Niti Aayog’s emphasis on coal as the source for India’s future power needs is at variance with the ideals of sustainability

I have often remarked that India is a land of paradoxes. The old joke about our country is that anything you say about India, the opposite is also true. We like to think of ourselves as an ancient civilisation but we are also a young republic; our IT experts stride confidently into the 21st century but much of our population seems to live in each of the other 20 centuries.

Yes, it’s a cliché. And yet, clichés are clichés because they are true, and the paradoxes of India say something painfully real about our society.

Keen followers of Prime Minister Modi’s endeavours abroad might recall his recent visit to Germany and the signs of a heady friendship with Chancellor Angela Merkel, in significant part based on both countries’ commitment to address climate change and their joint ventures into renewables. One also remembers the tense hours following US President Trump’s rather dramatic (although predictable) decision to withdraw his country from the hard-fought Paris Climate Accord and the plaudits India won across the world, when New Delhi promised to uphold its signature on the deal, winning moral brownie (or greenie!) points for the Government’s stand.

Muddled vision

But in keeping with India’s talent for paradox, at the very time the country was earning plaudits abroad for its resolute defence of environmentalism, the government’s highest thought body, charged with the task of creating structures and implementation strategies for the government’s lofty ideals, is busy undermining such a commitment.

To be fair, the Niti Aayog’s latest draft National Energy Policy is an ambitious vision statement as it exhorts de-carbonisation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. However, it is also fraught with contradictions and omissions, thanks to its projected dependence on coal for the future energy needs of the country.

This is because, while it foresees India’s power demand shooting up over four-fold by 2040 (assuming 8 per cent annual economic growth), it also estimates coal-fired power capacity to grow to 330-441 GW by 2040, anticipating an annual coal demand of 1.1-1.4 billion tonnes.

Such a scenario is in direct conflict with the declared twin goals of sustainability and security and comes ironically at a time when solar and wind tariffs appear to be reaching historic new lows. These plummeting tariffs, when seen in conjunction with how energy storage for renewable power is making enormous technological advances, make it clear that going forward, solar and wind power (along with hydro power) will be the logical economic and ecological choice to power India’s energy transformation. Even banks are increasingly reluctant to fund thermal power projects, given how much more viable alternative energy sources seem to be.

It seems odd that when the future of coal (and fossil-fuel based power in general) is decidedly bleak, the Niti Aayog has chosen to place such high emphasis on, and seek future dependence on, coal-fired power.

Perpetuating what’s passé

The sarkari think-tank also forecasts that “’our coal industry will emerge as an exporter of coal”. It seems the Niti Aayog is out of touch with the shocking drop in demand for coal from most industrialised economies — a trend that will only amplify as renewable power attains grid parity in more regions. Given our country’s laudable international commitments to tackling climate change, it really does beg the question — where would India export its poor quality coal, and how will it justify such a move to the global community?

In terms of tackling air pollution, the draft policy proposes “geographic concentration of power plants… so sited that they do not damage air quality in human habitations. Water supply to power plants ought to be priced as per its scarcity value.’’ This makes little sense; building dirty power stations that are further away from human habitation and that are supported by our increasingly stretched fresh water resources is simply not an answer to the problem.

Instead, the focus should be on phasing out our existing thermal power stations and replacing them with clean energy alternatives. But rather than doing so, the Niti Aayog suggests out-of-date approaches such as bailing out stranded gas projects. Such double-speak is not only unfortunate, but it also creates doubt in the minds of the very investors the country is seeking to attract.

Public health concerns

In terms of public health, the draft policy again falls short of expectations. While it briefly touches upon public health in terms of exposure to indoor air pollutants (from household cooking fuels), such consideration is immediately relevant only to the semi-urban and rural regions of India. What about the millions of inhabitants in our cities, who have to grapple with air pollution caused – in no small measure — by dirty thermal power stations? There are already a multitude of studies that show how our average life expectancy is being dangerously cut short due to air pollution, including some studies that have reported that the combustion of coal releases mercury into the atmosphere — a devastating killer if inhaled.

Is nuclear power viable?

We should also not forget nuclear power. The draft calls nuclear energy as the only “green energy” source to be relied upon for baseload power requirements. This is indeed surprising, because even if the assertion is true today, given how rapidly energy storage technology is maturing, it won’t be so in the next few decades. Also, investing in nuclear power is highly cost-intensive. Recent news reports suggest that the fifth and sixth units of the much celebrated Kudankulam nuclear power plant will cost the country ₹50,000 crore. And the units will only go online more than five years after construction, with Russia lending India $4.2 billion to help construct the units in the first place. Surely we can spend less and gain more by shifting our focus to solar?

Does India really need to spend such a staggering amount on a technology that cannot be brought on stream immediately, and that is not locally scalable? How many reactors will India spend on to bring electricity to the nearly 300 million people who are not yet connected to the grid?

And what about the technology’s inherent risk of disaster? Granted, India has an enviable record of operating nuclear power stations, but after the incident at Fukushima, Japan, is it wise to take chances? Germany and Switzerland certainly don’t think so, and have voted emphatically to not build any new nuclear power stations.

And lastly, what about India’s ageing reactors? Will the government borrow even more money to upgrade them? Or wouldn’t it be instead more prudent to invest that amount in technologies that are actually infinitely scalable, deployable almost anywhere and sustainable, such as solar, wind and tidal energy? India is certainly well endowed with natural resources when it comes to any of these technologies.

A World Bank report has claimed that India is emerging as a front-runner in the fight against climate change. The report’s release coincided with the G20 Summit where India stood strong on climate action along with 18 other world leaders at the Summit from the north and south, isolating the US. Despite this, for the Niti Aayog to project coal-based power as the bedrock of India’s energy policy for many more years seems to be an acutely contradictory and myopic approach.

If the Government is serious about breaking away from old paradigms, it needs to stop perpetuating paradoxes. Send Niti Aayog back to the drawing board. We need a newer energy policy.

The writer is a Congress MP

Source : The Hindustan Business Line