The tumult caused by the nuclear deal had the government veering from first staking its very existence on it to now saying that the deal may not have been that important anyway. Unfortunately, the benefits of nuclear power were argued about vehemently without sufficient information. Even basic data on nuclear costs wasn’t publicly available, and there was little discussion on the national energy strategy.
From the perspective of energy security, nuclear power is not a good option for India, as it is about 40% more expensive than power based on even imported coal or natural gas. It does not reduce our dependence on imports, or assure continuity of supply due to limitations of global uranium reserves, and there are concerns about safety and security.
With not a single new nuclear reactor ordered in the US for the last 30 years, Germany and Spain deciding to phase out nuclear power, and Sweden deciding not to build new reactors, it is tough to believe a nuclear renaissance is around the corner. These events reflect inherent problems with the technology. In spite of 50 years of commercial use and massive government support worldwide, the “learning” represented by reductions in cost over time has not happened. The role of nuclear power in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in India is also likely to be very small for a long time. Problems with land acquisition, water and displacement make the government’s plan of building 64,000MW by 2032 seem too ambitious—in any case, that’s just 8% of the power capacity. We feel India should not add any large amounts of nuclear generation capacity but if it does not want to close the technology option in the long term, it should continue its R&D work.
If there’s real concern about energy security, then far more important areas need urgent attention. Coal provides more than 70% of India’s electricity. Yet, only 45% of the potential coal bearing area has been systematically explored, and knowledge of our coal reserves is abysmal. Productivity in our coal mines is only 7-10% of that in American and Australian mines. Yet, we are slow in adopting new technologies, resulting in poor coal quality and yield, and higher costs and emissions. More efficient use of coal, particularly in power generation, would pay handsome dividends towards energy security. But there is no strategic programme to assess, develop and deploy emerging technologies even as privatization is being promoted as a panacea.
The good news about large gas finds is marred by serious governance failures: lack of a gas utilization policy which would balance economic efficiency, affordability, and energy security; lack of clear directives on an industry structure that would promote competition and efficiency; delay in setting up a regulatory body; and lack of attention to ensuring that the pattern of gas production and consumption is consistent with an adequate supply of fuel now and in the future.
Almost every state in the country faces serious power shortages. Yet, almost no state prepares a scientific demand forecast or a capacity addition plan. The new benchmark set by the bids for Sasan and Mundra ultra-mega power projects (UMPPs) brought excitement in the power sector. The UMPP programme, sadly, is now sluggish. The government should focus on getting it back on track, talk with the affected people and solve land and environment-related problems. This is the only way to reduce power shortages in the medium term.
The most painful is the callous disregard for the energy needs of the poor. Nearly 65% people still use conventional, non-commercial fuels such as wood and dung for cooking. With a severe shortage of these fuels, the rural poor —especially women—spend hours every day collecting cooking fuel. A World Health Organization study indicates that nearly 500,000 people die every year in India due to indoor air pollution, largely a result of inappropriate burning of wood and dung for cooking. Thus, cooking fuel poses the real energy crisis for a majority. It is ironic that the focus is on India acting responsibly to protect the global environment and address the problems caused by developed nations, not on the environmental crisis at home.
Future energy use patterns can be shaped through skilful policies as in California, which has kept its per capita electricity use flat since the 1970s. Energy choices can be selected for growth, poverty reduction or improvement in the environment. These goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive—it is possible to choose an energy path that creatively fulfils a combination.
Promotion of public transportation eases life, particularly for the poor, while saving energy and reducing emissions. Decentralized use of gas for combined heat and power output is a pro-environment and pro-economy option. Intelligent urban planning and development can reduce energy bills substantially while increasing comfort levels. Else, with a life of a century or more, inefficient infrastructure will be a permanent drag on the economy.
Reducing the needs for energy is perhaps the most effective way of enhancing energy security and reducing carbon emissions. Efficiency improvements should focus not just on the end-use but on the entire fuel cycle including extraction, transportation and conversion. The experience with the nuclear deal should serve as a wake-up call. Let not the glitter of gold (or uranium) divert us away from the critical task of creatively and intelligently designing the country’s energy future rather than following a “fuelish path”.
(Girish Sant and Daljit Singh are with Pune-based non-profit Prayas Energy Group. Comment at email@example.com)