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India’s Only Hope of Squaring the Climate Change Circle is to Step on the Gas

India’s Only Hope of Squaring the Climate Change Circle is to Step on the Gas

Power grid. Credit: Ram Joshi/Flickr CC 2.0
Power grid. Credit: Ram Joshi/Flickr CC 2.0

Now that the euphoria over the Paris climate agreement has settled down, India, like other developing countries, will have to face up to the reality of a restricted carbon space available to deliver on the ambitious promise of development to her people. Service-sector-led growth has been flogged to saturation and the new emphasis on ‘Make in India’ will require us to consume greater quantities of energy even if we adopt efficient technologies.

India’s Intended Nationally Determined Commitments (INDC) submitted to the UNFCCC is a glib and somewhat self-congratulatory document. Nevertheless, it makes certain key commitments to the international community. Fulfilling these commitments will require us to make a paradigm shift in the way we produce and consume energy.

Therefore, the first task would be to review our energy basket and shuffle it a bit. Electricity is the cleanest and most convenient form of energy, but the way it is generated is often dirty. The dirtiest of all – coal-based electricity generation – should be the primary target of our fight against global warming. At present, coal constitutes a little over 60% of our installed power generation capacity, but for various reasons, in terms of actual units generated, coal usually accounts for well over 80% of all the electricity consumed in the country. So, reducing the share of coal and using it in a more responsible manner has to be our first priority, notwithstanding our public posturing in this regard. The responsible use of coal would mean extracting higher efficiencies through the adoption of supercritical, ultra-supercritical and other technologies. About 144 old thermal stations have been assigned mandatory targets for improving energy efficiency.

India’s INDC has committed that by 2030, 40% of our electricity would come from non-fossil fuel sources subject, of course, to funding and technology transfer from the international community. Even so, coal will account for a sizeable chunk of our power generation. International investors looking for business opportunities have zoned in on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) as a technological manna for countries excessively reliant on coal. CCS involves separation of carbon dioxide from flue gas emitted by coal-fired power plants, compressing and transporting it by pipelines to exhausted hydrocarbon reservoirs or abandoned coal mines to be sealed and stored underground indefinitely. According to Vaclav Smil, the acclaimed international energy expert, the scale of the infrastructure required to compress and effectively sequester CO2 emissions would be so huge and expensive that it is simply not a viable option. Besides, it suffers from the ever-present risk of carbon leaking out of its storage in the future. Therefore, it is imperative that we move away from coal.

Our untapped hydroelectric generation potential is around 73 gigawatts, but not all of it can be exploited. Besides, even our existing hydel generation is far below its potential – dependent as it is, on the vagaries of the monsoon. It would be difficult to ramp up nuclear capacity by more than a few thousand megawatts on account of the huge costs, fuel issues and siting problems associated with nuclear plants.

Given the present levels of technology, that leaves us with two fuel options – renewables and natural gas. The government has launched the National Action Plan on Climate Change, which focuses on solar, wind etc. While solar does offer alluring possibilities, it alone can never meet India’s electricity requirements. Regardless of our commitments on renewables, it is unlikely that they will eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.

Gas is the way to go

If India has to depend on fossil fuels, natural gas is by far the cleanest option. It emits less than half the carbon emitted by coal when used in power generation. The other greenhouse gases like sulphur and nitrous oxides associated with natural gas are also negligible. It is also quite versatile, since it can be used in process industries as well as in transport. In the developed world, natural gas accounts for a quarter of electricity generation whereas in India, we have only about 10% of thermal power generation capacity in the form of combined cycle gas generation turbines (CCGT). Actual generation from CCGT is negligible though, on account of shortage of gas in the country. The promised cornucopia of gas from the KG basin never materialised for a variety of reasons and the existing gas-based power plants are stranded for want of fuel.

Yet, all is not lost. Gas is fungible. It can be brought through pipelines from the neighbourhood or from afar in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in cryogenic ships. Europe and Russia are linked through a welter of pipelines. China has built five stages of its West-East Pipeline system spanning tens of thousands of miles across to its eastern seaboard. India has been lagging behind in this regard. While the TAPI pipeline seems to be moving ahead, it has to cross many obstacles before it materialises. Preliminary studies are being conducted to explore the possibility of bringing an undersea pipeline from Iran, the world’s biggest gas giant. Undersea gas pipelines are not rocket science. They bring North African gas to Spain and Italy. Russian gas travels to Turkey and thence to Europe through several pipelines running through the Black Sea. With the lifting of decades-long sanctions, Iran is like Prometheus unbound, raring to go. While undersea pipelines are an expensive option, the current low gas prices can make them viable.

Natural gas prices worldwide are linked to crude prices. With crude prices at a historic low, it would be in India’s interest to quickly tie up long-term supplies of natural gas through pipelines where feasible and in the form of LNG. India has three functioning LNG terminals and a fourth one – the infamous Enron terminal in Dabhol which has been mothballed but can be commissioned with minimal effort and expense. Now is the time to build more LNG terminals to bring gas from other parts of the world. Gas is a much more abundant fuel than oil and many new LNG suppliers have sprung up in recent years in the Caribbean, in western Africa, Australia etc. India would do well to quickly set up more LNG terminals and sign long-term gas supply contracts incorporating a price-band.

Simultaneously, the domestic gas pipeline infrastructure has to be expanded. Without waiting for the market to come up with investments in gas infrastructure, the government must promote a national champion to roll-out the network and build the terminals, a model that has served other countries well.

Squatters on carbon space

While we embark upon these measures, we also need to rethink the concept of development. China has chosen and even succeeded in equating development with rapid urbanisation, energy-guzzling vertical growth, expansive high-tech infrastructure, privatised transport and glitzy malls etc. The Chinese model is neither feasible nor desirable for India. We must evolve our own development model, one that resists the seductions of an unsustainable energy-intensive lifestyle based on excesses.

But even as we do that, as our INDC rightly states, ensuring a modicum of decent living to our disadvantaged millions would entail GHG emissions of at least 4 tonnes per capita as against our current per capita emissions of 1.56 tonnes. But these statistics can be misleading. They are averages which help India’s affluent hide behind the country’s 300 million poor who emit next to nothing. Flaunting our low per capita emissions to demand a greater share of the remaining global carbon space may be useful in an international negotiating arena, but the government will have to ensure that the carbon space available to us is more equitably apportioned internally. After all, by its own admission in the INDC document, 304 million Indians do not have access to electricity. These Indians constitute a quarter of the global population without access to electricity. Will the government display the courage and the will to ensure that a sizeable capacity – if not all – of all new power plants will be earmarked to serve those who are not yet privileged to access this clean form of energy? Otherwise, the affluent Indians who already emit much more than their fair share of carbon will continue to hog the national carbon space.

Sudha Mahalingam is an independent energy consultant and former Member, Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board

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