But our current energy predicament is grim. Nearly two-thirds of households in India rely solely on traditional biomass fuels (firewood, crop residue, and animal dung) for cooking. Apart from issues of access to electricity, the quality and reliability of supply remains poor. Power cuts are common in urban areas while villages in many states do not get electricity for several hours every day.
Per capita energy use in India remains very low. The Economic Survey 2018–19 recommended a four-fold increase in per capita energy use to meet various economic and human development aspirations. Increasing energy availability and access is critical for industrial expansion and agriculture modernization in order to lift millions of families out of poverty. But aspirational targets are less useful for guiding policy and setting development priorities.
Energy and Human Development
Development experience of some countries and states within India suggests that high levels of Human Development Index (HDI), which is a useful and convenient proxy for average national wellbeing, is possible even at a lower per capita energy use if complemented by better health and educational outcomes. Countries like Sri Lanka and Cuba have achieved impressive human development outcomes with frugal energy use. Within India, Kerala has the highest HDI and consistently performed well in many socio-economic indicators than the states with a higher per capita electricity use like Gujarat.
It is possible for India to achieve significant improvement in HDI from the present level of 0.65 to 0.8 without imposing a large energy footprint. During the 1970s, some development experts argued that a total of 33 gigajoule of per capita primary energy use (which includes 1,840 kWh of per capita electricity use) would be adequate to ensure basic human comfort and enable higher human development in developing countries using then prevailing energy technologies and appliance efficiency standards. India’s current per capita primary energy use and per capita electricity use are 25 gigajoule and 1,200 kWh respectively.
Per capita primary energy use by itself is unimportant. Reliable and affordable access to energy services, especially electricity, is more important to enable the full development of human potential. Per capita electricity use varies across countries, but there is a certain threshold minimum below which it becomes difficult to ensure a reasonable standard of living and economic opportunities. In most developed countries this exceeds 7,000 kWh compared to middle-income countries where it ranges from 2,000 kWh to 4,000 kWh.
Optimal Energy Targets for India
Opinions vary regarding what future level of per capita electricity use should be set as a target for policy action in India. It is unnecessary to try and peg a target to that of other countries. A more realistic per capita electricity use target of 1,500 kWh by 2030 and gradually increasing it to 2,500 kWh by 2050 will be reasonable. This takes into account the expected increase in population and supply and environmental constraints for increased electricity generation in India. The suggested increases will have an appreciable impact in improving the quality of life and providing economic opportunities for those left behind.
Achieving these targets critically depends on the optimal energy mix for electricity generation. The 2050 timeline is useful on three counts. First, the power projects under construction or being planned will still be operational around that time and determine the future energy mix for electricity generation. Second, acting on its own interest or in response to more stringent future international treaty commitments, India will have to significantly decarbonize power generation by that time. Third, India’s population is expected to stabilize by the middle of this century.
The evolution of fuel mix for electricity generation also has major implications for India’s energy security and environmental sustainability. Current import dependence for fuels varies 32% for coal, 55% for natural gas, and nearly 85% for oil. Even the recent solar energy expansion was driven primarily by imports from China. The wind energy sector is not dependent on imports. Future nuclear expansion will also largely depend on imported uranium because domestic production relies on low-grade ores that are relatively expensive to mine and process.
Of the 370 GW of current total installed electricity capacity, coal plants account for 55%, large hydro 12%, renewable sources 24%, gas 7%, and nuclear 2%. However, the shares of actual power generation vary. Coal plants produced bulk (73%) of the electricity produced in 2019; while hydro’s share was 10.4%, renewable sources 8.7%, gas 4.6%, nuclear 2.9%, and diesel 0.5% respectively.
To reach per capita electricity use of 2,500 kWh by 2050 for a population of 1.6 billion, generation will have to more than double from the present levels. Reaching 1500 kWh for a population of 1.4 billion expected by 2030 requires a 40% increase in power generation. While Covid-19 has dampened electricity demand and eliminated the need for adding new generation capacity temporarily, an economic rebound will bring back these challenges for the power sector.
The Road Ahead
New capacity addition has been slow due to market regulations, insufficient investment, difficulties in obtaining environmental approvals, and public acceptance for major power projects. Because energy projects are subject to various time lags, initiatives to improve efficiency and conservation efforts should proceed in tandem. Accommodating a greater share of variable sources of generation such as solar and wind requires substantial investment in generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure.
There is a broad consensus on the need to wean away from excessive dependence on fossil fuels. India has been aggressively pursuing the renewable energy mission and support the switch to an energy transition that is less carbon-intensive. For sound economic reasons, the government is betting more on renewables for decarbonizing the electricity sector. Nuclear power is an expensive and time-consuming option, but it can serve as a hedge to future uncertainties in the development of storage technologies and for decarbonizing baseload generation.[This piece was authored by T S Gopi Rethinaraj, Professor and Program Director of Energy Sciences at Atria University in Bengaluru] [DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and ETEnergyworld.com does not necessarily subscribe to it. ETEnergyworld.com shall not be responsible for any damage caused to any person/organisation directly or indirectly.]