The latest report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) counts India among the countries more vulnerable to climate change, which underscores the need for urgent action. India has committed to raise its non-fossil fuel capacity to 500 GW by 2030, from 152 GW now — a tall order, given the complexities in each source of non-fossil fuel energy. It is hard to miss the preponderance of solar in renewables installations in recent years, but to triple its non-fossil fuel power in nine years, India has to look beyond solar. Wind is an obvious candidate, with an estimated potential of 700 GW at a hub height of 120 meters — which is easy to reach with today’s technology — but India has struggled to add even 3 GW a year (except in 2016-17, when it added 5.4 GW), mainly because of States’ reluctance to allocate windy sites to centrally auctioned capacities and concerns over intermittency of generation. In all these years, India has built up 40 GW of wind capacity; it wouldn’t be realistic to expect too much from this sector within a decade. Offshore wind is a chicken-and-egg situation. Today, offshore wind power is too expensive — around ₹8 a kWhr — essentially due to high installation costs. These costs will come down only with scale, but installations can be scaled up only if energy costs come down.
India cannot redeem its 500 GW promise unless large hydro, nuclear and ocean energy are brought into play. Large hydro, whose potential, estimated at 45 GW, is thrice as much as the existing capacity, has been hampered mainly by environmental concerns and rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) issues. But large hydro is doable. Between 1971 and 1991, India built 1,592 large dams (according to the National Register of Large Dams) , averaging 80 a year; there is no evidence of serious impairment of ecology, or of people facing hardships. Nuclear power, capacity today stands at a dismal 6,780 MW. There seems to be little scope for adding more than the proposed 10 PHWRs of 700MW each and four more 1,000 MW plants at Kudankulam. The major problem is the ‘liability clause’, which has scared away reactor suppliers. India must choose between righteousness and practicality; given the need for climate action, the latter appears to be the button to press. Concerns over radiation leaks or neutralisation of radioactive wastes are exaggerated. Small modular reactors (SMR) are getting global attention, though none has been built. These can be sited at places vacated by retired thermal plants. India should keep a sharp eye on this source.
Finally, India — indeed the world — has ignored ocean energies. These are expensive, like offshore wind, but costs can be tamed with scale. Oceans, like large hydro and nuclear, can provide 24x7 base load energy. As for coal, its share in the mix has to be curbed for its emission issues, although India has the fuel in plenty. It will remain essential as a baseload power source. Carbon emissions can be controlled through carbon capture and utilisation (or sequestration) technologies. India needs a mix of all sources in the right measure.
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