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Save power, it could help save Earth

Monday, 20 June 2011 - 2:18am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Few people look at energy as a resource that must be used sagaciously. They do not realise, for instance, that one unit of electricity requires large amounts of coal and oil. These are excavated from the ground.

Few people look at energy as a resource that must be used sagaciously. They do not realise, for instance, that one unit of electricity requires large amounts of coal and oil. These are excavated from the ground.

Thus they scar the earth. But when used, they also pollute. So while electricity may be a clean fuel, if the source is coal or oil, it does mar either the earth or the air, often both.

To find out how this message could be sent across to consumers of electricity, DNA called in some of the best experts in this field for a panel discussion.

Moderated by DNA’s RN Bhaskar, it involved (in alphabetical order) Banmali Agrawala, executive director, strategy and business development, Tata Power Ltd; OP Gupta — IAS, general manager, BEST [Brihanmumbai Electric Supply & Transport Undertaking]; Radheshyam Mopalwar — IAS, member secretary, Maharashtra Pollution Control Board; Dr Anjali Parasnis, fellow and coordinator, TERI [The Energy & Resources Institute]; and Valsa Nair Singh — IAS, secretary, department of environment, government of Maharashtra.

Below are the excerpts.

If you go by statistics, urban areas are the major consumers and within urban areas, surprisingly, buildings and residential areas consume more electricity. [This is in addition to] industries that are energy guzzlers and, nowadays, major malls or buildings, big complexes, etc do consume more power. But on an average, more than 40% is consumed or contributed by residential zones.

We can’t call most of it a wastage as we pay for every unit of electricity consumed. And still we feel and see that there is a lot of scope for improvement and for conservation of energy. I feel that in addition to residential areas, we need to now focus on malls, common settlements, etc. There are also many social issues, which come into the picture. Like if it is raining a lot, where do we take our kids? The mall is the only place where we go during summer, where it is comfortable. So there is a lot of debate on what is comfort and what is socially required and really essential.

Singh: I agree. Environment and energy are so closely interlinked. In the government, both were a single department till a few years ago. There was a major conflict of interest within the department and we had to bifurcate it.

I would like to put the power sector in two ways. One is the power generation companies themselves, who are emitters of pollutants. And we are trying new ways and new technology to curb that. Better practices, more pollution control devices, etc. And the specifications for a power generation company are much higher than they used to be.

Then there is the issue of power management, which is so closely linked to the environment The more you conserve, not only are you saving energy, but also helping the environment. The government has been taking steps to deal with this. In fact, the ministry of power in New Delhi has introduced the star rating of appliances, especially with this is mind. Star rating began for a couple of consumer items, but now they are increasing the scope of items. The government wants you to purchase only these star rated items. So we are creating a demand for these products and they have helped reduce power consumption.

Another area of focus for the state government is encouraging green buildings. I think energy efficiency and conservation in the construction sector is by far where the maximum change is possible. This sector itself leaves about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. If we can make any small difference in this sector, the results will be large. So we have taken a lot of care to make green buildings happen.

The ministry of environment has given an order that if any building goes by the green norm, it will be taken up with top priority for environment clearances.

Slowly we are moving towards only-green buildings. This is one of our key focus areas for the environmental vision we are working towards for Mumbai. There is a new policy called the Cool Roof policy. This is practised in some other states but we are yet to do it. We are still working out the statistics. This is a very good way of conserving energy. It is mainly by painting one’s roof completely white or green. I am told that the quantum of energy that can be saved is very high.

Gupta: This is a very important aspect — demand cycle management — especially from a power distribution company’s perspective. Now, MERC [Maharashtra Electricity Regulatory Commission] has a full-fledged programme for this, where they ask all utility companies to formulate a policy to make people aware about demand cycle management. In a place like Mumbai, demand has certainly outstripped supply for the past few years. So at peak demand level, there are problems regarding matching supply with demand.

One very efficient way is to bring down demand. A simple thing is setting air conditioner temperature settings. Some places you go, you find that people are actually feeling cold. Yet the air conditioner setting is at 16 degrees. Now, in a place like India during winter, you find people set air conditioner at 16 degrees even if it’s 16 degrees outside. Some people may do this for cleanliness. But I think for human comfort, 22/24 degrees is reasonable.

Second is energy efficient appliances. So the star rating policy becomes relevant whereby utilities offer some kind of subsidy to replace your existing equipment. Every utility is supposed to set aside a part of the money as demand management fund. This fund could thus be used for firstly, educating customers regarding demand and other major issues and secondly, to help them replace inefficient equipment and appliances with energy efficient ones.

Replacing bulbs with more energy efficient LED lighting and the like, replacing the traditional choke in a tubelight with an electronic choke, advanced regulators for your fan air conditioners and fridges.

I feel if you compare the users of electricity with star appliances and no-star appliances, there is a difference of as much as 25%. When it comes to appliances like refrigerators, which run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, it can lead to substantial savings.

Agrawala: We need to first understand that we as a country are short of energy sources and are not blessed with energy sources. Going ahead, we are going to be even shorter on energy sources, given the growth path that we have cast for ourselves.

First, this is a message, the political leadership, the system, needs to appreciate, and then this message needs to be conveyed to the larger audience and the people to understand. This is a political job and it needs to be done.

Secondly, moving ahead, a bulk of our infrastructure, a bulk of our power generation or other forms of energy generation mechanisms and devices that we have, are yet to be constructed and built. So we may have 170 odd gigawatts (GW) of power today. We need more than twice that capacity in less than a decade.

So if we have that new kind of build opportunity still available to us, I think it is a great opportunity to actually build and design a future now and we do not really have the burden of a very inefficient power system.

We need to put all that has to be done into two buckets. One: we need to have some rules, regulations, standards, principles that must be followed. Maybe even by law. Just as we have certain environmental regulations that clearly stipulate what kind of emissions you are allowed. 

Of course, it is expensive to do certain things. But we as a society have said that these are the norms by which we will live. Why don’t we have similar rules and regulations and even laws when it comes to energy efficiency?

So the same star rating and so on, some of the basic principles, need to be converted into legislation. Just as we have legislation for rainwater harvesting, a lot of those, as you explained very rightly, would need to do with the building activity.

Second is the need to have a method of incentives and penalties for some of the other forms of energy saving that might be available.

DNA: How do you deal with excessive consumption?
Agrawala: I think it is difficult to sit in judgement over who consumes more and who consumes less. It is a very subjective piece. Take the example of malls. We have tried to discuss with mall owners: “You are bright all the time, and consume too much of electricity”. The mall owner’s point is, “For me, unless and until I have that bright light, no one will enter my mall. That is my necessity.” What is necessity for one is excess for another.

A better way of dealing with it would be to have a commercial basis on which people could make decisions — pricing mechanisms, incentives and disincentives.

Having said that, if at all cajoling, coaxing, and messaging has to be adopted, children are the most effective medium and platform to spread that message. We have a lot of schooling initiatives to this end. We picked up the cue from the government itself a few years back.

We have the so-called Energy Club and I think children’s understanding of these issues, their response, is much better and is of a far higher order and more mature than many grown-ups. And I think the manner in which they are further able to influence society, parents, friends, teachers, school, etc... that multiplier effect is tremendous. [Tata Power has covered more than 400 schools, and sensitised more than 2.8 million citizens across India through 154 mini Energy Clubs, helping save over 3 million units of electricity]. 

Then we need to have an overall strategy in terms of how energy will be used.

First, energy and electricity have become more or less fungible. What was energy yesterday is electricity today and vice versa. If we move towards electrically driven cars, is that primary energy or is that electricity? And I think the more we go on, the more this is going to become fungible. Keeping that in mind we, and the administration, need to have an overall planning perspective in place.

By that I mean, if you see what are the uses of energy —  essentially, it is used either for lighting or transportation. In lighting, it has to do with buildings and so on. In transportation, it means looking at the need to have a mass rapid transport system in place. Can we make them more efficient? I think that kind of a policy framework is something the administration needs to look at, visualise and then implement.

Because when we talk about efficiency, one focus would be at the individual level. But at a system level, the impact on efficiency is far greater and I think we need to look at system efficiencies rather than individual elements. If you look at the overall energy consumption that we as a country have, coal is of course our predominant source of energy, followed by oil.

But I think biomass is even more or equal to the amount of oil that we consume. But the efficiency of using biomass in the country is poor. It is about 4%. Thus we need to spend an equal amount of effort in innovation and finding technical solutions that are typical to our own requirement within the country. I don’t see that happening. When was the last time you saw an energy-saving solution of any substance that would have comes out from our own stables?

Gupta: I wish to talk about mass transportation. The role of the government is supposed to become more and more important in this field. As of today, where mass transport systems and the environment are concerned, we have hardly put in any restrictions from the environmental side to the transport commissions.

Of course, very recently I was happy to see the news item that every vehicle manufacturer has to declare the energy efficiency of its vehicles in terms or mileage or whatever benchmarks they put in. But see the overall policy of the government on that aspect. There is a lot to be desired.

There has been talk that there should be some kind of a green cess on these SUVs and high-energy guzzler vehicles. If you compare the normal policy today, buses have an excise duty of 16%, or between 14 and 16%. But for cars, it varies from 0-8%.

See the road tax and the passenger and motor vehicle tax. Most of the cars, now part of the policy registration, have only one tax, which includes road tax and motor vehicle tax. Whereas, for all passenger transportation, commercial and public sector, taxation in terms of motor vehicle tax or passenger tax is much higher. So what are our priorities there? To promote a particular industry or to promote mass transportation with efficient use of energy by per capita?

Agrawala: I think if on one hand we are talking about shortage of energy and the need to save, on the other hand we can’t talk about subsidising energy as well. You don’t subsidise something you are in short supply of.

Of course, there is a case to be made where a certain, basic, minimum, subsistence level of energy consumption needs to be made available to all at an affordable price, and there is no discussion about that at all. We have an obligation as a society to provide this and it is a must. But once you cross that threshold, where is the case for subsidising that energy?

We still have diesel being subsidised for the purpose of power generation. We still have electricity being subsidised. Why do we need to that? I think unless the consumer is able to see the full price of energy, he is not going to be able to make those commercial decisions. And this will also extend to things like time of the day power tariff. Where is the case for having uniform tariff right across the day? It doesn’t make sense.

DNA: What about solar power for villages?
Parasnis: There are many policy initiatives already and maybe they have not got the right publicity. One scheme that the government has started is that of the eco village for environmental and economical balance to be maintained in the villages. It has spread over 14,000 villages of the state.

One of the aspects of that is maintaining energy efficiency and encouraging the use of solar panels. More funding is the incentive that they receive. They have to do forestation and also ensure that the saplings are there after one or two years. The money is linked to your performance. And one of the indicators is to get in solar energy.

Agrawala: Just to come back to a point that you made about renewables, I would say that renewables even today are commercially viable. And I say this for a good reason. Let’s take solar power for example. What is it that someone in rural India is doing when he doesn’t have any power? He is running a diesel operated genset.

The cost of running that diesel gen set is anywhere between Rs13 and Rs15 per unit. The cost of solar power today is lower than that. I would argue that if you can use solar power, particularly in rural areas, which can replace diesel, I think you are close, if not already there, in terms of the cost of operations.

I do understand that there are some issues with respect to storage etc. But if you can get the cost of solar power to be equal to or less than the cost of using a diesel genset, which also is about Rs12-13, I think you are already in business. The other aspect is to look at the delivered cost of energy to many of our rural and remote areas because of our transmission and distribution lines, losses, etc, which in Maharashtra is between Rs5 and Rs6 per unit.

Look at wind power which is easily at around Rs3.5 or Rs4. I think we are very close to finding out models by which we can cater to some of these areas, which are in the hinterland, rural and not connected and straightaway leapfrog into renewable decentralised solutions, rather than going the traditional way of laying transmission lines.

My second point is that if my cost of delivering power over there is Rs6, I am able to recover only Re1 for whatever reason, I am subsiding it by Rs5. [Would it not make sense] for a government to be willing to give Rs2.5 to someone, because in any case [it is] incurring the cost of Rs5 to get power over there, and that too for a few hours in a day?

[This way] the government shares some of that subsidy with somebody locally who is able to set up a decentralised system that is able to provide a better quality of power for more number of hours. Thus, without any increase in cost either to the system or consumer, you can work out a commercial solution that provides better service. We need to look at newer models of delivery of power to various consumers.

Gupta: Today, the model which exists, mostly takes care of personal lighting and maybe water heating. What you are suggesting is more like pumping, agriculture sector, etc. Those areas somehow still grapple with technology issues. Without giving it to a grid, can decentralised solutions be made available?

Parasnis: It can be made available and we have successfully shown it in the last 40 years. We have carried out very detailed energy mapping across India and we strongly believe in giving decentralised solutions. However, when people think of renewable, the first thing that comes to mind is solar — a misconception. Solar energy implementation could be taken up effectively without government assistance. We have successfully proven that through our programme ‘Lighting a Billion Lives’.

Moreover through these decentralised solutions, biomass could be used effectively, through gassy fires or bio methanation. Biomass gassy fire is a successful technology, which can be implemented for both thermal as well as power applications. It is not only power that will give you a solution, thermal applications are equally important, especially in our remote areas. So I feel that rather than focussing on one technology we have to check what is the potential for a particular area and accordingly give a solution.

Usually we talk about sustainability and three pillars — social, economical and environmental. The social angle is equally important. We have to, first of all, train people how to use it. We have to strengthen the base and only then give a technology and then expect a proper outcome or output.

Gupta: But there is a problem. In India, where entrepreneurship is so strong, especially in rural areas where people just try to find some solution, somehow the right solutions are not coming forth. Though the demand is there, for most villagers, power is not available. The solution, which people have found, is inverter power. That is why you have so many inverter companies. But no one has come up with [a renewables] solution. After power generation became de-licensed, there is no bar on setting up a 5-10 megawatt plant in semi urban areas, solar power capacities have still not come up.

Agrawala: I would say, generation is de-licensed but distribution is not. To implement what you are suggesting, you need a distribution licence. Distribution in rural areas does not need a licence as per the Electricity Act. But to do that you need areas to be notified as rural. That again gets caught up in the question: ‘Which is a rural area, and which is not a rural area’. And you will actually find, when you go to the interiors of Bihar, there are companies, which have actually strung their own cables by running small solutions into peoples homes and they are running like a mini grid.

I think there are some few bottlenecks here and there in the system that need to be cleared up, which I feel will unleash a fair amount of entrepreneurial solutions.

Mopalwar: This is a very important aspect. The law is there. The authority to implement that law of decentralised distribution of power, lies with the regulator, who is again outside the government. So technically speaking, the whole framework exists. All you need now is to put it in action.

Singh: We need to encourage research in new technologies that can be used. I want to say that the government has taken lots of steps towards this. They are little steps compared to the quantum of work left to be done, as it is a vast ocean. We are strongly supporting energy audits for existing buildings, retrofitting, if required.

Mantralaya itself has undergone energy audits and changing their appliances to more efficient ones. The government has encouraged environmental awareness in schools. We just started a new scheme called ‘Environmental Service Announcement’ in schools, where children do hands-on projects.

Overall, environmental clearance of any project in the state, be it residential, is given only when solar power is made mandatory there. It is mandatory to have solar power for common areas and for water heating. Till then, there are no clearances.

Mopalwar: We spoke about these gassy fires. The 250 KV plants or 1 megawatt plants could be aplenty provided there is commercialisation of entrepreneurship at the village level. There are people who want to set it up but the problem is distribution. If you want to classify it, they will have to put it in a grid. You will require policy intervention for connecting to the grid or allowing smaller entrepreneurs to actually get power in the villages, which will take care of it.

DNA: Can you vend power if you generate it? Can a producer sell it to his neighbours?
Agrawala: You are not allowed to distribute without a licence.
Gupta: When we talk of service delivery, the government tends to take this stand that it alone should have the right to deal with it.
Agrawala: I would say that the state government itself could set up these solutions. Ownership is incidental.

Mopalwar: Cost of solar power at Rs17 or Rs13 because of the cost factor. The cost should go down. The high cost is on account of the monopoly of technology.

Agrawala: It should come down to Rs8-10 in five years. What we are comparing is the price today. This is the cost of solar power. You are pegging it with fossil fuel. The price of fossil fuel will keep escalating.

DNA: So we have been talking about three important initiative to save energy — education, policy and innovation. For Mumbai, which is itself a large guzzler, would you offer anything beyond these three?
Banmali: People like us who are in the business of running a utility, I think one of the responsibilities we have is that this being such a socially relevant and crucial commodity, there is a certain limit to returns, profitability, etc that one can make in this sector.  I think this is not a sector — includes the entire energy space — is not a space for speculation.

It is not a space for short-term play or making entry and exits within a span of three or four years. If that is the flavour of investment we are going to see and we are seeing some of that, it will create problems. This is a sector for the long term and those who are willing to stay in it for decades and hundreds of years should be there. Others should move out.

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