Towards a fossil-free India

M Ramesh | Updated on January 11, 2021

Title: Fossil free Author: Sumant Sinha Publisher: HarperBusiness Price: ₹499

The data-rich book chalks out the challenges and opportunities in India’s renewables push

Few are more qualified to write about a fossil-freeing of India than Sumant Sinha, the founder of India’s biggest renewable energy company, ReNew Power — a company, as his book notes, which has attracted over a $1 billion of equity from all over the world and $4 billion in debt.

With so much skin in the game, Sinha has vacuumed-up a mountain of knowledge about a decarbonising India. His 328-page book, Fossil Free, is a synthesis of his experience and insights. The most remarkable feature of the book is its easy style. You only have to run your eyes through the lines for the information to leap into your head.

The book is divided into two parts — the first deals with ‘the great energy transitions’ and the second, ‘re-imagining a carbon-light future’. The early chapters of the first part are largely historical — they flow through coal and steam, kerosene and oil inventions and electricity in the days of Edison and Tesla and deep background about climate change and pollution — all of which, though interesting, are more fit for an on-the-couch-read on a rain-washed day.

Renewable rise

The book really starts whistling from the last chapter of the first part (chapter 7) on ‘the imminent rise of the third transition — the rise of renewables’.

Part-II provides an eagle’s eye view of the Indian clean-tech sector. The author discusses the rise of renewables and challenges the sector faces. There is an interesting chapter on ‘distributed energy resources’, anchored on rooftop solar — where Sinha explains why, while large-scale solar plants have blossomed swiftly, rooftop solar is still a laggard.

Even as the potential is much larger than is generally believed (“easily above 120 GW”), the sub-sector faces headwinds. While the better-known issues of discoms playing truant by throttling net metering rules are dealt with clearly, Sinha also shines a light on the other major issue — credit availability.

“To finance the full distributed solar potential would mean to allocate $8 billion a year in credit to this sector, or 5-7 per cent of all of India’s annual credit levels in 2019, which seems like an overstretch,” he says.

The next chapters take the readers through solar thermal, smart grids, batteries and electric vehicles and finally the opportunities for entrepreneurs and funders. The discussion on solar thermal underscores its vast untapped potential. While the Chinese have a stranglehold over PV, there is a big scope for local production of solar thermal equipment.

He highlights the hurdles in solar thermal adoption — bigger upfront costs, complex engineering of equipment, land availability and so on — but concludes the chapter on an optimistic note, saying “it is only a matter of time” before it gets mainstreamed. In the chapter on batteries, there is a lively (even if disturbing) discussion on how China is gaining a grip over raw material supplies by buying up all the mines in Africa and South America.

The book makes for delectable reading for two reasons.

First, there is a lot of number crunching, in easy and telling terms. For example, the author calculates the demand for energy storage, segment by segment, and estimates that by 2030, India would need 100 GWhr of capacity, roughly $7.5 billion to $15 billion in sales. (He makes a strong pitch for an SEZ-route to engender 10 GWh of capacity, which would cost $1.2 billion.) Another example, in the chapter on EV, he compares the economics of Tata Nexon petrol, which costs ₹8 lakh, and Tata Nexon electric, which costs ₹14 lakh, and concludes that the EV beats the petrol version by ₹3 lakh in ownership costs over a 10-year time frame.

Second, in each chapter, Sinha takes note of the challenges and lists out suggestions for overcoming them. For instance, for distributed electricity (including rooftop solar) he suggests ‘community solar’ (mini grids) and virtual power plants (where discoms own many small rooftop or ground-mounted solar plants, which together form a power plant).

Overall, the book is a wealth of information, but there are some gaps. First, the book could have contained more anecdotal information — more stories from real life.

Challenges ahead

Second, given Sinha’s background in finance, one would have expected insights into clean-tech financing. True, it is touched upon, but the meat is missing.

Third, there is no mention of energy markets, which are sure to play a big role on how the renewable energy sector shapes up. A lot is happening here. Few are better qualified than Sinha to predict whether merchant renewable capacities could come up with the advent of ‘green term-ahead’ markets.

Fourth, the chapter on batteries leaves a gap inasmuch as the author does not touch upon non-lithium chemistries, (such as sodium, zinc, iron) under electrochemical batteries, or non-electrochemical storage technologies such as redox flow batteries, compressed air or even hydrogen. For sure, none of these is anywhere near being main-streamed, but their heads are peeping over the horizon and the reader would have been wiser for a discussion on them.

Fifth, while talking of EVs, Sinha doesn’t bring in the 2-wheeler/3-wheeler play, which is where the game begins. It would have been interesting to know his views on how the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ powers the growth in this sector.

Sixth, there is hardly any mention of renewable energy other than wind and solar. It is true that today these are almost all of the sector, but there’s a lot of bang in other forms such as hydrogen, ocean energy and alternative fuels. These, rather than early history of energy, would have made the book ‘fuller’, but regardless, Fossil Free is a very good and useful read.

Published on January 10, 2021

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