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  Opinion   Columnists  29 May 2024  Sanjeev Ahluwalia | India’s energy challenge as global climate threat grows

Sanjeev Ahluwalia | India’s energy challenge as global climate threat grows

The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation
Published : May 30, 2024, 12:00 am IST
Updated : May 30, 2024, 12:00 am IST

India's energy transition plan faces regulatory hurdles and infrastructure challenges amid pre-election preparations

The cheapest way to reduce GHG emissions is to constrain the amount of energy used. India cannot do that yet because its development needs would get compromised. The second option is to decarbonise as quickly as possible. (File Image: DC)
 The cheapest way to reduce GHG emissions is to constrain the amount of energy used. India cannot do that yet because its development needs would get compromised. The second option is to decarbonise as quickly as possible. (File Image: DC)

Top Union government officials have been unusually busy, even as their political bosses are engaged in the quinquennial political survival game, over the last two months. Tasked by their political superiors to chart what the new government should do once in office, they have cooked up a storm of new initiatives and regulations to undergird the action plans of the new government. One such is a directive from the Central Electricity Authority that no coal plants should be retired till 2030. This is reassuring for the domestic coal industry and miners. But it does not align with decarbonisation or capital preservation objectives. It also illustrates the need for an agreed plan for undergirding a staged energy transition -- by 2030, 2047 and Net Zero by 2070.

The cheapest way to reduce GHG emissions is to constrain the amount of energy used. India cannot do that yet because its development needs would get compromised. The second option is to decarbonise as quickly as possible. This option is limited by capital availability constraints and the paucity of ready-to-go, reasonably priced technology beyond solar and wind power. Both vary with the time of day and season. Integrating higher levels of either into grid supply can happen only once reasonably priced electricity storage devices (gigawatt scale batteries or alternatives) which charge when supply is surplus and discharge when supply is low,

become available. Green hydrogen, the great new hope, for decarbonising industry, heavy freight and shipping is even further away.

Given the uncertainties associated with new clean technologies, doubling down on energy efficiency -- reducing the amount of energy used for a unit of work -- is a win-win option. Another important metric is least-cost energy transition since India is not capital abundant. At present, the policies do not dovetail around a commonly agreed “energy and capital-use efficient” action plan. To be sure, there are fora for inter-ministerial consultation. But different ministries work within their own mandates.

These are, unsurprisingly, tailored to what suits the mammoth energy public sector enterprises under them.

What, for instance, is the plan for cooking energy? Cooked food is central to Indian tastes and habits. ICMR advisories also propagate the health advantages of own-cooked food over processed or packaged food. Electricity is the most efficient option for cooking. At present, its use is limited to refrigerate cooked food, heat up cooked food quickly in microwaves and boil water for tea or coffee. But cooking is mostly done on Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) or Pressurised Natural Gas (PNG) fired stoves. In villages biomass is a cheaper but noxious fuel and clean biofuel or compressed bio gas only at the pilot stage.

Unlike the reliable supply of LPG or piped PNG (only partially available in a few big cities), electricity supply is not reliable enough for households to make the switch.

The near-term prospects of reliable electricity are low given the choke point of parlous distribution utilities, many owned by state governments, and all regulated by them. Distribution revenues do not match expenses because line loss of electricity is high due to ageing network assets, poor commercial management of billing and collections and the politically driven regulatory caps on retail electricity tariffs. Union and state governments have yet to create a common incentive for efficiency enhancement in distribution, though a fourth Union government financial support package is operational.

Within the Union government, siloed policy formulation by the ministry of power (for electricity) and the ministry of petroleum and natural gas (for LPG and PNG), drive rapid but independent expansion of their supply networks per customer demand – a market-based approach -- but with the downside of stranded electricity assets (transmission lines to nowhere) or gas assets (underused gas pipelines) being created.

Another example is the planning regulations for city development and the design of buildings, which falls under the ministry of housing and urban affairs in the Union government and counterpart ministries in state governments. The latter regulate municipalities and towns which implement urban planning regulations. Energy demand emanates from transport, cooking, and lighting. Energy efficiency in lighting is a success story, driven by the decline in prices from a global scaling-up of energy efficient LED bulbs and the government policy support to market these nationally.

LEDs are several times more efficient than the “lattus”, or incandescent bulbs, used earlier. They consume a fifth of the electricity for a given unit of illumination and are cheaper to use.

Sadly, the energy savings from LED bulbs is being wasted because building regulations encourage horizonal rather than vertical spread of buildings. In New Delhi, for plotted houses side setbacks have been eliminated and front and back setbacks minimised to suit developers because the built-up area gets increased. But encouraging growth of low rise, row houses, built end to end and back to front in which lights must be turned on to see anything even during the day, comes at the expense of energy efficiency, which would suggest optimisation of natural light via appropriately sized setbacks.

If the built-up area, inconsistent with the circularity principles of Mission LiFE, continues to embed carbon, it seriously cripples energy transition efforts over the next five decades. Policy support and tax disincentives should drive homeowners in low-density, low-rise neighbourhoods looking for more space, to pool land and build high-rises with common utility services -- access roads, parks, drains, water and electricity supply, sewage disposal and “walk to” commercial centres, with sufficient diversity and depth, to service daily needs, locally.

Transit-oriented city development with dense vertically arrayed habitations, at nodal points along mass transit systems, like Metros, supported by last-mile buses, is the only future-consistent way to lower the energy expended in transport. Until cities are designed to discourage private transport by making public transport attractive, safe, and cost-effective, urban energy efficiency gains will not materialise. Once again, as in electricity retail supply, short-term ministerial and inter-governmental objectives dominate policymaking. State governments treat municipalities like subaltern pools of influence who must be kept constrained and dependent on state government largesse, rather than a third level of government which is to implement the change.

In the time and target bound global transition to a decarbonised economy, high levels of embedded carbon from assets being created now, present a serious risk, not only for India -- a front-runner to grow into becoming the third largest economy by 2047 -- but also for the success of global efforts to limit, if not reverse, catastrophic climate change.

Tags: india news, renewable energy, decarbonisation