From practical to visionary, this year’s energy breakthroughs offer great promise.
India’s dirty air prompts innovative indoor filtration.
One year after Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell upheld a U.S.
Hoverboards, flying cars, automatic fill-ups, and fuel from garbage—Back to the Future’s energy ideas are close at hand.
When I set out to write a story about the energy possibilities of garbage, portrayed as nothing but a sci-fi gag in the movie Back to the Future Part II, I knew I had to check in with National Geographic Emerging Explorer T.H. Culhane. (See related, “Four Energy Ideas ‘Back to the Future’ Got (Almost) Right.”)
Year after year, Culhane has been one of the most riveting storytellers of the extended Explorer family that National Geographic Society brings together at its Washington, D.C. headquarters each June. You’ll become a believer if you spend time listening to T.H. extol the little-known virtues of in-sink garbage disposals, or show photos of renewable energy outposts he’s catalogued in Nepal. (See related, “On Mount Everest, Seeking Biogas Energy in a Mountain of Waste.)
Even if you spend most of your day reporting and writing on the stymied global effort to grapple with climate change, you’ll be filled with hope after Culhane spills some crumpled cans and foil scrap and tangle of wires on your desk, and demonstrates how junk like this could light a village. (See “How Aluminum Cans Can Power a Village.”)
One of Culhane’s passions has been making methane fuel from garbage and other waste through the process of anaerobic digestion. No, you don’t need fusion as Doc Brown used in the Back to the Future movies. All you need is the right set-up with well-understood technology, and the kind of ubiquitous micro-organisms that have been among the earliest living “bugs” on Earth.
Culhane’s nonprofit, Solar CITIES, has installed biogas digesters from Brazil to the Philippines, with Cairo and Baghdad in between. (See related, “Iraq’s Green Zone Gets Greener With Biogas,” and “Cairo Slums Get Energy Makeover.”)
Recently, Culhane has been working closer to home. An email reached him at a New Jersey port where he and colleagues were taking delivery of biogas digester parts from the Chinese firm, Puxin. They packed them into a “rickety cow trailer” and drove them to a family farm west of Philadelphia, where they’re launching a holiday drive to install food-waste-to-fuel tech in homes and communities. (Here’s a longish video on what they’re up to:)
Culhane said those eager to try small biogas systems include environmentalists, homesteaders, members of Pennsylvania’s simple-living Amish religious fellowship, Native American reservations, and “preppers.” (See related National Geographic Channel show, “Doomsday Preppers.”)
Devastating power outages after 2012’s Hurricane Sandy inspired Culhane and his environmental science students at Mercy College, just north of New York City, to work on home biogas systems for disaster preparedness. (See related, “Can Hurricane Sandy Shed Light on Curbing Power Outages?” and “After Hurricane Sandy, Need for Backup Power Hits Home.”) He and the students cooked “bacon from biogas” at events for prospective students to prove the system’s utility.
And Culhane and colleagues have installed an even more complex test system in the basement of the Hudson River-valley home of feminist-environmentalist Abby Rockefeller. (Great-granddaughter of Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, she is a composting pioneer and her son, Chris Lindstrom, works on Culhane’s team.)
Since biogas cuts food waste, landfill emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, and provides home-grown local renewable energy, it seems crazy we don’t use it more often. But in one of the realities that can be depressing to anyone who spends time studying climate change and potential solutions, spending extra time and money on biogas doesn’t seem to make economic sense for most cities and governments as long as they can rely on cheap fossil fuel and landfilling of waste.
That gets me thinking of how much more we could be doing if we had a carbon tax or some other price on dirty fuel and waste, which becomes even more depressing, given the dim prospects in Congress or the international realm for doing anything to hike the price of the fossil fuels that still power our economic engines.
But Culhane says he and his colleagues are undaunted. They’ve “hacked” ways of making biogas garbage-to-energy systems more economical, even when competing against cheap and more abundant U.S. fossil fuel.
Their most exciting innovation is the use of the liquid bioslurry that the biogas system produces as a by-product. They use it as a compost tea, a liquid fertilizer for our vertical hydroponic tower gardens.
“Most people who have heard of hydroponics or aeroponics know that you can grow food reliably without any soil at all,” Culhane said in an email. “But the cost barrier for hydroponics systems has normally been that you have to buy the liquid nutrients to put in the systems to grow the plants and that gets really expensive, so hydroponics are mostly considered a bourgeois solution inappropriate for the world’s poor.
“We are showing, however, that the liquid that comes out of our ‘food-waste-to-fuel-and-
Culhane actually looks at the trend toward cheap fossil fuel natural gas as a good thing, because it will begin moving people toward methane as a fuel. And then it’s only another step to make the move to renewable biogas. “It is the easiest, safest, cleanest way to get rid of your organic garbage and the best way to do composting,” Culhane said in an email. “Once enough people discover it, it will be unstoppable. They can’t hide the simplicity and profound benefits of the food-waste-to-fuel-and-
Lower oil prices are hurting the chances of Iraq’s Kurds to gain independence.
The EPA’s decision not to regulate coal ash as hazardous waste could affect how often it’s recycled.
What an amazing year for wilderness –both in good and, well, strange ways.
NEW DELHI–A cross-section of representatives from the energy sector in India gathered on December 4, 2014, to discuss a critical conundrum faced by the giant South Asia nation: How to deliver on the new government’s election promise to extend access to energy to 400 million people without electricity, while also containing, if not reducing, the heavy burden on the environment, including what is already the world’s smoggiest air in the nation’s capital city.
The seventh in a series of global events to discuss such big energy questions, convened by National Geographic as part of the Society’s Great Energy Challenge, produced with the financial support of Shell, the discussion identified challenges and solutions. Participants hardly needed reminding that the World Health Organization earlier this year reported Delhi to be the city with the world’s dirtiest air, a serious hazard to the health of its ten million occupants.
At the same time, no one disputed that India also needed to lift hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty; providing sustainable, affordable energy to all is a necessary prerequisite for that. That’s India’s great energy challenge, and the discussion on how to address it was lively.
The moderator for the Big Energy Question debate was Manish Bapna, executive vice president and managing director of the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based research organization with over 50 staff in India that works to address six urgent challenges at the intersection of the natural environment and economic development: food, forests, water, climate, energy and cities. A full list of participants in the discussions is published below.
Setting the Context
To set the context for the conversation, Bapna shared what he said were a few big energy stories currently taking place around the world. “What happens outside of India has a bearing on India, and increasingly, what happens in India has a bearing on the rest of the world,” he explained.
–The cover story in the current issue of the Economist was about the new economics of oil. Only a few months earlier, oil prices were U.S. $110 per barrel; on the day of the Delhi meeting they were $65, a quite unexpected drop of 40 percent. Part of it was due to the sluggish global economy, Bapna explained, part of it was OPEC not reducing production. “But a lot of it has to do with the shale oil revolution in the United States increasing capacity. This short term drop in oil prices is fairly significant in terms of what it means geopolitically. For some countries that import oil, like India, it is a huge benefit in terms of fiscal balance, but everyone is asking, where will oil prices go? That’s a big question, not only for the world, but a really big question for India,” Bapna said. (See related story: “How Long Can the U.S. Oil Boom Last?”)
–While energy was being discussed in Delhi, a bigger conversation was taking place in Lima working toward a new global climate change agreement, to be reached in late 2015 in Paris. (See related story: “5 Key Takeaways From UN Climate Summit in Lima“). Manish Bapna argued that the Lima talks were the make-or-break conversation climate negotiations. “But perhaps even more important than the Lima conversations was what took place last month in Beijing, when President Obama from the United States and Premier Xi from China made a landmark announcement that even irrespective of what takes place in the climate negotiations, the U.S. was committing to reduce their emissions 26-28percent below 2005 levels by 2025; the Chinese were going to peak their CO2 emissions no later than 2030,” he said. (See related story: “3 Obstacles Ahead for Surprise U.S.-China Climate Deal“)
“We can debate about how stringent or ambitious those targets are, but no one can debate how dramatic a shift that is, and how important or what a signal it is, to have both China and the U.S. make those commitments together in Beijing. What has been quite interesting coming from the States is how the attention has quickly turned to what will India do, and I will argue that much of the attention, much of the media attention around what India will do has been pretty misguided…but I think this question about what India will pledge, what it might do in the run up to Paris, is a question that is on people’s minds.” (See related story: “In Climate Talks, Spotlight Turns to India“)
–The third issue is coal. The steps that the United States has taken are really the beginning of the end of coal power generation in the U.S., Bapna said. “It may take a few decades, it may not happen as fast as those that are looking to advance more ambitious climate action want, but I think the writing is on the wall. But as coal begins to decline in the United States and other OECD countries, it will continue to grow quite a bit, and most of that growth is going to take place in Asia. One of the big questions in the coal conversation is the price of generation from coal, compared with the price of generation from renewables, and when that transition might take place.” (See related story: Coal-Dependent Arkansas Faces Stiff Emissions Target and a Running Clock)
–The fourth story referenced by Manish Bapna is from the technology world and it has to do with Apple and Google. “We’re seeing them competing around home efficiency. Google just bought Nest Labs [a home automation company] for $3.2 billion. They make thermostats and smoke detectors. Apple has new software called HomeKit, connecting the different appliances in the home. Samsung and Microsoft are also engaging in this business. It’s quite fascinating to see the big technology companies making big investments in home efficiency. Chad Holliday, incoming Board Chair for Shell, said just a few months ago that energy efficiency is the next shale gas revolution.”
–The fifth story is air pollution. “WHO [World Health Organization] came out earlier this year with new data, and one of the things that was quite interesting was that estimates doubled for mortality from air pollution, based on some methodological weaknesses found in earlier studies. Seven million people a year die prematurely from air pollution, it’s the number one environmental health risk,” Bapna said.
Wendy Koch, Senior Energy Editor for National Geographic, presented her context for the conversation:
National Geographic has written about India since 1909, with photographic overage since 1922, she said. “We’ve covered the country’s challenges, social and urban, and its popular culture. We’ve showcased its transportation shift from predominantly rickshaws to interstate highways and some of the impacts of modernization such as displaced people. We’ve borne witness to India’s lingering traditions.”
The challenge at the Great Energy Question gathering in Delhi was to discuss and come up with answers to this bedeviling question: How can India meet its growing demand for energy while minimizing air pollution? “This is vital,” Koch said. “As the world’s population soars and India is slated to overtake China as the most populous country within 15 years, there is increasing demand for food and energy. This is putting pressure on natural resources at a steep environmental cost. One consequence is painfully clear here in Delhi, which the World Health Organization said in May, has the world’s most polluted air.
We hear a lot about Beijing’s air pollution, but on one measure at least, Delhi’s levels are three times that of Beijing’s, Koch noted. “You can see from the WHO maps that India has the greatest concentration of deep-color dots, which indicates a lot of smog. In fact, India is home to the four cities that have the world’s dirtiest air. Of course, other countries, including the United States, are also dealing with this issue. Just this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed updating its ozone standard to reduce smog in cities such as Los Angeles, which is shown here. The EPA makes a big case about the health benefits of increasing ozone standards.” (See related story: “New U.S. Ozone Rules Likely to Be Felt Nationwide”)
Aside from air pollution, Koch added, scientists link the rising use of fossil fuels to global warming, and among countries, India is the third largest emitter of energy-related carbon dioxide, after China and the United States. However, India’s per capita emissions pale in comparison to those of the other two powers.
“National Geographic is looking at climate change, its impact in India and elsewhere, as well as the critical role that energy will play in helping countries prepare and adapt,” Koch said. “Can coal ever be clean, is one question we’ve asked. We’ve looked at power blackouts in India, India’s rising use of cars, its interest in, and its concerns about, using nuclear, and its increasing use of renewable energy, asking, is it enough?”
After the opening remarks, a panel of experts moderated by Manish Bapna was invited to discuss some of the biggest challenges and solutions facing India. An edited transcript follows:
Panel Discussion: Dr. Ritu Mathur, Professor and Senior Fellow at TERI University; Narendra Taneja, National Convener of the Energy Cell of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, the majority party in India’s Parliament); Dr. Jyoti Parikh, Executive Director of Integrated Research and Action for Development (IRADe); and Roger Bounds, Global Head of LNG for Shell Integrated Gas.
Manish Bapna: Mr. Taneja, given your role with the BJP, with the incoming government, could you share what you see as some of the big challenges facing the Modi government with respect to energy, and what you see as some of the big priorities you anticipate the Modi government advancing over the next three to five years?
Narendra Taneja: How do we mobilize sufficient energy for those people who don’t have access to even a single electric bulb? We have 400 million Indians who don’t have access to electricity. They are part of a larger group of 700 million people unfortunately living below the energy poverty line. They have access to very, very limited energy. The challenge for us is how do we mobilize sufficient and affordable energy for them?
Energy poverty as a whole is a huge, huge problem in India. Energy literacy is also another big issue. At the same time, we also know that we are among some of the most polluted countries in the world today, unfortunately. Delhi, as Wendy said in her presentation, is probably the most polluted city in the world. It’s a huge challenge. We want to engage with the world on these issues, in terms of technologies, practices, and dialogues and in whatever other areas as needed. But at the same time, we feel a bit uncomfortable when we are told that the “focus has now shifted on and to India”; “the U.S. and China have done this, now the focus is on India”. Don’t intimidate us. This looks like an attempt to intimidate.
If you go deep up in the air and start counting carbon dioxide and pollutants, you won’t find India’s footprint anywhere. Ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, those actually pumping pollutants into the air, they live somewhere else. So when you try to intimidate us, I don’t think that’s fair. We want engagement, we are very concerned about pollution, about climate change, but don’t come to us with prescription; sit down with us; let’s sit down; let’s find a solution together.
At the same time, if you do an audit, try to find those people who have been pumping pollutants into the air for almost 150 years — you just would not be able to blame India even a bit. We can’t go back to caves. We need energy for our people. And we want fast development. Unfortunately, 90 percent of our commercial energy comes from fossil fuels. But look at the other side: go to any market in India, or to any household, or our farms – 50 percent of energy that we consume and produce in this country is actually produced by humans. By humans – which means zero emission. That’s the reality.
In terms of per capita, we are among the lowest emitters in the world. So look at the total picture. The challenge in front of us is huge; we have to mobilize sufficient energy for development. People voted us to power for development and we will deliver on that; we are committed to deliver on that.
We don’t need any lectures from anybody. We are well aware – -we want clean air for our people, we want clean air for our children, we want clean air for our old people. For that we want to engage with anyone and everyone who is interested. We know exactly where the problems are. We will mobilize sufficient energy, and we will engage public opinion, including global public opinion if required. We will talk with whosoever is interested, as long as the talks are going to be in a manner where we are allowed to also contribute, and not just where are expected to sit in the last row and listen, because some people somewhere think they know the best when it comes to these things.
Come out with something which is holistic, which is fair, and you will find India and the present government and the BJP Party there with you, han- in-hand to find a solution.
Dr. Jyoti Parikh: Pollution can rise from prosperity and poverty. Prosperity be mean all the transport modes, air conditioners, lifestyles and so on; poverty is dealing with environment, generating energy by burning anything that people can find to keep themselves warm. In place like Delhi, you can see that is quite remarkable. Only a few poor can generate so much air pollution that hundred cars cannot. That’s a fact of life.
So you need different instruments for poverty and prosperity. In one case you would need regulations and incentives, pricing and so on, whereas in the other case, you would need compassionate mechanisms which can redirect benefit transfers, in which this government has taken big steps.
Luckily, technology is in our favor, many things are happening. For example, [incandescent lighting] was replaced by CFL, and CFL by LED, and so on. So we do have a chance to do some leap-frogging. Along with technology and lifestyle and consumption patterns changing, we can deal with this issue in a holistic manner.
When you talk about technology, it has to be throughout the energy chain, starting from mining to power plants to transmission and how energy is consumes. Then only could you find that sometimes solar would come out ahead, if you value all the externalities that coal-based power plants produce. Externalities is a technical term which means those aspects are external to your decision making.
For example if I buy a car, I don’t think of pollution I generate. It’s an externality I will pass on to the public at large. These externalities have to be costed, and it’s known as green accounting. There are a lot of tools and techniques around to measure the cost of air pollution. If you add these to the cost of dirty technologies, you will find that the cleaner technologies come ahead. But if you just look at the current value system, the current pricing system, we find that the cleaner technologies are expensive.
So we have to look at the instruments, the technologies, the origin of pollutants, and then we can discuss how we can resolve it.
MB: When one looks at clean energy versus fossil energy, and if one were to take a step back and look at the full cost and benefits, the equation may change from an economic standpoint, even if one individual may win or lose, the broader society, the clean energy may turn out to be more beneficial. Ritu, you’ve done a lot of research and modeling on this specific question. Could you share with the audience some of your more important findings related to what Jyoti was just talking about.
Dr. Ritu Mathur: TERI has done quite a large number of scenarios to look at where India is headed. We have a need to grow, and that is a basic question which needs to be seen in the context of India. Given that we need to develop, we need to provide much more access to energy to our people, and increase the per capita income of people and so on, it’s not only inevitable, but desirable, to increase the amount of energy.
The final energy requirement needs to maybe grow by three times, four times, that’s what we see in our modeling scenarios. How do we do this in a sustainable manner? How we do this without harming the environment, both at a global and a local level, is the key challenge and our concern. In our modeling, we approached this from a number of dimensions.
From an energy security point of view, what is it that we want to do domestically? What can we fulfill in terms of availability of domestic resources, vis-à-vis what is it that we would have to continue to import? That has a lot of repercussions in terms of the infrastructure that will be needed for transportation. It also makes a difference if we are talking about importing a huge amount of coal or oil or gas in the future.
If we look at our domestic resources, we have not very large resources of oil and gas. We were historically believed to have a lot of coal, but we tend to now understand that this is not that high and the quality of coal that we have is pretty poor.
Turning to renewables, we see we are relatively blessed; we have a whole lot of solar as well as green energy potential, and we could do something on the biofuel front as well. But we are still at a stage where this share is extremely low. So how do we move towards an energy mix wherein we could increase the share of these renewables, and start bringing this into our energy future?
So again, we started looking at this from not only the energy security point of view, but also resource efficiency, looking at what it would entail in terms of water requirements. Interestingly, if you look at how much water different kinds of power generation technologies use, coal and nuclear are among the highest water-using technologies, whereas renewables use much less water.
Coming to air pollution again, we are going to see a whole lot more urbanization. That means a whole lot more urban centers, much more mobility within small locations, so air pollution definitely does become a very big concern. How are we going to address our congestion challenges; how are we going to provide energy to this large number of people staying in urban centers; what are we going to do with waste management; what are we going to do with trying to supply them with water resources? What are all the linkages which we need to be looking at in terms of the complex interrelationships between the need for energy, for providing all of these resources to urban centers?
When you start looking at all of these dimensions, it’s no easy game, but when we looked at these longer term scenarios, you do tend to see a lot of synergies in what would pay off in the long run. We did some modeling to look at climate-driven scenarios, to look at energy-security scenarios, and to look at the repercussions on air pollution and other resource requirements. We found that there were a lot of synergies, provided we could go towards some of the more sustainable dimensions.
Being able to push in a lot more renewable into our energy mix, in the next twenty/thirty years, is extremely crucial to the economy, whether you look at it from a domestic point of view or from a global perspective. Now how do we do this? There I think we need to start thinking about the challenges and the opportunities in terms of what to do, how to do, how to think about innovative models, mechanisms and instruments.
MB: Roger, as you listen to the conversation about some of the energy challenges in India, you head up a crucially important part of the Shell gas business, where this issue of how you provide more energy but grapple with the sustainability questions must be front and center in your job quite constantly. Could you reflect a little bit on some of the lessons you’ve learned, and what might be relevant in India?
Roger Bounds: The need to grow message resonates very strongly with me. We find that the drivers of increased population, increased affluence and increased concern regarding quality of life, has meant that the drive towards additional energy consumption is very strong one, particularly in an increasing urbanizing environment. Everywhere we go in the world we find that those same pressures emerge. The answers, in the short, medium and long term are all around making choices. There is no one energy solution that’s going to resolve these problems in a simultaneous way.
So we need all of the energy choices; none of them are going to solve it all in their own right, so we do see an increasing role for renewables, for example. We don’t see coal disappearing overnight in any of the energy systems, despite optimism regarding North America, but we do see that gas in particular, as an intermediate fuel, plays an increasing role in solving problems in the short term, and then plays a sustainable role for a long term complementary role to renewable going into the future.
But in order for that to be enabled, I think two strong elements come through: First all is that infrastructure is necessary; there needs to be some mechanism around who decides and how we decide what infrastructure is placed where. Consumers want to make a choice towards cleaner energy, but they can’t make it without access to the infrastructure and the delivery mechanisms for that energy to get to their doorstep. The first step towards lifting people out of energy poverty is to provide that pathway or that connection into a wider integrated energy grid. So infrastructure choices I think are first.
The second is what regulatory framework those choices take place in. One regulatory framework would be things like emission controls or carbon taxing or CO2 pricing, but that’s not the only one. Each economy, each regulatory regime, is going to discover its own appropriate mechanisms for how it reaches into that discussion with its community and moves them forward.
So we see a role for all energy sources, gas obviously in my business. I’m going to promote it and say it’s a big part, but nonetheless we do seethat the grounds are there. We think that consumers can only make those choices if it’s enabled by infrastructure, and then governments have a very strong role to play by putting the right regulatory signals in place to let consumers make the choices that they actually do want to make.
We see India as being a fantastic opportunity to lead many parts of the world, in terms of demonstrating how those decision-making processes can be integrated.
MB: It’s fair to say that we all want to see in the future an energy system that helps address the access issue that helps create the growth, and does so in ways that keeps the air clean and is environmentally sustainable. One of the points and themes that came across many of your comments was this issue of the short-term versus medium term. You know, that there are needs today, about people not having energy, and the need to deliver that energy, versus benefits that may accrue tomorrow.
Any comments about how to think about that, or how to reconcile some of those challenges?
Narendra Taneja: We are investing heavily in natural gas; we look at natural gas as the bridge energy. When you look at the future, like probably 2050, 2060, I think India will be investing more in solar and nuclear. In nuclear, we are actually counting a lot on the new technologies being developed in terms of fusion, where India has invested more than $700 million.
This shows our commitment to clean air. We are more interested in pollution-free and a green India than anything else. But at the same time, we are also looking at how we can use coal in a manner that it does not contaminate the air too much. Our party, our government, plans to invest about $100 billion in renewable energy alone over the next four and a half years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is committed to it. We are trying to find a solution. Please come and join us, please come and invest, help us with technology, come and set up joint ventures here — and at the same time, you know, it’s very important, don’t press any panic buttons. Don’t spread panic.
It’s very important we address these issues patiently. When we go to people we say look, I know you don’t have electricity, we will provide you with electricity and this electricity is coal-fired, so be careful, use it very carefully, save as much as you can. We tell them there are pluses and minuses; it contaminates air, the same air that you breathe. Trust me they respond and respond positively. Now we make them a responsible citizen, and a responsible consumer, at the same time we engage with the world and say look, how can we find a solution together.
Renewable energy is our focus, but at the same time we are also doing whatever we can in order to mobilize sufficient energy from whatever available sources so that we can pull our people out of energy poverty, and wherever necessary we also want to have similar engagements with other societies and nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America — where 1.6 billion people live without electricity!
What we need is constructive engagement, we need constructive dialogue. Don’t put blame on any one country, whether India, China or anyone else. It is a global problem, it has been created by the world together, mostly by the people who live on the other side of the world, but we have to find a solution together. But our commitment is to renewable energy, and you will see, 2050, 2060, beyond, our energy mix will be dominated largely by renewable energy — and if technologies are safe enough, also by nuclear.
MB: We heard some very thoughtful comments about the challenges here within India, how the international context may help or hinder the conversation taking place in India, the focus, the importance of renewables, but recognizing at least that many different energy sources will play a role, and also the importance of technology and investment and how to kind of scale some of the solutions.
Participants were divided into five groups to discuss specific themes and report back to the plenary session. Individual table conversations were not tracked, but here are some of the highlights of how discussions were summarized by each group’s representative:
Table One: Energy Supply
Krishan Dhawan, Chief Executive Officer, Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation reported that the group recognized that the decisions India made today would be decisions that the country would have to live with for many, many years, “so it’s really important that we make some of even these long-term decisions correctly because the impacts go way beyond three to five years.”
The group found that India needs a systemic approach to energy efficiency “more than just working on individual policies around, say, appliances or buildings.” Efficiency must also be considered in in terms of overall system design.
The discussion concluded that in the energy mix renewables and natural gas would have to play an important role, and there would have to be off-grid sources of energy, “given the points made by the opening panel, that a large number of individuals are still not connected to the grid and that actually in many ways there are efficient solutions or benefits from being off the grid because the grid itself has severe handicaps and inefficiencies.”
Observing that the Modi government had aspirations to increase solar power generation to 100 gigawatts, the group noted that other countries had found absorbing renewable energy into the grid is challenging “and so there is an issue of integration.” The traditional system which was used to being dependent on thermal power plants will have to be able to absorb these new sources of supply. At the same time, the integration with the off-grid system also has to be kept in mind because the stated policy of the government is that the grid will grow “and, if you look at their statistics, the grid has actually reached large parts of the country but we know that either it’s just a wire or it’s a few minutes of electricity.”
Table One also noted that there was an issue in India with domestic gas production linked to domestic gas prices. “As and when that gets fixed, hopefully we’ll have more gas flowing and more electricity flowing out of the gas plants.”
The group declared that on emissions more can be done. Currently emission standards are mainly on particulate matter and don’t really cover SO2 or nitrous oxide and possibly mercury. “So, there were two sets of issues. One is a clearer and more definite enforcement of current standards, which we believe doesn’t happen, and [the other is] an expansion of emission standards to include non-particulate matter as well.
Roger Bounds, Global Head of LNG, Shell Integrated Gas, added that table one concluded believed all energy sources would find their way to the Indian consumer. “At the moment the consumer is trapped and not able to get access to all of those, so what we are talking about is how do you enable the consumer to be able to make those choices, how do they get access to the energy supply that we know could be made available to them.”
In response to a question about how much of India’s energy requirements could come from efficiency, Manish Bapna said that historically energy productivity tended to improve by 1 percent per year. “If you could double that to 2 percent, what it does in terms of the average demand you need to serve, it’s quite profound when you look at it over 15 to 20 years and so I think the global target that people are talking about is how do you double that to 2 percent?”
Table Two: Infrastructure/Investments/Technology
Ajaita Shah, founder and CEO of Frontier Markets, a sales and marketing company providing energy products and support services to Indian households, reported for this group. “Some of the challenges that we identified with our topic are the most important energy infrastructure and technology issues that need to be addressed on the supply and distribution piece for energy and trying to understand how to secure funding,” she said. The discussion was confined to the electrical grid.
Shah noted that there is a disconnect between the perception of what electrification is. “We talked about the fact that we’re not addressing how costly it is to do traditional electrification against really assessing that how costly it is also to do renewable electrification as well, and where that investment should really come from in order to really see that conversion happen. We talked about timing of some of the solutions and we looked at energy supply.”
There is always a focus on centralization of supply and centralization of distribution, so “we need to start looking at really decentralized solutions to allow this to become larger-scale.”
Some of the solutions discussed: First was to not just build grids but to build the right kind of grid, which is really a combination between extension of on-grid solutions with off-grid solutions as well as smart-grid solutions, so really trying to look at that integration in a way that allows it to be more effective, to move away from the bias of centralized power, so look at decentralizing all levels. “Produce your own power, whether it’s solar parks, whether it’s looking at clean energy parks, whether it’s looking at factories being able to produce their own power. Right now there’s no regulatory ability to do that and we’d have to really shift from that in order to make that more effective, but it could be a much better way to be efficient in terms of consumption on a commercial perspective, because you’re producing your own power, you’re owning it, but also looking at it on a perspective of responsibility for creating infrastructure,” she said.
There is lot of the focus on energy creation and not reduction, “and so we’re starting to say can you push an effort to actually look at equipment that’s more energy-efficient that allows us then to bring down the consumption needs for creation of energy” Shah said.
On the funding piece, table two found that if the cost of investment could be reduced, looking at a conversion of consumption, “then you could start inviting a lot more larger investors to come into the play…If we can create more efficiencies, we can actually look at a more interesting ROI which will make this more effective, to bring in the funding.”
Upendra Bhatt, Managing Director of cKinetics, a specialized sustainability advisory company, added that the role of regulations was key to growing the market space for investments in off-grid/mini grids and energy efficiency.
Manish Bapna said that in the U.S. there was a lot of regulation to try to undercut distributed generation starting to take place right now. “How is that conversation playing out in India? How do people feel about it? “
Upendra Bhatt: “When we talk of decentralized generation in the Indian context, I think that it is a big space, not necessarily number of installations, etc. There is a device-oriented space which has its own share of challenges, primarily driven around financing flows. The domestic financing institutions are still not willing to learn and grow that space. When you start looking at grid-oriented or wires being drawn, you have probably two models of PQ grades and we are doubling both with DC and EC there, depending on how you want to play. They are trying to make an asset payback of two years and therefore there’s a compromise on the technology, safety element, etc., come again, which limits the scale.
“When you look at the larger systems, there are provisions in the law for people to go out there, but there is a limitation in the sense that you could run into tariff questions being asked. It’s not clear in the Electricity Act could a private enterprise continue running its own tariff levels…So, there is on the industrial side and in the urban setting some such initiatives getting pushed out, but overall I think this is an issue where there has been a lot of conversation but very, very little focused policy intervention to allow it to really flourish.”
Table Three: Policy and Climate
Dr. Navroz Dubash, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, in Delhi, reported that his group went back and forth between the domestic context and the international discussion
Domestically, there was a common sentiment that there was scope for lots of positive stories. “Clearly on the renewable energy side, there’s a lot of optimism and there’s a lot of scope for the work. There was talk about how you link that with social agendas such as decentralized renewables for energy access. There was some discussion about how on earth this 100 gigawatts that’s now in the air for solar is actually going to materialize and the point that was just made about human capacity being one of those issues.”
This table spent some time on energy efficiency “where again there was discussion of a lot of scope both to plug leaky systems, avoid lock-in, scope even to play a leadership role by thinking about resource use and its efficiency in a more general sense, not just energy efficiency and the ideas of a circular economy, the idea that you think about resource outputs and plugging them back into other uses in the economy.”
There was also a call for more creative thinking about this “and not just energy efficiency in the technology sense but also in an urban design sense, for example, not being limited in our scope.” Related to that, other ways in which there could be creative thinking beyond just renewables and efficiency, the group said it had one very interesting example. “When you have financial crises and fiscal stimulus, how about incentivizing buses, investment in buses rather than cars, drawing opportunities like the financial crisis into this discussion?”
The table also talked quite a bit about the analytics needed to support each of these opportunities, “analytics in the area of co-benefits… but also more generally about the kinds of things Dr. Jyoti Parikh talked about, the national accounting and so on.”
On the international side there was agreement that adaptation had to be a central part of the story “but we set it aside for the purpose of this discussion by and large, but everybody wanted to flag that.”
The group “spent a fair bit of time on what one might politely call tonal issues in climate politics, which is how do we actually talk about this in a way that’s constructive and makes sense? How do we build a positive narrative so climate becomes an opportunity for countries to redirect their economic trajectories? At the same time some of the concerns that developing countries and countries like India might have of being the loser at the end of a couple of decades of trying to implement this and what is the insurance policy against being one of those losers?”
The elephant in the room was the question of differentiation, historical responsibility and so on, Dubash said. “We didn’t delve into it in great depth but I think it’s clear that that a sufficient resolution to those issues isn’t really apparent, but the idea of building a positive narrative with some sort of acknowledgement that an insurance policy might be needed might be a reasonable way of summarizing where we ended up.”
Table three also dived into some particular issues. “An interesting observation was, look, there’s lots of talk about finance for climate but there doesn’t seem to be adequate amounts forthcoming, recent optimism to the contrary, and so maybe the way to think about this is deals on technology as a substitute, or a complement at least, for not a great deal of finance. So, how about creative ways of accessing technology?”
The group also discussed China and the U.S. and the peaking year concept “and a lot of doubts and skepticism were expressed about the idea of peaking.” An interesting anecdote noted by Dubash was that if India were to decide to go down the route of a peaking year, “we could easily game this by essentially ramping up our emissions for the next 10 or 15 years and then declaring victory as we slowly glide back to a more reasonable level. So, some skepticism about that concept.”
A member of the wider audience observed that India does not have to repeat China. “China has super built… gone to the maximum of what they could do and now they’re trying to unbuild/reduce. India’s opportunity is in its preventive action and the world has to recognize that and incentivize that. So, while we need to meet the cost of transition when it comes to expensive technologies like renewable energy and link renewable energy with energy access and needs of the poor, at the same time we also need to look at the unique affordable solutions like the transportation sector,” the audience member said.
Table Four: Smart Cities
Karuna Gopal, President of the Foundation for Futuristic Cities, said this group spent its time talking about the road ahead for cities. “As you know, India’s embarked on the smart urbanization part and I think as a nation it is trying to revisit its assumptions, rework the strategies and also reconfigure tactical moves.”
Challenges identified by this table:
— Indian cities have completely violated city design. Planning has been violated “and obviously that’s the reason why we have huge unwieldy sprawls.” Indian cities have just started understanding how to integrate land-use planning and transportation. Those are the biggest challenges there.
–Data and information. “It’s pretty much nascent, our data collection. The quality of data that we have is it’s not really reliable data. Forget about even modeling. So we do have huge data issues and unless we really rectify that, I don’t think we’ll be able to address any other problems that we’re talking about,” Gopal said.
–Governance gaps. “A lot of us really know that we have fragments of responsibilities that are almost 25 to 35 agencies taking care of each of the cities, so collaboration has been the biggest challenge in Indian cities and added to that, we also have capacity gaps. The people working in the departments do have huge capacity and capability gaps,” Gopal noted.
–Consumer practices: “Like how we build our homes, what kind of materials we choose, how we buy our cars, what kind of fuel we use. This has been the biggest challenge and I think most of the groups have talked about it.
Some of the solutions discussed by table four:
–Decisions and solutions must be smart, not necessarily technology-driven. “For instance, we talked about huge urban sprawls. These big cities can be shrunk by using public transportation, and that is a smart decision,” Gopal said. “India should quickly do that and also perhaps come out with best-of-class public transportation that can really compete with private vehicles. Nano, the smallest car that was the cheapest car on the roads really never was successful because there is a culture issue there. People really don’t go for small cars or public transportation. So, a solution is to have really fantastic public transportation.”
–Look at broadband penetration in a really big way. “We have seen, and some of our colleagues have talked about, creating virtual workspaces, like in Amsterdam where almost 300 to 600 building have been vacated because people are working out of homes. Broadband penetration could be one of the important things that India should look at, and we do have a policy in place,” Gopal said.
— Create intelligent communities that believe in collaborating. “We’ve seen several communities around the world, like Tai Ching city or Oulu in Finland. All of them have been collaborating very extensively and becoming very smart.”
— Governance. “The biggest missing piece in Indian governance is a lack of citizen participation, or let’s call it the stakeholder participation. India should launch a nationwide campaign calling people to participate in this entire game. We discussed the example of London where a lot of citizens were involved to collect data to create a city dashboard.”
— Analytics. “India has huge capability and human capital in the area of analytics. We might have to really look at big data analytics, crime analytics, transportation analytics, etc., and also draw from what the world has created so far. India has entered the game pretty late and we do have something like a late-mover advantage. We should draw from the world examples that have become a test bed for smart tools and technologies.”
Three themes that appear to be cutting across many of the points, Manish Bapna said, were this issue of integrated planning, whether it’s transport and land use or whether it’s renewables and the grid, the point about the quality of data and how one needs more high quality data to make more evidence-based decisions; and then the point about capacity and just making sure that there’s actual capacity in these institutions to be able to carry out these functions.
Professor Manju Mohan of the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology, drew attention to two additional issues for smart cities: “One is that changing land use/land cover because of these growing urban sprawls…and the second, something basic, is treating urban waste, water as well as the refuse. “Currently there is a practice to put this waste in automobiles or trucks, big trucks, and take it somewhere else but I think technology should help in treating the waste where these are generated so that smart cities can save a lot of carbon footprint and save energy.”
Table Five: Public Health/Collaboration
Parthaa Bosu, India Director and South Asia Liaison, Clean Air Asia, represented the team. “We had a very good mix of the team, probably one of the best mixes. We had academia, we had private sector, we had think tanks, we had foreign funding agencies, development sector, civil society as well, Bosu said.
The group debated for a long time and it felt that probably there is not enough awareness right now among people to even decide whether there is air pollution and if it is affecting their health, Bosu reported. “So, we felt that there is a need to create a demand in this. There is a need for a bottom-up approach where people start looking at demanding cleaner air so that the government and think tanks and the private sector organizations, they start looking at air quality as a very important area.”
It is very important to make the government aware that health effects has a cost implication, but how to make government make that a priority and do something, the table wondered. “We felt that only if the priority of air quality comes at a level where it is looked at and given the required importance, it may be a time to lay down more achievable air quality targets with numbers where it’s more accountable and easier to look at.”
Air pollution is not readily apparent, so it is difficult to make people aware of the danger to their health. Solutions could include setting targets and creating an organization across government ministries to look at environment and air quality as a whole.
“I think what we really felt is that strong advocacy is required at all levels of the government because this commitment has to come through political will,” a member of the audience added. Some way of reaching all levels of government, a political awareness campaign, is necessary, not only about health effects but about the cost to development of the country, cost of healthcare, and the productivity loss that this country is facing because of so many people falling sick.
Also needed: Some mechanism to hold government more accountable to air pollution targets which have to be measured, intersectoral road maps for implementing and reaching targets, and a good monitoring framework for measuring and putting right numbers on the table. “It’s not just action by individual players but it’s a common thing for which everybody has to contribute and progress has to be measured and publicly transparently discussed.”
“So, as one thinks about these issues, one has to not just talk about what the costs are of acting but what the costs are of not acting,” Manish Bapna said.
Kamal Meattle from Paharpur Business Center and from the Climate Project, added that 40 years ago, “if you came to a meeting, you would not have seen any mineral water bottles on the table. We drank tap water. Perhaps 40 years from now, or 20 years from now, we may come with bottles of air to breathe. We drink only two liters of water per day. When we breathe thousands of liters of air, we don’t care. The question is most people don’t know what it means to breathe polluted air. I don’t think that understanding is there, which has been clearly specified, because you don’t see it.”
There is a clear relationship between energy efficiency and clean air and buildings, Vatta continued. “We have experienced over a 10 percent reduction in energy by growing fresh air using green plants; in other words, low-cost solutions to buildings and to reduce energy consumption. In fact, I would like to invite you, if anybody wishes to visit us, we have a building where we use 20 watt towers per square meter per hour. Now, that’s a number which we have been able to achieve through reduction of energy, especially because of reduction of energy required to cool and heat fresh air or ambient air coming into the building. So, there are simple technologies available for people to help themselves but they would help themselves only if there’s a reason for doing so if they believe that there is a problem. My view is that most people don’t believe that there is a problem and they think that everything is okay because I cannot see it.”
Dick Benschop, President Director, Vice President Gas Market Development, Shell Nederland BV:
At Shell we do provide energy, of course, that’s our main business, but we engage in long-term thinking through our scenario process as well and we engage in debates like today about energy transition and energy challenges and in that context we’re very happy to support National Geographic and I want to thank NatGeo for their leadership here as well.
It’s, of course, difficult to do justice to this very rich and lively discussion. A few elements perhaps. One is the importance of thinking through objectives, if we think about energy policy, if I start there. The element of access to energy, very relevant to India but in many other countries, has been mentioned, the 400 million people here without electricity. Affordability and the cost aspect is the second vector; the third one, of course, security of supply; and the fourth one the environment, both in terms of air quality, air emissions, the cost of that as well as climate change and what that is going to mean. I think the need to look for a balance came through, as well as to look through all lenses at the same time all the time.
Perhaps from myself the best summary is that the world, including India, is in two races at the same time. One is the race against poverty and for development and the other race is for the environment and against pollution and against climate change and I used the word race because of the time dimension involved in both.
Second observation, the concept of co-benefits I think came clearly through today in the discussion. It’s a very interesting one. It applies, of course, to energy efficiency, which is a main theme which comes up all the time, today as well, as a very important strategy. You can also see it if you talk about air quality, air pollution and carbon. It’s probably true that many of the measures, as has been said, which would apply to air pollution, will have a carbon effect as well and that solves one of the big issues in terms of short-term versus long-term, what to do for people in India or do we have contribute globally. You can do both at the same time through this co-benefit.
A third remark. If we look at the energy mix, a lot of emphasis on development of renewables, of course, which is a clear approach and a clear need. The role of natural gas has been mentioned as a low carbon fuel as well. And on the other side, yes, trying to limit the growth of coal, if I can put it that precisely, and trying to limit the growth of oil consumption at the same time as well with, of course, the nuclear as probably one of the elephants in the room and a highly political decision, country per country, whether that’s in or out.
But the next question, and that has been raised as well, so it’s not just about setting goals, it’s not just about understanding the direction of the energy mix but what are then the policies and the instruments going to realize that. So, how to deal with the externalities and what are the instruments there which would be relevant in an Indian context? The element of infrastructure, both on the power side as well as on the natural gas side, and the element of regulation and the contradictions in regulations that we see today, and thinking that through on various timeframes, a theme that clearly came through.
Fifth, technology development, a very important theme and, very interestingly, the role India can play there as well in terms of developing technology, accessing technology but also be an example there and one of the areas that has been clearly mentioned is off-grid solutions or decentralized solutions for energy and that’s clearly a space where, like in many other parts of the energy industry, as we witnessed as well, the theme of collaboration, of finding partnerships and new partnerships is quite essential.
The sixth element that came up is how we approach this. We think big concepts, big government potentially but bottom-up has been mentioned, citizen participation, consumer choice, how to think through at those angles. It is, of course, very topical. I read the Economic Times this morning and articles about Lima, also about… I believe the Environmental Minister, Prakash Javadekar, he announced that he would introduce the carbon legislation and the climate legislation in India and, interestingly, in that he mentioned not just greenhouse gases but he mentioned air pollutants as well and I think that’s a clear recognition of the co-benefits. And next to that article in the Economic Times there was an article about the effects of thermal coal plants and their air emissions and the health costs of that. So, it’s all very much here.
The role of India, finally. I think if you talk about the two races, you talk about a country like India, all of this matters a lot to India but I think it matters more widely because India will be a dominant country in the world energy system in the years to come and the choices that India will make will be an example or not to the rest of the world as well and India can play a very important role in this low carbon growth scenario. You always pick up nuggets if you are somewhere. One of the nuggets I got today was that India now is a perfect example of a circular economy – everything is being used and reused all the time, something that India should not lose while moving on because waste is really something of a developed economy nowadays which development of the economy should get rid of, so how to stick to that I found a very interesting one.
Wendy Koch, National Geographic Senior Energy Editor:
I found it interesting to hear India described as being at a bridge moment in need of a transition story. We heard a lot about the value of renewables and building a decentralized energy access, the value of technology to perhaps leapfrog solutions, that perhaps it won’t necessarily take India as long to figure out some things because there are some technologies out there to really help it, especially in the area perhaps of energy efficiency. We also heard that there are really simple solutions too, and that there is this reuse that’s going on in India and also some of these very basic ideas about how you clean the air that can be there and are low cost and effective.
But there is a need to build awareness, that first and foremost there are very basic problems out there and that there needs to be solutions for air pollution. People need to understand that there is a problem and there are costs of inaction.
From the very beginning, I heard that India has its own story to tell and that it shouldn’t be intimidated into crafting solutions that belong to anyone else.
Anindya Chowdhury, General Manager, Gas India, Shell India Markets Pvt. Ltd.:
We are in exciting times in India. We are poised for rapid economic growth and with the rapid economic growth we need huge amounts of energy…There are, of course, implications for the environment and public health … and also the environment we leave behind for future generations, we need to be careful about that. But India needs all forms of energy, so it must make wise choices to make our energy systems future-proof so that we don’t repeat the mistakes made by other countries.
The Wilderness Society’s annual year-end Comparative Analysis of Particular Excellence (CAPE) awards celebrate the agency’s achievements towards wildlands conservation and balanced management of our public land