Energy [R]evolution: What it will take to (em)power Kalavatis across India

Feature story - May 6, 2009
By adopting solar power, Kalavati of Jalka, Maharashtra shows the way forward. She highlights how the people of India can get access to reliable and clean energy today. Energy [R]evolution, Greenpeace’s blueprint for energy security highlights how alternative sources of energy will not only light millions of Indian homes but also hold the promise of millions of green jobs and thereby alleviate poverty. All of it while reducing our dependence on coal powered plants and mitigating climate change.

Kalavati is the new symbol of energy security in India.

What's the difference between the 2000 MW Chandrapur Thermal Power Plant in Mahrashtra and the 1.7 kWh and 280W solar panels that Greenpeace installed over the Zilla Parishad School in Jalka village?

The first is a mega power plant constructed with the aim of lighting several villages in India. Today, years after the plant was constructed and Jalka connected to the grid, the village continues to face over seven hours of power cuts on a daily basis. Most of the energy that is produced is diverted to bigger cities and towns. A significant chunk of the rest is lost during transmission and distribution. The same story resonates across the country. Roughly 78 million people still do not have access to power despite the increasing investment in such mega structures. And the fact of the matter is that if we are to continue depending on conventional sources of power, we never will. If we are to meet our growing energy needs, and ensure secure, reliable and clean energy, we will need to turn to renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind that are independent of the traditional central grid systems.

The promise of tomorrow, today

Over a matter of three days, Greenpeace commissioned Tata BP Solar who installed solar panels on Zilla Parishad school and the secondary school in Kalavati's village Jalka, Maharashtra. The 1.7 kWh and 280W panels can power 10 fans and two computers respectively. Clearly, this indicates that the millions of 'Kalavatis' across the country need not wait for years before they have access to clean and reliable energy. Take the example of the 2000 MW Chandrapur Thermal Power Plant, which is meant to have lit Kalavati's village, Jalka. Although it has been receiving electricity since the 80s, the village continues to face power cuts on a daily basis. If the Kalavatis of India are to get power today, we cannot fall back on coal or nuclear power plants. 

Decentralised renewable energy solutions such as solar and wind will not only ensure reliable and clean energy but will also usher in an array of opportunities and the freedom of choice. As opposed to the traditional, central grid systems, which entail huge transmission and emission losses, alternative sources of energy, which are structured such that the source of energy production is close to the point of consumption, T&D losses are ruled out. This also ensures that power cannot be diverted towards cities and towns as is often the case with central grid systems.

In a statement to the media, Sarpanch Anusuabai Kumbhre emphasised, "Our village was made famous in Parliament by Rahul Gandhi and still nothing had changed. Electricity when we need it has remained just a promise. I have witnessed how easily this solar panel was set up in just three days. We heard that Rahul Gandhi will be in Wardha from tomorrow. I would like to invite him to our village to witness and take this vision forward." 

Energy [R]evolution

A sustainable India Energy Outlook Report, by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council provides a practical energy blueprint on how India can urgently and simultaneously achieve the following goals, which are complementary and not mutually exclusive.

1. Secure an affordable energy supply for our economic development.

2. Ensure that our carbon emission growth, as projected in a business-as-usual  scenario, is significantly reduced. 

The report develops a sustainable energy pathway up to 2050 for India. The urgent need for change in the energy sector to meet the above goals under today's scenario of economic crisis and catastrophic effects of climate change mean that this scenario is based only on proven and sustainable technologies, like renewable energy sources and efficient decentralised cogeneration. By 2030, 35% of our electricity needs can be met by renewable forms of energy.

To achieve, this, the Energy [R]evolution uses a three step approach:

Step 1: Electrical efficiency

• Exploit all technical potential for electrical efficiency via technical standards

Step 2: Structural changes

• Change the way we produce energy in large centralised power stations towards a decentralised energy system, using large-scale renewable resources that use locally available energy sources such as wind, sun or geothermal

• Cogeneration - end the huge amounts of wasted energy via cooling towers

Step 3: Energy-efficient transport

• Build up efficient public transport systems

• Implement efficient cars, trucks, etc. 

Kalavati - The Symbol of Energy Security

Kalavati represents millions of Indians who receive unreliable power, or who do not have access to power altogether. 

By adopting solar power, Kalavati is now the new symbol of energy security in the country. Political parties are in no position to deliver "electricity for all by 2012," unless they adopt this mechanism. The fact is that centralised grid with coal-fired power plants will not be able to deliver the end of line connectivity. Only a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume energy, will.  

It's the ecology…err the economy, stupid!

There is a clear and direct link between economics and ecology, in this case the very survival of the planet. A cost-benefit analysis would explain how any investments in renewables today, would be offset in the long run. Lord Nicholas Stern in The Stern Review, the most comprehensive review carried out on the economics of climate change, put the likely cost of climate change impacts at up to 20% of global output. Mitigating it, which would involve investment in low carbon technologies would be a fraction of this cost: a mere one or two per cent of the global GDP. 

If renewables are an expensive affair as compared to coal, diesel, kerosene or petrol, it would be imperative to take into account the fact that coal is highly subsidised, and externalities (socio-economic, environmental costs) are never considered. It is therefore not a comparative analysis. We need to have investment and policies in place that would encourage manufacture and use of renewables, on a massive scale. Subsidies need to be diverted towards renewable energy systems. Economies of scale would be reached soon enough and the manufacturing and sale costs would drop sharply. The electricity generation costs (compared to conventional fuels) under the Energy [R]evolution Scenario are lower from 2010 onwards due to independence from (world market) fossil fuels prices. By 2050, the specific electricity generation costs are five cents/kWh under those of the reference scenario. This is the only way forward, if we are to phase out our dependence of fossil fuels and play our part in mitigating climate change.