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Renewables can ensure energy security

Peak oil has been around for a while now. Energy specialists in India, specially those working in the renewable energy space, are now talking the same about coal: not quite peak coal but an increasing likelihood that coal will not always be available to run power plants.

Will this mean that development as we know will come to a halt, given that energy production and consumption are regarded internationally as a major cause for climate change? For India, a net importer of fossil fuel, including gas, and increasingly of coal, energy security is a compelling reason to go green, G M Pillai, director general, World Institute of Sustainable Energy (WISE) believes.

Development cannot stop and it needs energy but the conventional sources of energy , oil and coal are fast running out. So, renewables are the only option. And, they are also green. So the primary objective of going for renewable energy, notes Mr Pillai, should be to secure the country’s growing energy needs. Solar energy can be a source for our growing energy needs, but what advancements have been made to store it?

Storage technology has been developed to the level that it can be stored for six-seven hours. In states such as Maharashtra, where peak power demand is at night, the stored power can be used. Which means that the grid will have to have a mix of hydro, biomass , solar and a proper dispatch.

The hybrid format grid allows using existing thermal power with an RE source. There is already one such at Singrauli in UP. The transition has begun, but the obsession with ultra mega power projects continues. And these projects are being sanctioned without assessing the security of fuel supply for the next 30 years. And, that is where issues over peak coal arise, as Indonesia, a major exporter , gradually caps these.

This will mean that India would have to compete with the US and China, for global coal from the one big exporter, Australia. Will we be able to compete with international buyers?

The worrying aspect is that some power companies have taken a short-term view, says Mr Pillai. They expect to achieve payback in five years on their projects, hence they are unconcerned about fuel supply for the plant for the rest of its life. How can renewable energy impact our lives?

Concentrated solar thermal (CST) units, for instance, can be retrofitted on low-rise buildings – those with up to five floors. Wind mills on buildings to power street lights in a large housing complex too can be considered. Of course, renewables will require that we change the way we do business . While renewables could power households , what about industry and metros?

Powering industry using renewables remains a big question. But, smaller, distributed units can reduce the burden on the grid for housing and even agricultural needs. Industry requires those large power plants. “We have 2.13 lakh sq miles of desert in Gujarat and Rajasthan, half of which the government owns. This region can power the country’s industry and metros, with huge solar power plants being set up there.

As water is required to cool turbines and that would pose a challenge in the desert, the solution lies in using air cooling systems.” Nevada, in the US, has attempted solar thermal generation. It began with 40MW generation, which is now at 394 MW and can go to 500 MW. The use of deserts to locate such power generation units is best exemplified by the International Renewable Energy Agency, located in Abu Dhabi. The west Asian countries are taking measures with peak oil looming large.

Renewables will change the power scene. Over 5-6 years, low-rise buildings could have their own solar-thermal units to take care of at least some of the power needs of the inhabitants there. Software technology firms that have large terraces could be among the first to install such units.

Or malls, where the structures are not usually very tall. What else will change through a widespread deployment of renewable energy? Urban planning is one. Tall buildings of over 100 metres cannot be powered by renewables. So, ideas about city development will have to change. What about financing these projects?

Mr Pillai pointed out Maharashtra’s four paise per kilowatt hour green cess on conventional power production for industrial and commercial units generates about Rs 100 crore annually. It has been converted into seed money for the Urja ankur nidhi a corpus used solely for the development of renewable energy. The government of Karnataka has also announced a similar cess.