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The power-guzzling Indian steel genie

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The Parliamentary Consultative Committee to the Ministry of Steel and Mines has just met. Its chairperson, the Union Minister of Steel and Mines, Narendra Singh Tomar, has following the meeting made an announcement which, if even partly pursued, will alter hugely India’s energy use, our energy mix and our emissions of CO2. Its ecological impact can barely be guessed at.

Tomar said that until 2014 India was the fourth largest producer of iron and steel in the world (after China, Japan and USA). The first five months of 2015, according to industry data, indicate that India will end the year one position higher. This possibility is seen as a triumphant landmark by the present government, for USA will then be relegated to fourth place.

As the table alongside shows, India produced 81.3 million tons of steel in 2013 and 86.5 million tons in 2014 (data from the World Steel Association). The achievement that the minister is so proud about is the data for January to May 2015, during which time India produced 37.6 mt compared with the USA which produced 33.1 mt. On this basis, Tomar and the ministry and the country’s iron and steel industry see a bright future.

Country-wise steel production. Table and data: World Steel Association

Country-wise steel production. Table and data: World Steel Association

So bright indeed that Tomar (having duly consulted the mandarins who are in the know of such things in the ministry) announced that as India’s per capita steel consumption is “quite low, 60 kilograms as against the world average of 216 kilograms, this low consumption no doubt indicates huge growth potential for Indian steel industry”. It hasn’t occurred to any inside the ministry or outside it apparently to wonder whether we would get by quite nicely with 60 kg per person per year or even 50 kg, now that so much has already been built using iron and steel.

But no, Tomar has instead grandly announced to the members of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee that “India has fixed a target of 300 million tonnes production capacity by 2025 and steel ministry is working out action plan and strategies to achieve this target”!

Where did this absurd ‘target’ come from? Does the Union Minister of Steel and Mines simply make numbers up as he wanders about gawking at blast furnaces and iron ore mines or are there advisers in this ministry, in the Ministry of Power (which includes coal and renewable energy), in the Ministry of Environment, in the Ministry of Rural Development and in particular in that ministry’s Department of Land Resources, who has given him these numbers? Or has this monstrous and foolish number come from the world’s iron and steel industry and in particular its Indian private sector heavyweights?

The World Steel Association, which serves as the apex association of the metalmen, scarcely bothers to camouflauge what it wants – that the two big and neo-liberally growing Asian economies continue to feed their appetite for iron and steel. “Despite continued turbulence around the world in 2014, it has been another record year for the steel industry,” explained the Association in its 2014 statistical round-up. “Crude steel production totalled 1,665 million tonnes, an increase of 1% compared to 2013. 2014 also saw the emergence of a new phase in steel markets. For the past decade, the steel industry was dominated by events in China. The evidence is that the steel industry is now entering a period of pause before undoubtedly picking up again when markets other than China drive new demand.”

That phase concerns India, the pause is the building of new steel-making capacity in India (and the staking out of new areas, many under dense old forest, to dig for iron ore and for coal), we are the market other than China (whose steel plants are working at 70% of capacity, if that, and whose consumption growth has stopped), and it is India, in this metallic calculation, that will drive new demand. That is the reason for Tomar’s announcement of per capita kilo-consumption of steel and the 300 million ton figure.

It is scandalous that a minister in charge of a major ministry makes such an announcement without a moment’s thought given to what it means in terms of energy use and what it means in terms of raw material. It takes a great deal of energy to make a ton of steel. Industry engineers call it energy intensity and, including the wide range of methods used to make steel and the wide variety of raw materials used, this energy intensity varies from about 15 gigajoules (GJ) per ton to about 23 GJ per ton.

Put another way, it takes as much energy as 22 average urban households in India use in a month (at about 250 units, or kilowatt hours, per month each) to make a ton of steel. This is the equivalence that ought to have been discussed by the Parliamentary Consultative Committee so that choices can be made that lead us to decisions that do not bury us under kilograms of steel while we suffocate from pollution and have no trees left to provide shade. The equivalence begins with the 86.5 million tons of steel India produced in 2014. This is 237,000 tons per day. India also generated some 1.2 million gigawatt hours of electricity in 2014-15. The two measures are not operands in the same equation because steelmaking also uses coking coal directly.

What we do know is that the residential and industrial sectors consume about 40% and 30% respectively of energy generated, that the making of iron and steel is extremely energy-intensive (it is estimated to account for about 6.5% of India’s total emissions), and that this sector alone accounts for a quarter of India’s total industrial energy consumption. And this is at 86.5 million tons, whether we stand at third or fourth place on the world steelmaking victory podium.

To make these many tons (for our regulation 60 kilos per year ration) it takes a gigantic quantity of raw material. A ton of steel produced in a basic oxygen furnace (which is how 42% of our steel is made) requires 0.96 ton of liquid hot metal (this in turn comes from 1.6 ton of iron ore and 0.6 ton of coking coal) and 0.2 ton of steel scrap. A ton of steel produced in an electric-arc furnace (58% of steel is made this way in India) requires around 0.85 tons of steel scrap and supplementary material amounting to about 0.3 tons (the coal having been burnt in the thermal power plant elsewhere).

What justification can Minister Tomar and his associates provide for this mad project to enclose all Indians in choking suits of armour? it comes from the world’s foremost ironmongers, speaking through their association: “The impact of urbanisation will have a key role to play in the future. It is estimated that a little more than one billion people will move to towns and cities between now and 2030. This major flow will create substantial new demand for steel to be used in infrastructure developments such as water, energy and mass transit systems as well as major construction and housing programmes.” And there we have it – the urbanisation obsession of India translated into ever heavier per capita allotments of metal, and to hell with the trees and the hills.


Written by makanaka

July 7, 2015 at 23:18

India’s giant megawatt trap

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A panel of charts that show India’s energy consumption, imports, and dependence on fossil fuel.

A panel of charts that show India’s energy consumption, imports, and dependence on fossil fuel.

Electricity as fundamental right and energy convenience as the basis of ‘development’ in Bharat and in India. If this is what Piyush Goyal means when he says his government is “is committed to ensure affordable 24×7 power” then it will come as yet another commitment that supports energy provision and consumption as the basis for determining the well-being of Bharat-vaasis and Indians (the UPA’s Bharat Nirman was the predecessor). But the Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Power, Coal and New and Renewable Energy cannot, using such a promise, ignore the very serious questions about the kind of ‘development’ being pursued by the NDA-BJP government and its environmental and social ramifications. [This article is also posted at the India Climate Portal.]

Goyal has said, via press conferences and meetings with the media, that the NDA government is committed to ensuring affordable power at all times (’24 x 7′ is the expression he used, which must be banished from use as being a violent idea – like nature our lives follow cycles of work and rest and ’24 x 7′ violently destroys that cycle). Goyal has promised, pending the taking of a series of steps his ministry has outlined, that such a round the clock provision of electric power will be extended to “all homes, industrial and commercial establishments” and that there will be “adequate power for farms within five years”.

The summary of India’s power generation capacity, by type and by region. Source for data: Central Electricity Authority

The summary of India’s power generation capacity, by type and by region. Source for data: Central Electricity Authority

Some of the very serious questions we raise immediately pertain to what Goyal – with the help of senior ministry officials and advisers – has said. The NDA-BJP government will spend Rs 75,600 crore to (1) supply electricity through separate feeders for agricultural and rural domestic consumption, said Goyal, which will be used to provide round the clock power to rural households; and (2) on an “integrated power development initiative” which involves strengthening sub-transmission and distribution systems in urban areas. This is part of the “transformative change” the ministry has assured us is for the better. Goyal and his officials see as a sign of positive transformation that coal-based electricity generation from June to August 2014 grew by nearly 21 per cent (compared with the same months in 2013), that coal production is 9% higher in August 2014 compared with August 2013, and that Coal India (the largest coal producer company in the world which digs out 8 of every 10 tons of coal mined in India) is going to buy 250 more goods rakes (they will cost Rs 5,000 crore) so that more coal can be moved to our coal-burning power plants.

UN_Climate_Summit_2014_smWe must question the profligacy that the Goyal team is advancing in the name of round the clock, reliable and affordable electricity to all. To do so is akin to electoral promises that are populist in nature – and which appeal to the desire in rural and urban residents alike for better living conditions – and which are entirely blind to the environmental, health, financial and behavioural aspects attached to going ahead with such actions. In less than a fortnight, prime minister Narendra Modi (accompanied by a few others) will attend the United Nations Climate Summit 2014. Whether or not this summit, like many before it, forces governments to stop talking and instead act at home on tackling anthropogenic climate change is not the point. What is of concern to us is what India’s representatives will say about their commitment to reduce the cumulative impact of India’s ‘development’, with climate change being a part of that commitment. [Please see the full article on this page.]

Written by makanaka

September 13, 2014 at 18:33

Are you getting your 65 units of electricity a month?

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India's biggest cities by population and their appetite for watts. The population figures (supplied by the Central Electricity Authority in 2010) are lower than those listed in Census 2011. Hence for 2013, the peak, total sales and per capita purchase will be greater.

India’s biggest cities by population and their appetite for watts. The population figures (supplied by the Central Electricity Authority in 2010) are lower than those listed in Census 2011. Hence for 2013, the peak, total sales and per capita purchase will be greater.

If the kilowatt hour a day is the ‘lifeline’ unit of energy that a person in India is entitled to, then the purchase of an average, nationally, of 65 units of electricity a month could mean that in this 66th year after Independence, the Republic of India is able to provide sufficient energy equitably to its citizens.

Not so. The average is utterly misleading and here is why. In the city of Bengaluru (or Bangalore) the average per capita units per month purchased is 89.5, in Kolkata (the Calcutta of yore) it is 92.5, in Mumbai (the Bombay of ditto) it is 93.4, in Hyderabad it is 108.6, in Chennai (Madras, once upon a time) it is 113.8 and in New Delhi (the source of sub-continental malpractice on an imperial scale) it is 169.7. That is the tale of the table above, the data excellently provided by the Prayas Energy Group of Pune (yes also once more familiarly called Poona) and released in a working paper entitled ‘Electricity in Megacities’.

But of course there is aggressive electricity consumption in those cities of India which are sans (for now) the ‘mega’ prefix. Their inhabitants make every effort to, first, move into the category of household which has four or more rooms (not bedrooms, rooms), and in which is installed an air-conditioner, a water heater (geyser, we would call those hot water boilers, in an earlier era), a washing machine (for those cities that hadn’t a ‘dhobi ghat’ or two), a refrigerator (remember when ‘frost free’ first came along?), a television set naturally, all the better to dull ones wits with, four or five tube-lights, an equal number of ceiling or pedestal fans, a few compact fluorescent bulbs, and a computer (with a multi-megabit connection at the very least).

Total electricity consumed has more than doubled in ten years. So much for low carbon growth, let alone energy equity between rural and urban, between poor and privileged.

Total electricity consumed has more than doubled in ten years. So much for low carbon growth, let alone energy equity between rural and urban, between poor and privileged.

And where will we find these over-watted households? There is, as Census 2011 has informed us, Ahmedabad with 6.5 million inhabitants, Pune with 5.0 million, Surat 4.5 million, Jaipur 3.0 million, Kanpur 2.9 million, Lucknow 2.9 million, Nagpur 2.4 million, Ghaziabad 2.3 million, Indore 2.1 million, Coimbatore 2.1 million, Kochi 2.1 million, Patna 2.0 million and Kozhikode 2.0 million. Not ‘mega’ but in no way minor.

How many units a month of electricity are the households in these cities consuming? The monthly average of the five ‘mega’ cities (New Delhi excluded because of its off-the-charts greed for watts) is around 100 units per capita per month. Outside the ‘mega’ cities ranks and excepting a few others, electricity is not a round-the-clock service. Hence my estimate is, on the conservative side, that the 100 units per head per month can be scaled down to 80 (which is still a good fraction above the so-called national average of 65). We then have for the next 13 cities whose populations are above 2 million (Census 2011) a combined household purchase of 3.22 billion units a month! That is more than the Indian Railways consumed on its electrified railway lines in the entire year of 1985-86!

Written by makanaka

January 10, 2013 at 22:38

In pictures, 3:42 pm, Fukushima nuclear power station on 11 March

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Tepco, the Fukushima nuclear power plant operator, has released a set of pictures showing the waters rushing into the nuclear power plant on 11 March, when the tsunami hit. There are 11 pictures in this release. They show dramatically just how the nuclear plant was battered, and remind us that this is the water of the wave that flung fishing vessels four kilometres inland.

These photos were taken from the 4th floor, of the north side of the ‘Radiation Waste Treatment Facility’. There’s more news archives and material on the Fukushima nuclear emergency page and in the running blog post.

Image 01/3:42 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:42 pm (1). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 02/3:42 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:42 pm (2). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 03/3:43 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:43 pm (1). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 04/3:43 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:43 pm (2). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 05/3:43 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:43 pm (3). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 06/3:44 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:44 pm (1). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 07/3:44 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:44 pm (2). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 08/3:44 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:44 pm (3). Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 09/3:46 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:46 pm. Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 10/3:49 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:49 pm. Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Image 11/3:57 pm

Picture of Tsunami that hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, 2011 March 11. Time: Approximately at 3:57 pm. Photo: TEPCO, Japan

Images 3,4 and 5 show the ferocious maelstrom of water hammering its way through the power plant. Images 6 to 11 show some of the effects of the power of the tsunami, as it ripped away metal fixtures, threw cars around and exposed building interiors.

Written by makanaka

May 21, 2011 at 20:30

Fukushima nuclear emergency, Japan

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08 February 2017: A month short of six years after the 11 March Fukushima disaster began unfolding, the situation at the nuclear power plant has entered a new phase of danger, one which modern industrial civilisation has no experience with and very little knowledge about.

The highest radiation level at Fukushima is now much higher than the highest ever measured at Chernobyl, which was 300 sieverts per hour, an inconceivably high dose which can kill a person almost instantly. Radiation is usually measured in thousandths of a sievert, called millisieverts. For example, most people receive around 2.4 millisieverts per year from background radiation, or only 0.0002739726 per hour.

But a radiation level of 530 sieverts per hour has just been measured at Fukushima’s number 2 reactor. This new record at Fukushima is 70% higher than that of Chernobyl. (The highest level previously measured at Fukushima was 73 sieverts per hour, in March 2012.) The leakage of highly radioactive water has been continuing every day, a daily flow of radioactively contaminated groundwater into the ocean. The estimates are of about 300,000 litres per day of relatively low-level radioactive waste water. But there are storage tanks with 800,000 tons of highly radioactive water, as every day about 100 tons of water are poured on the three melted down cores.

18 December 2011: You will find the Updates archive, info links, video clips and pictures on the Japan emergency page.

Street lights shine in the abandoned town of Iitate, outside the 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, in northeast Japan. Residents were forced to evacuate the town after radiation levels from the leaking plant exceeded those inside the exclusion zone. Nov. 20, 2011. Photo: Mainichi Daily News / AP Photo / Greg Baker

More than nine months have passed since the 11 March earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan and triggered a still-unresolved disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant. This set of news reports, news features and editorial in the Mainichi Daily News reveals the chronic deception and criminal corporate irresponsibility that continue to hinder all meaningful effort to mitigate the meltdown, and to obstruct at all costs the truth.

Mainichi Daily News has said that the government has declared a stable “cold shutdown” at the plant, representing a major milestone in its handling of the disaster. The public has keenly waited for the nuclear reactors to be brought under stable control, but Japan is still standing on thin ice and is miles away from a situation where it can really declare that the crisis is under control.

In the meantime, rebuilding the lives of residents near the crippled plants has been an urgent critical challenge. On the occasion of its latest political declaration, the government needs to renew its resolve to settle the crisis and achieve regional recovery. The disaster-hit reactors are certainly now in a more stable condition. However, the phrase “cold shutdown” usually refers to suspension of a sound reactor. The fact that the government is attempting to apply this term in a severe accident in which three reactors have suffered core meltdowns should be called into question. The government should rather explain in detail the possibility of any additional explosions and whether a recriticality accident has been ruled out.

Police on duty at a roadblock at the edge of the 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, at Namie, in northeast Japan. Nov. 20, 2011. Photo: Mainichi Daily News / AP Photo / Greg Baker

Simulations suggest that nuclear fuel has melted inside the reactor containment vessels, eroding their concrete floors. Although Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), the operator of the stricken nuclear plant, has indicated that melted fuel has also been cooled down by water, this is nothing but speculation. We urge the utility and the government to find a way to ascertain the precise condition of the fuel.

Mainichi Daily News has reported that conditions at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant are far worse than its operator or the government has admitted, according to freelance journalist Tomohiko Suzuki, who spent more than a month working undercover at the power station. “Absolutely no progress is being made” towards the final resolution of the crisis, Suzuki told reporters at a Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan news conference on Dec. 15. Suzuki, 55, worked for a Toshiba Corp. subsidiary as a general laborer there from July 13 to Aug. 22, documenting sloppy repair work, companies including plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) playing fast and loose with their workers’ radiation doses, and a marked concern for appearances over the safety of employees or the public.

An earthquake-damaged grave is seen at a cemetery in the abandoned town of Katsurao, outside the 20 kilometre exclusion zone around the Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, in northeast Japan. The town was abandoned when radiation levels became unsafe for long term exposure. Nov. 20, 2011. Photo: Mainichi Daily News / AP Photo / Greg Baker

For example, the no-entry zones around the plant – the 20-kilometer radius exclusion zone and the extension covering most of the village of Iitate and other municipalities – have more to do with convenience that actual safety, Suzuki says. The situation at the plant itself is no better, where he says much of the work is simply “for show,” fraught with corporate jealousies and secretiveness and “completely different” from the “all-Japan” cooperative effort being presented by the government.

“Reactor makers Toshiba and Hitachi (brought in to help resolve the crisis) each have their own technology, and they don’t talk to each other. Toshiba doesn’t tell Hitachi what it’s doing, and Hitachi doesn’t tell Toshiba what it’s doing.” Meanwhile, despite there being no concrete data on the state of the reactor cores, claims by the government and TEPCO that the disaster is under control and that the reactors are on-schedule for a cold shutdown by the year’s end have promoted a breakneck work schedule, leading to shoddy repairs and habitual disregard for worker safety, he said. “Working at Fukushima is equivalent to being given an order to die,” Suzuki quoted one nuclear-related company source as saying.

At a Tokyo market, a smartphone shows radiation test results by the grower of a package of Maitake mushrooms, showing them as free of radioactive contamination. Many consumers worry about the safety of food from Fukushima and surrounding prefectures, although produce and fish found to be above government-set limits for contamination are barred from the market. Mushrooms, for example, harvested in and around Fukushima are frequently found to be contaminated and barred from the market. Sept. 12, 2011. Photo: Mainichi Daily News / AP Photo / Shizuo Kambayashi

Kenichi Oshima is currently a professor at Ritsumeikan University. After long years of nuclear power research, he had learned that the actual cost of maintaining nuclear power in Japan was twice as high as what government and electric power companies had publicly announced, the Mainichi Daily News has reported. In March 2010, published his findings in a book, but found himself under fire at a time when pro-nuclear energy was becoming even stronger. In September the same year, during a meeting of the Japan Atomic Energy Commission, his comments were rejected and even mocked. “Do you call this research?” he was told and few even cared to look at his findings.

Following the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, triggered by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, Oshima’s situation drastically changed. He was selected as a member of two expert governmental committees to serve as a critical analyst of Japan’s current nuclear power stance. The group will openly release all internal debates and documents, Oshima says. He is now more optimistic than ever that the time to destroy the “cheap and safe” nuclear power myth will eventually come.

Workers in protective suits and masks wait to enter the emergency operation center at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant in Okuma, Japan. Nov. 12, 2011. Photo: Mainichi Daily News / AP Photo / David Guttenfelder, Pool

A sober and critical editorial in the Mainichi Daily News has said that Britain has already abandoned developing fast-breeder nuclear reactors, and is set to give up nuclear fuel reprocessing as well. Moreover, its planned construction of a facility to dispose of radioactive waste including plutonium is likely to materialize even though it is still at a planning phase.

In contrast, there are no prospects that Japan can build a disposal facility. However, for Japan to call for operations at the Monju prototype fast-breeder nuclear reactor in Fukui Prefecture and the nuclear fuel reprocessing plant in the Aomori Prefecture village of Rokkasho to be carried out as planned, would be like putting the cart before the horse as it appears the country is incapable of building a disposal facility.

Plutonium is directly related to security issues. The U.K. possesses nuclear weapons but Japan does not. One may wonder whether Japan’s independence will be threatened if it abandons nuclear fuel recycling and loses its ability to produce plutonium. Even though it is an important point of contention the issue should not be used as a reason to underestimate the harm of plutonium.

Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yukio Edano who is in charge of energy policy, Goshi Hosono, state minister for handling the nuclear crisis, and Yoshito Sengoku, second-in-command in the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s Policy Research Committee, have been hearing the views of experts on the issue. It is not enough for the government to talk only about the dream of “prosperity” built on dependence on nuclear power. Japan’s ability to overcome the mess that follows such prosperity is now being tested.

More updates, info links, video clips and pictures on the Japan emergency page.

Written by makanaka

March 17, 2011 at 22:20

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By lanternlight in rural Asia

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The Shivalaya Bazaar, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

One of the magazines of the CR Media group of Singapore interviewed me about energy needs in rural Asia. My responses to some thoughtful questions have been published, although I don’t have a link yet to any of the material online. Until then, here’s a selection of questions and replies.

Do you have a case study or know of an innovative instance when an Asian country has broken the mould successfully in generating energy for its citizens in a way that is remarkable?

When you travel in rural South Asia you see that in almost every unelectrified village there is a flourishing local trade in kerosene and kerosene lanterns for lighting, car batteries and battery-charging stations for small TV sets, dry cell batteries for radios, diesel fuel and diesel generator sets for shops and small businesses and appliances. It’s common to spot people carrying jerricans or bottles of kerosene from the local shop, or a battery strapped to the back of a bicycle, being taken to the nearest charging station several kilometres away. People want the benefits that electricity can bring and will go out of their way, and spend relatively large amounts of their income, to get it. That represents the opportunity of providing power for energy appliances at the household level (LED lamps, cookstoves, solar- and human-powered products) and of community-level power generation systems (village bio-gasification, solar and small-scale hydro and wind power).

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and electricity access in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

In areas such as western China, the South American rainforest or the Himalayan foothills, the cost of a rural connection can be seven times that in the cities. Solar power has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries, only sometimes subsidised. A typical solar home system today in South Asia provides light, power for TVs, radios and CD players, and most important charges mobile phones. At US$ 400-500, such a system is not cheap for rural Asia, especially when households are struggling with rising food and transport costs. But targeted subsidies and cheap micro-credit has made this energy option more affordable.

How can Asian countries cooperate to bring a new energy reality into Asia and balance development with conservation?

Let’s see what some authoritative forecasts say. The Sustainable World Energy Outlook 2010 from Greenpeace makes projections of renewable energy generation capacity in 2020: India 146 GW, developing Asia 133 GW, China 456 GW. These are enormous quantities that are being forecast and illustrate what has begun to be called the continental shift eastwards of generation and power. India dwarfs developing Asia the way China dwarfs India – the conventional economies today reflect this difference in scale. It’s important to keep in mind, while talking about energy, that Asia’s committed investment and planned expansion is centred to a very great degree around fossil fuel.

Factory and high-tension power lines, Mumbai, India

Certainly there are models of regional cooperation in other areas from where lessons can be drawn, the Mekong basin water sharing is a prominent example. But cooperation in energy is a difficult matter as it is such an essential factor of national GDP, which has become the paramount indicator for East and South Asia. Conversely, it is because the renewables sector is still relatively so small in Asia that technical cooperation is flourishing – markets are distributed and small, technologies must be simple and low-cost to be attractive, and business margins are small, all of which encourage cooperation rather than competition.

What could be immediately done to help alleviate energy shortage in South Asia for the masses, at a low cost? Do you have a case study of this?

Let’s look at Husk Power Systems which uses biomass gasification technology to convert rice husk into gas. Burning this gas runs generators which produce relatively clean electricity at affordable rates. Rice husk is found throughout northern, central and southern India and is a plentiful fuel. While Husk Power says that the rice husk would otherwise be “left to rot in fields” that isn’t quite true, as crop biomass is used in many ways in rural South Asia, but the point here is that this entrepreneurial small company has successfully converted this into energy for use locally.

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

Household income and access to modern fuels in developing countries, IEA, World Energy Outlook 2010

I think it’s important that access to energy be seen for its importance in achieving human development goals. Individuals in governments do see this as clearly as you and I, but disagreements over responsibility and zones of influence get in the way. Responsible private enterprise is one answer. If you look at micro-enterprise funders, like Acumen, they recognise that access to electricity is also about healthcare, water and housing, refrigerated vaccines, irrigation pumps and also lighting in homes so that children can study.

What issues (externalities etc) do Asian governments do not factor in when they go for new sources of energy?

The poverty factor has for years obscured many other considerations. Providing energy, infrastructure and jobs has been the focus of central and provincial governments, and in the process issues such as environmental degradation and social justice have often been overlooked. That has been the pattern behind investment in large, national centrally-funded and directed power generation plans and in many ways it continues to shape centralised approaches to renewable energy policy.

Developing Asia is still mired in the legacy bureaucracies that have dominated (and continue to) social sector programmes, which for decades have been the cornerstone of national ‘development’. Energy is still seen as a good to be allocated by the government, even if the government does not produce it. And it still takes precedence over other considerations – ecosystem health, sustainable natural resource management – because of this approach. If India has a huge programme to generate hydroelectricity from the rivers in the Himalaya, there is now ample evidence to show both the alterations to river ecosystems downstream and the drastic impacts of submergence of river valleys, let alone the enormous carbon footprint of constructing a dam and the associated hydropower systems. Yet this is seen as using a ‘renewable’ source of energy.

A banner year for renewables

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REN21 (the Renewable Energy and Policy Network for the 21st Century) has released its annual publication – the ‘Renewables 2010 Global Status Report’. REN21 is a global policy network that provides a forum for international leadership on renewable energy.

The new report says that 2009 was unprecedented in the history of renewable energy, despite the headwinds posed by the global financial crisis, lower oil prices, and slow progress with climate policy. “Indeed, as other economic sectors declined around the world, existing renewable capacity continued to grow at rates close to those in previous years, including grid-connected solar PV (53%), wind power (32%), solar hot water/heating (21%), geothermal power (4%), and hydropower (3%). Annual production of ethanol and biodiesel increased 10% and 9%, respectively, despite layoffs and ethanol plant closures in the United States and Brazil.”

Many recent trends also reflect the increasing significance of developing countries in advancing renewable energy. Collectively, developing countries have more than half of global renewable power capacity. China now leads in several indicators of market growth. India is fifth worldwide in total existing wind power capacity and is rapidly expanding many forms of rural renewables such as biogas and solar PV. Brazil produces virtually all of the world’s sugar-derived ethanol and has been adding new biomass and wind power plants. Developing countries now make up over half of all countries with policy targets (45 out of 85 countries) and also make up half of all countries with some type of renewable energy promotion policy (42 out of 83 countries).

Key findings: (1) For the second year in a row, in both the United States and Europe, more renewable power capacity was added than conventional power capacity (coal, gas, nuclear). Renewables accounted for 60% of newly installed power capacity in Europe in 2009, and nearly 20% of annual power production; (2) China added 37 GW of renewable power capacity, more than any other country in the world, to reach 226 GW of total renewables capacity. Globally, nearly 80 GW of renewable capacity was added, including 31 GW of hydro and 48 GW of non-hydro capacity; (3) Wind power additions reached a record high of 38 GW. China was the top market, with 13.8 GW added, representing more than one-third of the world market — up from just a 2% market share in 2004. The United States was second, with 10 GW added. The share of wind power generation in several countries reached record highs, including 6.5% in Germany and 14% in Spain.

‘Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2010 – Analysis of Trends and Issues in the Financing of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency’ is also a new report by SEFI, the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Sustainable Energy Finance Initiative – a platform providing financiers with the tools, support, and global network needed to conceive and manage investments in the complex and rapidly changing marketplace for clean energy technologies. SEFI’s goal is to foster investment in sustainable energy projects by providing up-to-date investor information, facilitating deal origination, developing partnerships, and creating the momentum needed to shift sustainable energy from the margins of energy supply to the mainstream.

Key findings: (1) New investment in sustainable energy in 2009 was $162 billion, down from a revised $173 billion in 2008. The 7% fall reflected the impact of the recession on investment in Europe and North America in particular, with renewable energy projects and companies finding it harder to access finance; (2) China saw a surge in investment. Out of $119 billion invested worldwide by the financial sector in clean energy companies and utility-scale projects, $33.7 billion took place in China, up 53% on 2008. Financial investment in Europe was down 10% at $43.7 billion, while that in Asia and Oceania, at $40.8 billion, exceeded that in the Americas, at $32.3 billion, for the first time; (3) Research, development and deployment spending by governments and corporations totalled $24.6 billion in 2009, with government R&D up 49% at $9.7 billion and corporate RD&D down 16% at $14.9 billion. The shifts reflected greater willingness by governments to invest in research on sustainable energy technologies – to help generate economic activity – and also caution on the part of some big corporate players at a time when their profits were under pressure.

The SEFI report said that global new investment in sustainable energy reached $162 billion in the year 2009, the second highest figure ever, after 2008’s revised $173 billion. Although the 2009 figure was down by 7%, it was higher than the $157 billion achieved in 2007, at the height of the world economic boom, and it was nearly four times the 2004 total of $46 billion.