with high voltage electricity transmission in recent times has been encouraging. Through this, large quantities of power are transmitted across huge distances with minimal loss in transmission.

India could benefit from this technology immensely and needs to look at it closely. That the technology is capital-intensive in a country that has massive reserves of labour may be a deterrent but considering how clean and efficient this is when compared with the current proliferation of transmission lines, it is worth further examination.