Intellectual Thoughts by Sanjay Panda: Powering the future,- Alternate energy

Powering the future,- Alternate energy

Once dismissed as kooky ideas spawned by impractical environmentalists, alternative energies are now part of the energy plans and policies of most nations. “Governments all over the world recognise the importance of renewable energy as fossil fuels are finite,” & now aggressively planning investments in renewable energy projects. “Worldwide, the renewable energy industry is growing at 20-30 per cent per annum. Demand exceeds supply in some sectors such as wind energy, and companies are generating returns in excess of their cost of capital.

Fifteen European Union nations, including Spain and Germany, who are world leaders in renewables, have committed to generating 20 per cent of the energy using alternative technologies by 2020. India has also put in place several renewable initiatives and the country is now the world’s fourth-largest generator of wind energy with an installed capacity of 7,093 MW.

Entrepreneurs are venturing into solar power because of the phenomenal growth potential. The United Nations Environment Programme Report (2007) states that renewable energy projects received a record $100 billion (Rs 4,40,000 crore then) in investment in 2006, up from $80 billion (Rs 360,000 crore then) in 2005. Interestingly, venture capitalists are now some of the biggest investors in alternative energy, and their track record of almost single-handedly creating the computer and bio-technology industries is also boosting the industry’s prospects. With glaciers melting, weather patterns changing and the hole in the ozone layer getting larger, western public opinion is increasingly pushing politicians to search for greener energy. In Asian countries such as India and China, there are also more mercantile reasons to follow suit.

India currently produces 130,000 MW of energy a year and this figure will need to double within the next decade. The cost of building the mostly coal-fired plants slated to produce this energy will be a staggering Rs 5,34,000 crore. The environmental and health costs will be even steeper. India is already the world’s fifth-largest polluter, and hospitals across the country are reporting sharp increases in lung and breathing problems, from asthma to cancer. India’s oil bill has also shot up from $7.5 billion (Rs 26,250 crore then) in 1996 to a whopping $50 billion (Rs 2,20,000 crore). By 2010, when Indian consumers are estimated to own 15 million cars, the country’s oil consumption will be twice today’s 2.1 million barrels a day, the US Energy Information Administration says. With global oil production barely 1 million barrels over the global consumption rate of 81 million barrels a day, the surge in demand from India (and China) could eventually lead global demand to outstrip supply, causing fuel prices to shoot up to $100 a barrel. This could cause India’s oil bill to quadruple to $200 billion a year by 2025! More significantly, India will be the only major economy in the world other than Japan importing 90 per cent of its oil needs, a strategic lacuna.

So why hasn’t the alternative energy revolution already happened? Until, recently, the technology just wasn’t there and the cost of producing a MW of wind or solar power was up to five times that of fossil fuels. Now, the costs are evening out, but the challenge for the alternative energy industry is to achieve the scale necessary to become competitive. Standing in the way of this is the powerful oil and gas lobby, which has consistently tried to tie down the alternative energy industry like a bonsai tree. There are only two ways of combating the environmental and human cost of using fossil fuels. “If the government levies an energy tax, like a tax on the pollution caused due to use of conventional energy, it can then try to cover the (environmental and human) cost. This is a rational option but not a social one, as the common man will suffer. The alternative is to provide renewable energy a privileged market: no taxes, zero interest rates, and a new tariff law.”

According to US media reports, the Bush administration, after a series of meetings with a group of energy industry representatives and lobbyists, drew up a controversial National Energy Plan, which doled out $33 billion in public subsidies and tax cuts to the oil, coal, and nuclear power industries. In India, the privatisation of oil exploration has also created a huge anti-alternative energy lobby led by oil companies such as Reliance, Essar Oil and Videocon, in cahoots with auto companies. A sign of their power came when New Delhi recently withdrew a Rs 1 lakh per car subsidy it was about to give the Reva, India’s first electric car.

More importantly, supporters of alternative energy insist that the “full cost” of using fossil fuels is hidden — and could even be higher than the cost of many alternative technologies — because the health, environmental, and defence costs associated with using fossil fuels are not built into their purchase cost. For example, The US-based International Center for Technology Advancement says a gallon of gasoline in the US that costs consumers about $3 (Rs 120) would end up costing the nation about $15 (Rs 600), if the full cost of the medical costs associated with treating people suffering from pollution-related illness, the economic costs of the days lost at work because of people ill with pollution-related problems, the cost of cleaning up the environmental damages caused by fossil fuels and astronomical defence costs associated with oil security were added up.

Given the oil and auto industries have more than a trillion dollars in revenues and have planned investments of nearly $50 billion by 2010, Governments are worry that hurting these industries could dampen growth and damage other industries, such as shipping and ports, steel, petrochemicals, auto ancillaries, and rubber. But supporters of alternative energy, say these losses would be balanced by the totally new industries renewables would create, in the same way that the IT revolution initially cost jobs and killed some industries, such as answering services, but went on to boost global growth.

Significantly, with renewable energy technology maturing and awareness rising, many consumers are sidestepping such policy conundrums and turning into early adopters of these technologies. Still, no alternative energy technology is even close to fulfilling its full promise. More than technological changes, consumers will have to change their attitudes and habits before alternative energy can become what it should — the only energy. Imagine mankind powered by infinite renewable energy. The benefits are driving governments, businesses and individuals all over the world to follow that dream. They know there is no real alternative.


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