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India's energy sector planners failing to gauge 'escalating threat' of climate change

By Shankar Sharma* 

Recent news items (click here and here) on energy conservation and efficiency related issues, should make our society extremely concerned on the associated problems to the society. Whereas, it is desirable to encourage "best practice" in every energy related sector of our economy, it pains to know that as a country, we have not given adequate focus on energy conservation and efficiency, with the consequence that our natural resources are increasingly being driven to an ever declining status with the passage of each month/ year.
It may not be an overstatement to say that India should be seen among the lowest ranked countries, when we objectively consider the overall efficiency in our energy usage, which has serious implications on how we are harnessing our natural resources.
An overview of some aspects of electricity sector in India alone can provide the larger picture:
  • The transmission and distribution (T&D) losses is reported to be more than 20% ("India's T&D losses have been over 20 per cent of generation, which is more than twice the world average. The ideal level of T&D losses ranges between six to eight per cent."). In some countries such as South Korea and Canada, such losses are reported to be about 5%. The National Electricity Policy of 2005 had flagged such poor status; but our efforts since then are no way near the requirement. If one fifth of the electricity produced is simply lost without any usage, the society needs to generate that much more to meet our demands, with devastating consequences, as have been associated with conventional technology power plants. Our power sector was described by a responsible person in a high position as a leaking bucket, only to enable few vested interests to make huge and illegal profits. As more and more consumers are added to the grid, and with more number of power lines built, the associated costs to the society can only escalate.
  • Totally disregarding the global need to eliminate the coal power plants, India is continuing to build more of them even in 2023. These coal power plants are known as highly inefficient, with only about 30-40% of energy in coal being converted to electricity, out of which only about 80% may reach the end consumer. And this entire process comes at a huge cost to the society in the form of land diversion, enormous consumption of fresh water, and pollution /contamination of air, water and soil. Some one humorously suggested that it may be more efficient to supply coal to the end consumers than with coal powered electricity.
  • The same is true with nuclear power plants, since they too operate with steam turbines.
  • Hydro power plants also have huge ecological costs, and their capacity utilisation is much lower than that of coal power plants.
  • Since the society has no effective control on the end use of electricity, the associated efficiencies are unbelievably low. The agricultural pump sets (IP sets), which are reported to be consuming about 25% of annual electrical energy at the national level, are generally known to be highly inefficient, and are generally reported as consuming about 40-50% more electrical energy than that needed for pumping water. And with the provision of free supply of electricity for these IP sets across the country, there is absolutely no incentive for the end users of IP set even to know about efficiency. Such gross inefficiency is not only pushing up the average cost of supply of electricity to consumers, but also has serious implications on water usage.
  • Street lights are in the other segment of power sector needing a lot more efforts to minimise losses. It is not only that a majority of lighting fixtures are not efficient, but the illumination level in most of the public places can also be said to be vastly sub-optimal. It will not be a surprise if most of the streetlights are found in locations wherein the illumination is 2 - 2.5 half times more that that recommended by Bureau of Energy Efficiency; as was noted in a study in Mysore city.
  • Even the highly advertised renewable energy sector in the country can be seen as having a number of concerns. The large size RE power parks, such as solar and wind power parks, are associated with T&D losses which are generally avoidable, if small sized and distributed kinds of RE power plants, such as rooftop solar power plants, are widely deployed. There are also many other concerns such as diversion of forest/agricultural lands.
If we diligently consider every segment of each of the energy sectors, such as coal, petroleum, natural gas etc. there will be a revelation that our energy sector planners/ managers are doing a lot of damage to the overall welfare of our country, by continuing to ignore the criticality of honest efforts associated with the efficiency, demand side management (DSM), and conservation.
There is a technical credible argument that if these measures are diligently deployed across the country, the net demand for electricity can come down by as much as 30-40%. 
So much for the jubilation associate with the celebration of National Energy Conservation Day, year after year, without objectively reviewing our ongoing records.
It should become obvious that optimal focus on the associated efforts will minimise the calamitous and irreversible damage we are inflicting on our natural resources, and also can satisfactorily address the ever escalating threats of Climate Change. In this context, the glaring and the continued absence of a diligently prepared national energy policy should have become a loud siren; but sadly not so to our governments at the center as well at the states.
*Power & Climate Policy Analyst. This article is based on the author's representation to the Secretary, Union Ministry of Power & NRE



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