A sustainable switch to renewables

While the push towards cleaner renewable sources is appreciable, it should not be at the cost of making energy expensive and unreliable. The overall footprint of fossil fuels—such as coal and oil—at the moment is quite low when accounting for the energy they provide.

renewable, renewable energy
Despite all the ill-treatment to coal, it is still expected to account for around 45% of the installed capacity in 2021-22.

The 13th National Electricity Plan (NEP) was released in January 2018. The draft of the same was released in 2016, seeking comments from various stakeholders. What stands out from the 13th NEP is the fact that India is on the path towards energy sufficiency and most of the investments for the same are already under way. Hence, not much needs to be done. The plan also envisages a significant share of renewable sources in India’s energy mix.

During the 12th NEP, conventional sources (thermal, nuclear, hydro) as well as renewables, both overshot the planned target. India added around 99 gigawatt (GW) of conventional energy capacity (112% of the target) during 2012-17. Much of the additions came in from coal-based capacities (around 83GW), and that too from the private sector. In fact, the private sector accounted for 56% of the total conventional capacity addition. This was primarily in response to the Electricity Act, 2003, which de-licensed thermal power generation and encouraged the private sector to take part. For the renewables part, India added around 33GW of renewable capacity, with wind accounting for almost half of it.

As for the future, India’s peak demand is projected to be 226GW at the end of the year 2021-22, growing at a CAGR of 6.18%. While the estimates for sectoral capacity additions to meet this demand have been arrived at by giving the last preference to coal, it will still play a dominant role in India’s energy mix. The draft of the 13th NEP envisages no new need for coal-based capacities. The final version projects the need for additional 6.5GW of coal-based capacities. However, according to the NEP, taking into account 48GW of coal capacity already under implementation, no fresh additions would be needed until 2027.

The renewable energy capacity is expected to be 175GW by 2021-22, from 69GW currently, with solar accounting for around 100GW. According to estimates by Bridge to India—the consultancy and knowledge services provider in the Indian renewable market—the country added 9.1GW of solar utility capacity in 2017-18, an increase of 72% over the previous fiscal. Recently, Union minister RK Singh commented that India is likely to achieve this milestone much earlier and that the target has been revised to around 225GW of renewables capacity.

While the emphasis on renewable sources is a good thing and shows our commitment towards mitigating climate change, it need not necessarily be a wise decision. Renewables—wind and solar—are not reliable sources of constant power supply. Just like Indian agriculture, they are very vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and weather. Last month (in June), Britain went nine days without wind power due to calm weather conditions and low wind speed. A recent study carried out by India’s power ministry also mentions that the country’s plan to produce 55% energy from renewable sources by 2030 is overambitious. The ministry has expressed concerns over the fact that there is no fresh proposal to set up coal-based capacities to meet the base load. Further, to make the renewables support the grid, grid integration is necessary, which currently is a challenge. In addition, some experts point to the fact that the amount of coal and petrochemical inputs that go into the production of a windmill don’t offer much of an advantage in terms of carbon emissions when accounting for the power it generates. Each windmill, on an average, uses 120 tonnes of coal for its metal structure. Its blades are made of materials derived from oil, and are generally not recycled.

India’s solar sector, too, appears to be in a limbo. The Indian Solar Manufacturers Association (ISMA)—the registered association of companies engaged in manufacturing of solar cells, modules and glass for modules in India—has demanded the imposition of a 95% safeguard duty on the imports of solar cells and modules. The Solar Power Developers Association (SPDA)—the national association representing India’s upcoming solar power generators and developers—says that the imposition of safeguard duties can jeopardise further capacity additions that are needed to meet India’s renewable energy target.

Despite all the ill-treatment to coal, it is still expected to account for around 45% of the installed capacity in 2021-22. Coal-based capacities are often plagued by low PLF, or plant load factor. A seasonal pick-up in electricity demand and good availability of coal have helped improve PLF in the recent months. Still, as of June 26, around 10GW and 8GW of coal-based capacity faced critical and super-critical stock levels of coal, respectively. While Coal India Limited (CIL) has been trying to increase its production, getting the adequate amount of coal to the power plants remains a major challenge, given the poor railway infrastructure. If coal is still to be the backbone of India’s electricity supply in the years to come, it demands attention. Coal-based capacities have implications beyond meeting India’s energy needs. According to estimates, one-fifth of gross non-performing assets in the banking system belong to the power sector. And about a third of the stressed power assets have become unviable due to the non-availability of regular domestic coal supply.

India is a developing economy and, still, a vast share of its population lives with its energy needs unmet. As the economy grows, our energy needs are only bound to increase. Coal is abundant in the country and we should use it to fuel the country’s growth and development. Renewables have been subsidised to make them viable, while there is an additional cess on coal. While the push towards cleaner renewable sources is appreciable, it should not be at the cost of making energy expensive and unreliable. The overall footprint of fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, at the moment is much less when accounting for the energy they provide. India should make a sustainable switch to renewable sources of energy, without forgetting the fact that the availability of cheap and reliable energy holds the key to growth and development.

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First published on: 03-07-2018 at 04:00 IST