Column: Not just green at the edges

Written by Sunil Jain | Updated: Mar 10 2014, 09:00am hrs
Given that India will be adding 250-300 million more people to its urban areas over the next two decades, and that it plans to raise the share of manufacturing from the current 15% of GDP to 25% in a decade, it is obvious the country is hurtling towards an energy disaster. Indeed, a McKinsey study projects that, in a business-as-usual scenario, Indias energy dependence will rise to 50% by 2030 as compared to 30% today.

Fortunately for India, a large part of its urbanisation plansthis is where the bulk of energy gets usedlie ahead of it in the sense the cities that modern India will live in are yet to be built. McKinsey estimates, for instance, that India needs to build 700-900 million square feet of residential and commercial space over the next two decades; in other words, from now to 2030, we need to build two Mumbais every year. So any solution put in place today has the potential of dramatically reducing India, and the worlds energy footprint.

How we build those two Mumbais will be critical. Express columnist Isher Ahluwalia, whose book tour is currently under waythe book compiles her Postcards of Change columns in this newspaper over several yearshas suggestions on how cities should deal with their sewage, water, transport.

Amitabh Kant who, as CEO and MD of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation, is in charge of Indias most ambitious urbanisation programme, points to other important solutions. Since the largest share of energy demand, according to Kant, emanates from transportation needs, new cities need to be planned in such a way that, as far as possible, people should be able to walk/cycle to work. It is town planning and not green buildings, Kant avers, that help keep the planet green.

Rohan Parekh, who heads green initiatives at Infosys, has even more interesting suggestions regarding air-conditioning of buildings. According to Parekh, the most inefficient way to cool/heat buildings is to cool/heat air, given its poor conductivity, yet that is what is most commonly done. Parekhs solution, implemented at Infosys Hyderabad campus, is to pass cold/hot water through thin copper tubes in the ceiling of a buildingthe difference in temperature causes our body heat to radiate to the cold tube (it is the reverse for heating) and, in the process, cools us down; Parekhs solution, he says, costs 30% of what conventional cooling does. Around 40% of global energy, Parekh avers, is used in buildings and around 40% of that is used up in heating/cooling; so a 30% cut in this will lead to a 5% reduction in global demand for energy. Most interesting, while most green projects get put off as they add to costs, Parekhs solution costs less than conventional cooling methodssince radiant cooling requires less air-conditioning plants, and therefore even backup generators for them, the construction costs get lowered immediately.

An equally interesting urbanisation concept, which forms a part of the ongoing Indo-US energy dialogueUS energy secretary Ernest Moniz is in India for this right nowis that presented by the little-known Metro Valley project in Haryana. Though the project is yet to be built, as part of the process, its team did all manner of research on 3D simulators on how to make it more energy efficient. One thing led to another, and the project was given to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US to study 3-4 years ago. The consortium headed by Lawrence Berkeleyit included University of California Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University on the US side and IIT Bombay, IIM Ahmedabad and IIIT Hyderabad on the Indian sidewhich won an initial $10 million as part of the Energy Dialogue to do further study in building technology showcased Metro Valley as one of its projects. Private firms in India and the US are also contributing towards this research in energy-efficient buildings and products.

Turns out, according to the projects promoters, the building is even more energy efficient than the US standard for energy efficiency. Explaining the concepts used is beyond this columnist but involve design changes that, at least in hindsight, look intuitive. Keeping the building low-rise cuts down on energy used for escalators; keeping the staircase and all utilities on the side facing the sun help provides a big area of natural insulation for the rest of the building; instead of building the commercial complexes in one straight line as is most often done, building them in the form of the teeth of a comb provides more natural light to each individual building as well as insulation. Interestingly, when Lawrence Berkeley simulated the Metro Valley design and added on the typical solutions in green buildingsinsulated glass, ultra-violet cutting glass/shadesit found these made little difference as the design itself had cut energy intensity so much.

It turns out that what look like small design changesobviously after years of researchcan make a big difference to how Indias energy future will look. One of the buildings in Infosys Mysore campus, for instance, has chajjassmall cement projectionsin the middle of windows as opposed to the normal practice of having them on top of the windows. This ensures natural light bounces off the chajja on to the ceiling of the room and down to the floor keeping the Mysore building slim, then ensured there was enough natural light coming in from both sides, so that no artificial lighting was required till the evening. Small vertical slats on the side of the windows, as well as special coating on the glass, cut out the infra-red rays that heat up the room and add to the need for air-conditioning.

Given how the Indo-US energy dialogue is a systematic way of looking at all these projectsInfosys Hyderabad campus is part of this processto be able to eventually come up with energy solutions for both India and the US, what is amazing is the manner in which the dialogue is being treated. The US delegation was supposed to come to India in January, but was advised to put it off in light of the Khobragade tension between the two countries. Surely Indias energy security has to be more important than the supposed ill-treatment of a junior diplomat