Renewable Energy Future

‘Third Industrial Revolution’

Gilbert Sebastian

In early November 2013, Prof Ramprasad Sengupta (Distinguished Fellow, India Development Foundation and Visiting Professor, NIPFP) presented a very authentic paper titled, 'The Third Industrial Revolution and Sustainable Energy Development in India' at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvanan-thapuram.

By 'Third Industrial Revolution', he meant the combination of communication technology, energy development and skill development through human development. The second industrial revolution was about advancements in electrical and electronic technologies and hydrocarbons-driven transportation. The first industrial revolution ushered in mechanization : steam-powered printing press that enabled mass education spread. No doubt it was one of its major contributions. The paper was basically about the development of renewable energy resources which are biotic and non-biotic. This growth path means power production through renewable sources, solar power for every plant and house, interconnec-tivity of renewable energy to grid power and energy system efficiency with the use of internet, automobiles driven by electricity, hydrogen and fuel cell. It is a great possibility that hydrogen is abundant in nature and is combustible without polluting effects. Yet another technological possibility is 3-D printing through digitisation.

These technological possibilities open the way towards a capitalism which will be spatially distributed as against the spatially concentrated capitalism of earlier times. Yet who will control it remains an open question.
The world is still grappling with the problems of the second industrial revolution. Today, 50 per cent of the world's energy needs are met from carbon-based fossil fuels. G-20 countries produce unsustainably high amounts of Green House Gases (GHGs), as recorded by Global Footprint Network which analyses the extent of ecological footprints left by various countries and in particular, carbon footprints unabsorbed by oceans. India is already on a low carbon growth path during the economic reforms initiated since early 1990s. However, China's recent growth path has left ecological footprints far exceeding sustainable limits. The carbon intensity of GDP can and should be brought down all across the world. There is a new technology being developed for carbon capture, liquifying and storage under the soil.

The energy intensity of GDP in Brazil at 0.087 is commendably low, the corresponding figure for the United States is 0.169 and for India it is even higher at 0.1966 which is a matter of concern.

In India's electricity generation, coal-based thermal power takes a disproportionately high share of 56 percent. The share of hydro-electricity is 17 percent; that of non-utility, 15 percent; that of renewable grid energy, 10 percent; and that of nuclear energy, 2 percent.

A whopping 38.5 percent of the total export earning of India is expended on the fossil fuels of coal, oil and natural gas.

Only 28 per cent of the grid energy is being utilised owing to loss in transmission to the extent of a massive 72 percent. The discussion from the floor also indicated how the technology of superconductivity is already available and provides an optimistic scenario.

At the existing level of technology, among the various sources of renewable energy, the per unit cost of production is the lowest in Small Hydro-power units at Rs 3.54-4.88 and Wind power with Rs 3.73-5.96. These are followed thirdly by Biomass power and fourthly by Biogas. Solar power with a per unit cost of production at Rs 10.39-12.46 involves the highest cost as of today. However, solar energy has the highest potential and technological advancement is fast bringing down per unit costs of solar power whereas it has not happened in other sectors.

One positive development in the 12th Five Year Plan in India is the scheme of issuing tradable certificates to producers of renewable power. Prof Ramprasad estimated that by 2031-32, around 16 percent of the energy requirements of India could be met through sources of renewable energy. He indicated that nuclear power is no clean energy, not only because it can cause huge disasters arising from natural calamities but more importantly so because small leakages could cause long-term damage to the environment.

He also stressed the need to develop sustainable technologies in agriculture as there is a technological stagnation in agriculture.

The seminar conveyed the important message that there is need for a shift away from carbon economy towards hydrogen economy. Prof Ramprasad pinned his hopes on private initiatives in developing various renewable energy resources. However, there were others who expressed concern at the withdrawal of the State from these sectors. It was agreed upon that Local Self Governments could play a significant role in this respect. The discussion pictured an optimistic scenario for the future of the planet earth with so many technological alternatives on renewable energy available which includes even possibilities of tidal energy and energy from ocean currents. However, apprehensions were expressed that powerful countries like the United States and other vested interests in the fossil-fuel sector would not permit these new sustainable technologies on renewable energy to take effect unless the carbon-based bio-fuels face exhaustion over the next five decades. In any case, the vision of an energy future with non-carbon based and non-nuclear technologies is heartening.

Vol. 46, No. 26, Jan 5 -11, 2014

Your Comment if any