Text by Divya Karnad and Chaitanya Krishna, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

A new government, a flurry of activity, and India is well on her way to becoming a country of cities. A child of this new age is fed a diet of convenience, with machines that promise to speed-up, ease, entertain and relieve the stress of modern existence. This diet of new development has one core ingredient – electricity. An increasing substitution of human effort for hydrocarbon based energy is elevating India into the digital age, while simultaneously lifting the country’s energy deficit to a whopping 42%. In a spirit of making sacrifices for the greater good, India’s domestic electricity supply continues to depend primarily on coal. In a strange twist of fate, our most modern technology is completely dependent on million year-old forests, pressured and compressed into small, black, flammable lumps that blaze our path into the 21st century.

If coal is made from forests, it is not surprising to note that coal is also found near forests. The older the forest, the more the untapped coal reserves. Keeping up with India’s boom in development has resulted in industry’s unprecedented appetite for coal. To fill this gap, the environment ministry is keen to allow a large number of proposed coal mines in forests, by modifying forest diversion rules. The big question is: will all these new coal mines help reduce our energy deficit?

Our energy deficit ought to be caused by a lack of enough coal. This seems logical. However, several studies and expose’s, in the wake of the coalgate scandal, have revealed complicated linkages between government and industry that serve to artificially enhance energy deficit. The Prayas Energy Group came out with a report in March 2014 that found four political and economic causes for coal shortages. These include a lack of corrective policy, problems with allocation and pricing of domestic versus imported coal. Other reports identified companies that bid for rights to coal blocks and made profits, without actually setting up mines. Fines to these companies are almost never repaid, due to dubious take-overs that render these companies non-existent, and this further exacerbates deficits. It comes as no surprise that the Supreme Court pronounced defunct all coal licenses awarded since 1993. Instead of bemoaning the Supreme Court’s decision, India should aim to provide energy for all by adopting cleaner technology.

Ushering India into a new age entails new thinking. Alternate paths to achieve the same goal of country-wide electrification exist, and have been proven viable. Renewable technology like solar power generation can not only eliminate the environmental impacts of deforestation, mining and thermal plants for coal, but also overcome the distributional losses that plague our electricity grids, through on-site generation. Solar panels, by design can be thought of as self sufficient power generating units that can be fitted on rooftops and in gardens, rather than grabbing additional land for solar power. Not only will this help reduce the unwanted impacts of thermal power generation, it will also reduce the ecological footprint of electricity-hungry urban areas. The potential of solar power to meet the demands of rural India, is particularly crucial, given the level of electricity shortages that villages face. The efficiency of this alternate technology has also improved drastically. For instance a 2013 study in the UK discovered that aluminium nanostructures in solar panels were 22% more efficient than the gold or silver nanostructures that are currently used. This not only makes solar power better, it also makes it cheaper.

Several Indian states, such as Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat, offer electricity buyback schemes. This means that if a house can produce 400 units of solar-power but only uses 300 units, the rest will be bought by the state and fed into the regular grid. Self sufficient homes and offices reduce demand on state agencies that are currently reeling under the financial losses of having to import coal and electricity. These realities of alternate energy should be making us ask why new cities in India are not planned around these technological developments. For instance, why not make the new capital city of Seemandhra, the 11th solar-city in the world?

Solar power is not without its drawbacks. Cloudy days, reliance on expensive batteries and metallic components that need to be mined detract from some of the sheen of solar panels. Solar farms are also extreme heat generators, taking up land that could have otherwise been put to many other uses, including leaving it free for wildlife. Despite this, solar energy still scores higher than coal-based thermal power in a number of ways. First, the health impacts of thermal power are astounding. Research has linked air pollution from thermal power plants to cancer, deforestation to setup coal mines further worsens air quality and decreases rainfall, which could have potentially washed away particulate matter in the air. Environmental degradation costs China 235 billion dollars annually and India seems to be on a similar trajectory with yearly environmental degradation costs already at 80 billion dollars. Outdoor air pollution alone is responsible for 620,000 deaths/year in India, according to a study by the World Health Organization and others. Combined with the health benefits, not switching to alternate energy sources seems criminal.

Another advantage of alternate energy is localization. Until a couple of months ago, the southern electric grid was not connected to the northern grid. This meant that when the entire northern grid collapsed twice last year, the southern grid was unaffected. Now the threat of systemic collapse is a clear and ever present danger. If India’s electricity grid collapsed, it could leave India’s billions without power to work in cities, irrigate crops in fields or spend time with their families at home. In prevent such situations, disconnected and self-sufficient electricity generation is the answer. For e.g. in the wake of the decimation unleashed by Hurricane Sandy, micro grids took center stage in America’s energy space. Powered by clean on-site energy generation, these micro-grids are capable of performing even in the face of the most severe calamities. Small, as EF Schumacher said all those years ago, is indeed beautiful. Lesser wastage, lesser emissions, lesser coal, the list goes on and on.

Speaking about India’s power sector, the former chairman of India’s Economic Advisory Council, C. Rangarajan said, “What India adds to its generation capacity in five years, China adds…in one year” Perhaps that is the reason that the residents of China’s capital Beijing, walk around with masks on their noses to combat the atrocious air quality. One Chinese entrepreneur was quick to seize the business opportunity and announced that he would sell oxygen cans… Clean air became a commodity overnight, those with purchasing power could buy it and those without would be left to their fate. Instead of tackling the problem at its source, the government banned barbecue sets! One wonders what the Indian government will do in such a situation? Perhaps ban Chulhas that millions use to cook their daily meals.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald on 16th September 2014 and can be accessed here.