Opinion

Working for a decarbonised planet

Jairam Varadaraj | Updated on April 20, 2021

Green future Long-term plans are needed to shape a carbon-neutral future   -  istock.com

To transit to clean energy systems, we need to tap alternatives and consume prudently

For centuries, fossil fuels have generated most of the energy required to propel our cars, power our businesses, and keep the lights on in our homes. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, humans have released nearly 2.5 trillion tonnes of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, raising atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 67 per cent.

After more than a century and a half of industrialisation, deforestation, and large-scale agriculture, quantities of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen to record levels not seen in three million years. Temperatures the world over have witnessed significant increases with scientists predicting the global average temperature could increase by 2.3 degrees Celsius by 2050.

As we emerge from the disruption caused by the pandemic, it is necessary to reflect on a disconcerting possibility — what if the immediate crisis we’re facing today brings with it lessons about a more existential threat. Covid-19 could be an unprecedented test of our ability to manage future energy-related risks and climate hazards.

Climate change is a chronically defining issue of our time and the toll on humanity and the environment range from air and water pollution to global warming, from shifting weather patterns that threaten food production, to rising sea levels that increase the risk of catastrophic flooding, to rising temperatures acting as the perfect conduit for the spread of infectious diseases, the impacts of climate change are global and unprecedented in scale.

The wasted power

If we hypothetically peg the average price of electricity in India, at ₹7 kilowatt-hour, the global value of energy stands between $15-16 trillion. That is the size of energy that is consumed, and the unfortunate part is that only 30 to 40 per cent of this $15-16 trillion is put to use. The rest is wasted in production, transmission, and the process of actually using the energy. Industries worldwide pay way more than actual usage and while they use just about half of what they pay for, the rest goes to waste via heat, leakages, and inefficient equipment.

As a country, our per capita energy consumption is 90 per cent lower than the US and 80 per cent lower than China. However, we are progressively going up the scale in our standard of living and our electricity bills, pandemic notwithstanding. It goes without saying; we will be paying a big price!

The fundamental question is how we find a paradigm that addresses all at once the challenges of high energy prices, energy security and independence, air pollution, and global climate change.

The renewable push

Indeed, over the last decade, we have seen a positive shift towards expanding our renewable energy capacity, both on a local and global level. Some of the renewable energy sources dominating the global market for new generation capacity include hydrogen, wind and solar.

The electricity sector has the biggest share of 30 per cent, and on the path of decarbonization, electrification will become the main energy carrier, the bulk of it being generated by renewable energy. Heating is second with 12 per cent and the transport sector comes last with only 3.8 per cent of alternative energy sources with room for improvement. But irrespective of how energy is generated, it is important to look at consumption. Solar power for example requires significant land investments for set up.

Also, solar photovoltaic cells have an expiry date and become e-waste. It’s important, irrespective of how cleanly we generate energy, that we make very judicious use of energy for the earth’s future. There are multiple ways through which we can realise increased energy savings, via reduced consumption and better optimisation.

(1) The pandemic has reshaped our systems and lifestyles and also accelerated technology adoption. This has had a significant and positive impact on energy consumption largely driven by reduced daily travel, migration to the home office, virtual conferences compared to the in-person meeting energy-efficient usage of buildings, and information and communications technologies. Adopting basic lifestyle changes can facilitate deeper emissions reductions.

(2) With the majority of the world population living in cities, the argument for building safer, smart cities is compelling. Investments need to be focused on low-carbon, sustainable and long-term solutions that embrace electrification and decentralisation, in smart energy systems, power grids, and recharging infrastructure. Providing public space back to people and nature, building green infrastructure spanning parks, rainwater harvesting, and permeable pavements, and creating short radius cities where all residents can meet most of their needs within a short walk or bicycle ride from their homes.

(3) Circular economy practices can also drive aggressive reductions in energy demand and emissions. At our manufacturing plants for example — renewable energy generated through windmills contributes to approximately 15 per cent of our factory’s energy needs. More than 20 million litres of water obtained through rainwater harvesting is used to maintain greenery around our manufacturing plant. Reusing, recycling, and reducing the use of water, metals, resources, residues, and raw materials, in general, should be amplified.

(4) Manufacturing industries use billions of dollars on power facilities and the energy waste counts for 30 per cent of it. Conducting routine energy audits, together with implementing smart electricity consumption systems can ensure improved energy usage while stabilising the input voltage. To cite our example — installing IoT-enabled energy management systems has improved our energy efficiency at our plants by over 24 per cent.

Heavy machinery operation consumes a huge chunk of energy, and we’ve seen that the configuration of air compressors for example is key to reducing energy usage. If a company’s demand for air fluctuates and they buy a machine that gives them a fixed amount of air, there will be wastage. As air compressor manufacturers, we believe it is our responsibility to right size compressors for our customers’ requirements.

Variable control systems, variable frequency systems, Heat Recovery Systems (HRS) systems for example ensure significant savings in energy costs translating to a reduction in carbon footprint while reducing the environmental impact.

To conclude, as we move ahead to the new possible, we will need to establish long-term energy planning strategies, define targets, policies and regulations that promote and shape carbon-neutral energy systems.

Both the public and the private sectors will need to work hand in hand to bring about this transformation. And each of us, as citizens of the earth have the responsibility to take decisive actions to accelerate clean energy transitions and be prudent about energy consumption. We need to put the world on a path to reaching our climate goals and net-zero emissions.

The writer is Managing Director, Elgi Equipments Ltd

Published on April 20, 2021

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