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Antiquated power plants and inefficient electricity generation are the hurdles that India faces as it seeks to power its growing economy and also improve people’s access to electricity

With old-fashioned power plants and inefficient energy generation, India languishes at the 11th spot in energy efficiency among world's 16 largest economies. (image by Vikramdeep Sidhu)

With old-fashioned power plants and inefficient energy generation, India languishes at the 11th spot in energy efficiency among world’s 16 largest economies. (image by Vikramdeep Sidhu)

India languishes at the 11th spot in energy efficiency among the world’s 16 largest economies, says a global energy efficiency scorecard released by the US-based non-profit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) in July.

The US, with the world’s second highest per capita energy consumption, is ranked 13th; South Korea is between India and the US; Russia, Brazil and Mexico bring up the rear. The ACEEE ranking system, in which Germany leads the tally as the world’s most energy-efficient nation, is based on “policy metrics” and “performance metrics” which gauge a nation’s overall energy efficiency, including its “national energy savings target, fuel economy standards for vehicles, and energy efficiency standards for appliances.”

According to the second edition of the ACEEE report covering more than 81% of global GDP, the primary villains which scupper India’s goal to better energy efficiency are its antiquated power plants and inefficient ways of electricity generation and industrial practices.

Countries that use energy more efficiently,” ACEEE Research Analyst Rachel Young said, “use fewer resources to achieve the same goals, thus reducing costs, preserving valuable natural resources, and gaining a competitive edge over other countries.”

Energy efficiency has always been an issue for India, Asia’s third largest economy hosting over 1.2 billion people. The country grapples with the twin goals of powering an exponentially growing economy while also aiming to improve its people’s access to electricity. Even so, 70% of rural India remains deficient in electricity while 40% firms generate their own electricity due to erratic power supply.

Things will only worsen as the International Energy Agency projects that India’s energy demand will double by 2030. Already, say experts, Indian power plants are woefully inadequate in energy efficiency due to tardy thermal insulation practices.

“With the spiralling demand for energy, numerous large thermal power plants have mushroomed,” explained a senior official at the state-run National Thermal Power Corporation. “However, the existing power plants are still running at suboptimal (less than 60%) efficiency. India’s coal industry also ranks among the least efficient in the world. We need to urgently spruce up the older power plants by upgrading their thermal insulation to bolster their savings potentials.”

The matter is getting some attention from the Narendra Modi-led administration. Minister of state for power, coal and renewable energy Piyush Goyal announced last week that a slew of new power plants will be given automatic clearances for coal linkage allowing capacity to be enhanced by up to 50%. “Replacing old plants will also help in protecting the environment besides increasing efficiency… The capacity enhancement of 50% will also step up India’s power generation,” Goyal said.

If all safety and leakage issues can be handled, nuclear energy is a more efficient substitute for electricity generation than fossil fuels. India currently has 21 operational nuclear power reactors across six states, which contribute less than 3% of the country’s total energy generation. In comparison, generation from fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – was last measured at 72.3% in 2011, according to the World Bank. One problem with increasing nuclear plants is that current plants in India radioactively pollute at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle: from mining and milling to reprocessing or disposal, according to anti-nuclear activists.

Anumita Roy Chowdhury, Executive Director, Center for Science and Environment, says the presence of power plants is only a manifestation of India’s growing power needs that will ratchet up even more due to severe growth pressures. “However,” the ecologist adds, “it is in India’s own interest to make its growth path as energy efficient as possible. A robust energy plan for all sectors of the economy needs to be put in place urgently.”

Research has shown that energy efficiency improvements can deliver half the cuts in emissions needed to slow global warming over the next 25 years. And by using energy more efficiently, the most efficient economies will generate almost 16 times more GDP than the least efficient.

Apart from policy tweaks, the involvement of citizens’ groups and civil society organisations can be a game changer in giving a vigorous boost to India’s energy efficiency. According to Deepak Gupta, senior programme manager,Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, citizens need to be sensitised about adopting more energy-saving measures in their homes and offices.

“The gap needs to be bridged between energy decision-makers and the consumers leading to greater awareness and greater use of energy efficient products,” he says.

Household appliances like fans, television sets, air conditioners, refrigerators, and room heaters – which account for nearly 18% of global energy consumption – can yield substantial energy savings and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. More efficient appliances can also reduce costs to the consumer, says a report by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

According to WRI, within the major developing countries around the world alone, energy efficient standards programmes could help save 1,500 Terawatt hours of energy and save consumers $1.5 trillion by 2030.

WRI also says that the purchase of energy efficient appliances remains low in India despite their obvious lure. This is in part due to low levels of involvement by local civil society organisations in the energy efficiency standards and labelling (S&L) process.

The potential impact of S&L programmes could be enormous. Research has shown that over a three-year period, if all appliances purchased were energy efficient, India could avoid building a new capacity requirement of more than 25,000MW (close to one-eighth of India’s total installed capacity).

To address this concern, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) had established an appliance efficiency S&L programme in 2006 which has shown encouraging energy savings, an official told “However, label recognition in the country is still quite low at 19%, and the purchase of energy-efficient appliances is not increasing spectacularly.”

Tackling India’s “energy trilemma” – energy security, equitable energy access and environmental impact mitigation – requires the involvement of multiple stakeholders like ministries, regulators, politicians, environmentalists and the citizenry. By 2020, domestic production will fulfil only half of India’s fossil-fuel consumption, down from 60% today, predicts the World Energy Council. This will add billions to the country’s fuel import bill while deepening energy insecurity in an already power-deficient nation.

The time for the government to act is now.

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