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'Scandalous': Energy economist who refuses to consider global climate emergency

By Shankar Sharma* 

An opinion piece, "Solar energy is not the best option for India", has been carried by a leading media house on the power sector's future for the country. The tagline is: "The country should not give up on large hydropower and coal projects."
Any person with even a modest knowledge of the power sector scenario in the country and across the globe is likely to be shocked to read such an opinion piece. If such a person also has an inclination to look at all issues around him/her with a holistic perspective of true welfare of all sections of our society, that person will be astounded that such an irrational/ unsubstantiated opinion piece can appear in the national media; even as late as 2023.
It is impossible to notice in this article any reference to social, environmental (with a specific focus on climate change), financial, and economic aspects of the millions of vulnerable people in our country, either at present or in the future. The article has resorted to only a few financial aspects of solar and coal power technologies, without considering all other welfare aspects of our people.
For whatever reasons, the author seems to have intentionally ignored OR remained ignorant of the calamitous environmental and social impacts of coal mining, transportation, burning and waste disposal stages in coal power cycle, which have been evidently clear even to the not-so-sensible bureaucrats/ political leaders in our country in recent years.
The highly credible global agencies such as IPCC, the UN, WHO, UNEP etc. have been warning the global population on these issues for more than 10-15 years. There have been many acknowledged estimates/ results of studies of actual costs of various sources of electricity (such as coal, gas, hydro, nuclear, solar, wind etc.) since 2015, which have been repeatedly/ continuously establishing the cost competitiveness of electricity from solar and wind power technologies as compared to coal, gas and nuclear power technologies; even with the inclusion of the cost of energy storage batteries.
If one also exhibits the sensitivity of taking all the associated social and environmental costs into objective account, the inevitability of moving away from fossil fuels and nuclear fuels should become obvious. Sadly, the author has not even considered the larger scenario of how India can meet its growing electricity demand on a sustainable basis by shunning solar power technology. By inference, the wind power technology also seems to have been discounted.
It should be unthinkable for an energy economist in 2023, that he/she has not heard of the phenomenon of climate change, the causative factors for the same, and the implications of the same for our people, on which multiple global agencies have been warning us since early 2000, and which have become apparent even for college students, as evidenced by global youth movements against fossil fuels.
It can be stated as scandalous for any energy economist in 2023, if he/she refuses to take into objective account the global climate emergency scenario while preparing such an opinion piece on our national energy policy matter.
And the support for hydro power, as in the article, can be said to be completely irrational on the basis of the point of view of inadequacy alone. The total hydro potential in India is estimated as about 152,000 MW out of which about 47,000 MW is already harnessed/ exploited. Is this author hinting at fully exploiting the remaining hydro power potential (mostly in Himalayas) without any consideration to all the associated ecological and social issues for the hilly regions of the country?
It is highly unfortunate if the author has not cared to deliberate on the associated ecological and social issues, which the hilly districts in our country, such as in the Himalayas and Western Ghats have been experiencing since independence. It is unbelievable that the recent catastrophe which has devastated the people around Joshimath has escaped his attention.
In an unabashed enthusiasm for hydro power the article makes a shocking argument:
"There seems to be competition, egged on by the West, between India and China, as to who does more renewable energy. We can do more renewable energy in large hydro, which is both low carbon and least cost. India has utilised only about 15% of its hydro potential whereas the U.S. and Europe have utilised 90% and 98% of their potential, respectively.
"The extent of utilisation of hydro potential seems to be an index of civilisational development and evolution. While China relies on renewable energy, it banks more on coal and hydro. The Three Gorges project on the Yangtze is the world’s biggest hydro electric project. In India, powerful environmentalists stop large hydro projects in their tracks."
"The extent of utilisation of hydro potential seems to be an index of civilisational development and evolution..." What a statement! It is impossible to imagine that a rational person, having even a modest knowledge of how a hydropower plant and the associated infrastructure, interacts with the local people/ environment, can make such a statement with any sense of conviction.
Especially in the context of India, even a modicum of knowledge of the devastation heaped on the project impacted communities from hydel power plants, such as in Himalayas/ Uttarakhand/ Joshimath, can tell anyone that the extent of utilisation of hydro potential cannot be an index of civilisational development and evolution; but on the contrary, it means destruction of habitat/ culture for the locals.
It will be unacceptable if a person, who identifies himself/ herself as an energy economist, fails to be aware of what is happening at the international arena in the energy sector.
"Investment bank Lazard has released the 15th edition of its highly regarded Levelised Cost of Energy Analysis and it reinforces what is pretty much already known: Wind and solar are by far the cheapest forms of electricity generation, storage costs are falling, and now hydrogen is part of the equation.
"It goes to show that wind and solar don’t just beat new installations, they are by and large competitive with even existing coal, gas and nuclear plants, even after the huge capital costs of those plants have been amortised. In all cases, they are five times cheaper than nuclear. Even storage and network costs don’t come close to making up the difference."  (see "Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) analysis.)
Many such estimates and actuals of finalised tenders for solar power projects in India also have provided similar cost comparisons. One such estimate for the Indian conditions is in the article, "Battery storage cheaper than new coal power plants: Analysis".
The Union government itself has not come up with any official report to state that the continued reliance on coal power indefinitely is essential for the country (even though it has not provided any indication as to when will the last coal power plant be built in the country); or that the solar power is not suitable for Indian conditions (note that it has chosen the global leadership role in the International solar Alliance); or that the societal level costs from coal power are tiny and/ or should be acceptable to the society.
Electricity generating technologies must be considered for adoption only on the basis of its suitability to local conditions
In the final analysis, any of the electricity generating technologies must be considered for adoption only on the basis of its suitability to the local conditions, costs/ benefits analysis of the same technology with regard to any other technology suitable for the local conditions, the environmental and social impacts on the locals, sustainability, acceptability etc.
In the larger context of a rational/ sustainable energy economy, when we objectively consider all the associated parameters for Indian conditions, it should become evident that the fossil fuels, hydro and nuclear based electricity generating technologies have the highest and unacceptable costs to society, as compared to solar, wind, bioenergy technology, along with energy storage battery technologies.
Whereas it is true that even the solar power and wind power technologies can have unacceptable costs to the society, if adequate care is not taken in their application across the length and breadth of the country, it has been proven during the last few years that the fossil fuels, hydro and nuclear based electricity generating technologies will continue to have the highest/ unacceptable costs to our society; that they are environmentally destructive and hence not sustainable; and that they have been clearly acknowledged as entirely avoidable at the global level for the future.
As compared to multiple serious concerns of coal power technology, solar power technology is clearly associated with many positives: it's free and plentiful availability in nature, its distributed/ democratic mode, least impacts on environment, feasibility of active participation by a common man, perpetual availability etc. have made it eminently suitable for India conditions.
Many serious concerns of hydro power technology also can be addressed by judicious deployment of renewable energy sources along with suitably designed energy storage battery systems. These issues of true relevance to our people seem to have been completely ignored by the author.
At a time when our country is passing through multiple and serious concerns such as resource constraints, unacceptable pollution/ contamination of air, water and soil, and calamitous threats of climate change, any opinion piece, which has no relevance to true welfare of our communities on a sustainable basis, should be seen as a waste of our time/ space; and such articles may even be seen as harmful to the overall welfare of our people. It will be truly unfortunate if media houses cannot exercise adequate precaution/ diligence in not publishing such irrational articles.
In this context two options are available for the truly concerned people in civil society: either completely ignore such unsubstantiated opinion pieces or highlight the serious lapses in them.
It would be useful if some of the relevant discussion papers on various associated policy matters, which are available on digital media platforms such a few articles as attached to this email, are brought to the knowledge of not only the energy economists, but also the national media.
---
*Power and climate policy analyst

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