‘India’s LED programme, inspiration for many countries’

M Ramesh | Updated on January 12, 2018

Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency

BusinessLine caught up with Fatih Birol, Executive Director, International Energy Agency, at the 8th Clean Energy Ministerial — a policy-cum-technical conference of clean energy ministers of 25 countries — held in Beijing last week. (The Indian delegation was headed by the Minister for Science and Technology, Harsh Vardhan, who now holds the additional charge of the Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change). Birol, a Turkish economist, spoke about a range of issues relating to energy, from LED lights to the developments in Qatar. Excerpts:

India joined the IEA recently (March 30, this year). How does IEA look at the new entrant?

I am delighted and honoured to have India as a member of the IEA family. (Now) we have more voices from Asia, more voices from the developing world and more voices for clean energy. We are following developments in India very closely and many of these developments make us very happy.

We learn that one of such developments that the IEA is looking at is the lighting programme (the Ujala programme, which is the replacement of old lamps with the more energy efficient LED bulbs). Is it true that the Agency is bringing out a case study on it?

We have been following India’s LED programme for a long time. In the opening session here, I highlighted this as one of the successes of clean energy work. India’s LED programme has become an inspiration for many other countries, for example, Indonesia. It is an exemplary programme and we are very, very happy with the results. (We are studying) how it is designed and implemented.

Today, there is an euphoria around renewable energy, given the falling prices of solar, but questions are raised all the time on the viability of projects. Do you think the euphoria is justified?

We think it is too early to say that all renewable energy projects make perfect economic sense. Some of them do, some don’t. To be able to say that all renewable energy projects across the board are making perfect sense — we have to be very careful before making such an assessment.

But, while some other energy sources, such as coal, are more economical, you have to think about the consequences, especially if you don’t use clean coal technologies, on air pollution and climate change.

The CEM8 has seen the launch of the ‘Advanced Power Plant Flexibility’ campaign, and in the discussions around it, it has been indicated that even thermal power plants can provide ramp-up, ramp-down flexibility to the grid. Tell us more about the campaign.

What we are saying is, we have to balance solar and wind with thermal power plants, so that the flexibility (of coal-fired plants) will balance the variability of renewable energy. We need to have a good combination of thermal power plants and renewables.

Is it technically possible to ramp-up or ramp-down generation quickly in a coal-fired power plant, as in a gas-based plant?

Yes, it is technically possible. But in order to make that happen (practically) we need to give incentives to the utilities. Many countries, such as the US, and Germany, have done that and we want to share their experience with (countries like) India and China.

Is this programme aimed at bringing out a report?

Yes, we will present a report at the next Clean Energy Ministerial in Europe next year. The report will show how to give incentives, and how technologically to ramp up (coal-fired generation), with the experiences in technology and new market design.

We are already collaborating with the Indian (and other) government(s), but the report will be presented at CEM9 next year.

But as long as you use coal, you will harm the environment and aid global warming.

(It depends upon) how you use coal. You have to make sure that most of the electricity still comes from renewables and use clean coal only when it is needed.

Talking of clean coal technologies — much was said at the press conference held to launch the ‘Energy Technology Perspectives, 2017’ about the role of ‘carbon capture, utilisation and storage’. Even today, coal power is struggling to stay competitive against renewable energy, so what is the point of CCS? (CCS refers to the technologies for capturing the CO2 produced by coal-fired plants and burying the gas deep underground.)

It is economically challenging, but today, there are 2,000 GW of coal-fired power plants in the world that are young and is very difficult to shut them down. We have to protect their value. They need to be retrofitted with CCS. We have to find ways, incentives. But as we have seen in the case of renewables, the more you build, the more costs will go down.

Today, we have only 17 of them (coal power plants with CCS). The reason why CCS costs are high is that we don’t have much experience. But at this ministerial (CEM8), the US, China, Norway and Canada have committed to give a push to CCS. After this meeting, I am hopeful about the future of CCS because many countries, including the United States, have committed to making CCS a reality.

Would there be any special funding for CCS?

That will be announced soon.

Has the Agency taken a view on the movement of energy prices in the wake of the Qatar crisis?

I think the Qatar crisis will not have a major impact on energy prices, as things stand today (June 8). But the Qatar crisis highlights the importance of energy security.

(The writer was in Beijing at the invitation of China Dialogue, an independent, non-profit dedicated to promoting understanding of China’s urgent environmental challenges.)

Published on June 12, 2017

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