For India’s Impending Fossil Fuel Crisis, Wind And Solar Power Alone Won’t Suffice – OpEd


Ministers in Government of India have been repeatedly stating on various occasions that reducing India’s dependence on fossil fuel ( such as coal ,natural gas, petrol/diesel ) is the prime focus area of the government’s policy and initiatives. During the last Paris climate conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced target of building power capacity to the level of 175,000 MW based on renewable resources.

Commendable efforts towards solar and wind power

There is no doubt that Government of India has been very earnest in boosting power generation based on renewable resources such as wind and solar. In the last four and half years, after Mr. Modi became the Prime Minister of India, installed capacity of solar power in the country has increased from 1500 MW to around 25,000 MW. In the same way, the wind power capacity has also been increased which have now reached the capacity of around 32,500 MW. The power generation capacity from other renewable sources such as biomass, small hydro power have also been stepped up to around 15,000 MW.

These are all highly commendable and praiseworthy efforts , which have been possible due to meticulous planning and sustained follow up by government of India at highest level.

Will solar and wind power give relief?

However, the question is whether such rapid build up of power capacity based on renewable resources such as solar and wind would provide any significant relief for India to the level of requirement, in tackling the impending fossil fuel crisis. It appears that it would not happen.

India’s present installed capacity for power is around 3,45,000 MW from all sources and the requirement of power (peak demand) is around 1,71,000 MW. More than 80% of India’s power requirement is now generated based on coal, natural gas and liquid fuel.

The requirement of power in India is steadily going up at the rate of around 6.5% per year due to the economic and industrial developments in a growing economy.

In view of the heavy dependence on fossil fuel for power generation and transportation, India’s crude oil import are steadily increasing , which now stands at around 220 million tonne per annum. Indian production of crude oil is only around 32 to 33 million tonne per annum and it is virtually remaining at stagnant level. India’s production of natural gas is around 32 billion cubic metre per annum and India is importing around 25 billion cubic metre per annum. The production of natural gas and crude oil from domestic sources is unlikely to increase significantly in the near future.Indias import of crude oil and natural gas would further increase steadily in the coming years.

Given the heavy dependence on import of fossil fuel, around 70% of Indian foreign exchange earnings is now going towards the cost of imported fossil fuel. With the increase in the price of crude oil in the global market and due to India’s heavy dependence on import of crude oil, India’s balance of payment position is now under threat due to heavy outflow of foreign exchange for import of fossil fuel. Certainly, there is an impending fossil fuel crisis in India and it need to be recognized .

Obviously, there is a very urgent need to reduce the consumption of fossil fuel in India and replace it by alternate energy source appropriate to Indian conditions,.

Certainly, there is enough evidence that Government of India is gravely concerned about this situation and it’s stress on rapidly boosting solar and wind power capacity in India amply prove this.

The question is whether solar and wind power can give relief for India from the impending fossil fuel crisis.

Low capacity utilization of solar and wind power installations

The problem with solar and wind power is that the capacity utilization of solar power projects in India is only 15% of installed capacity. In the case of wind power, the capacity utilization is only around 30% of the installed capacity.

In other words, with solar power capacity of 25000 MW, the actual generation of power would be only around 3750 MW. In the case of wind power, the present installed capacity of around 32,500 MW, would actually generate power only to the extent of around 9750 MW. Against this, the capacity utilization of coal power projects in India is around 60% and that of hydro power is around 50%

Even if India would build 1,75000 MW of power based on renewable sources as targeted by Mr. Modi, the actual power generated would be only around 35,000 MW.

Electric cars and electric trains

Government of India is betting big on promoting electric cars in India for transportation. In the same way, there is a proposal to electrify the entire railway network .

While the above options are impressive, the fact is that electric cars need lithium ion batteries, which have to be charged with power. Where will the power come from ? Generating power from fossil fuel and using it for running electric cars and electric trains amount to defeating the basic purpose of reducing fossil fuel consumption.

Need for alternate option – algae bio fuel

In such circumstances, even while investing rapidly in the solar and wind power project, India has to look for alternate energy source appropriate to the domestic scenario.

In this scenario, the option now available for India is to build massive capacity for producing algae biofuel.

Internationally, enormous and creditable efforts have been put forth by developed countries , particularly USA, for generating algae based fuel with reasonable success. Technologies have been developed for cultivation of algae and utilization of algae for the production of algae bio fuel, with active encouragement and funding support from governments. Commercial plants are in operation.

Unfortunately, little have been done so far in India towards utilization of algae biofuel opportunity.

Since India is a tropical country, the climatic conditions in India is appropriate for the cultivation of algae. Algae is a quick growing crop taking as little as 30 to 45 days and contain around 25 to 30% of oil depending on the species.Algae cultivation needs only sunshine and carbon dioxide as inputs, apart from other minor ingredients. Both carbon dioxide and sunshine are abundantly available in the country. Good quality water is not needed for algae cultivation and even brackish and sewage water would be adequate.

From algae, fuel oil can be extracted and from the bio mass left after extraction of fuel oil, ethanol can be produced by fermentation of biomass.

Several hundreds of medium scale integrated facility for cultivation of algae and extraction of fuel oil from algae and production of ethanol can be set up in different parts of the country, which would be a win win situation for India. It would also lead to significant employment generation in agricultural farms and industry. Each integrated facility of economic capacity would cost around Rs. 150 crore.

Suggestions have been submitted to Government of India and various state governments by study groups pointing out to the algae biofuel opportunity.

It is surprising that Government of India is not looking at such obvious opportunity, even while facing the grim fossil fuel crisis. India ought to have joined the international technology race for optimizing algae cultivation and production of biofuel from algae. By not doing so, India has lost valuable time , which has to be made up atleast now.Proven technologies are available abroad for sourcing.

N. S. Venkataraman

N. S. Venkataraman is a trustee with the "Nandini Voice for the Deprived," a not-for-profit organization that aims to highlight the problems of downtrodden and deprived people and support their cause. To promote probity and ethical values in private and public life and to deliberate on socio-economic issues in a dispassionate and objective manner.

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