Shankar Sharma

The proponents of nuclear power have been saying that it is cheap, green and can be a major part of the future energy policy.  Though such arguments have chosen to be silent on the huge consequences of a nuclear accident, they seem to imply that the costs to our communities from the horrors of nuclear power policy should be acceptable in comparison to the benefits from it. Is nuclear power really cheap, safe and green? Is there no alternative but to consider it as the major part of the future energy policy? In view of the huge opposition going on in the country w.r.t the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, and all the proposed nuclear power parks in the country, a rational look at much benign alternatives to nuclear power has become urgent.

The IPCC report ‘Special Report Renewable Energy Sources (SRREN)’, which was released in May 2011, has projected a very critical role for renewable energy sources, and hence deserves greater attention for enabling a paradigm shift in our energy policy to eliminate the chances of Nuclear Accidents.

Even though many individuals and reports have been advocating, for decades, a strong push for an energy policy for the country based on renewable energy sources, not only to contain the GHG emissions but also for the need to adopt a sustainable energy policy for the all-round development of our growing population, the successive governments have continued the reliance on conventional energy sources, such as coal based, dam based and nuclear based power, for political reasons.  The result of such over reliance on conventional energy sources has been of disastrous consequences to our society: about 40% of the population still has no electricity connection, the exploitation of natural resources including forests and rivers have reached unsustainable levels, and the pollution of air, water and land have reached dangerous proportion.  The horrors of nuclear accidents, as experienced at Chernobyl and Fukushima, will be in addition to these problems.  The question our society should be addressing is whether the credible risks from nuclear power are avoidable?

Whereas many international communities have unambiguously acknowledged the urgent need to contain the GHG emissions through reduced reliance on conventional energy sources, and whereas the govt. of India itself took a lot of pride in announcing a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) for this purpose, the approval being accorded for a huge number of coal based, dam based and nuclear based power projects all over the country in recent years have clearly indicated the large gap between what the govt.  claims to do and what it actually does.

It is sincerely hoped that the recent IPCC report ‘Special Report Renewable Energy Sources (SRREN)’ which has projected that the renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades, will galvanise the half hearted efforts of the govt. to become concerted efforts to move towards a paradigm shift.  But it should be noted that the IPCC report has clearly said that the projection that the renewable energy could account for almost 80% of the world’s energy supply within four decades is feasible only if governments pursue the policies needed to promote green power.  The report has said that if the full range of renewable technologies were deployed, the world could keep greenhouse gas concentrations to less than 450 parts per million, the level scientists have predicted will be the limit of safety beyond which climate change becomes catastrophic and irreversible.

A very crucial point in this regard is that investing in renewable energy to the desired extent (80% of world’s energy supply within four decades) would cost only about 1% of global GDP annually, as against huge cost of about 25% of global GDP estimated to mitigate the impacts of Global Warming.

Ramon Pichs, co-chair of one of the key IPCC working groups, has said: “The report shows that it is not the availability of [renewable] resources but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades. Developing countries have an important stake in the future – this is where most of the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live yet also where some of the best conditions exist for renewable energy deployment.”  Sven Teske, renewable energy director at Greenpeace International, and a lead author of the report, has said:  “The IPCC report shows overwhelming scientific evidence that renewable energy can also meet the growing demand of developing countries, where over 2 billion people lack access to basic energy services and can do so at a more cost-competitive and faster rate than conventional energy sources. Governments have to kick start the energy revolution by implementing renewable energy laws across the globe.”

An earlier report by Greenpeace ‘Energy [R]evolution: A sustainable Energy Outlook for India’, had referred to this scenario.  It had said: renewable energy, combined with efficiencies from the ‘smart use’ of energy, can deliver half of India’s primary energy needs by 2050, according to the report.  Some of the highlights of the summary for the policy makers in IPCC report are worth mentioning in this context:

  • Recent data confirm that the consumption of fossil fuels accounts for the majority of global anthropogenic GHG emissions.

  • As well as having a large potential to mitigate climate change, renewable energy (RE) can provide wider benefits.

  • In various settings RE are already economically competitive.

  • The cost of most RE technologies has declined and additional expected technical advances would result in further cost reduction.

  • Various RE resources are already being successfully integrated into energy supply systems and into end –use sectors.

  • There are multiple pathways for increasing the share of RE across all end-use sectors.

  • RE can contribute to social and economic development; can accelerate access to energy, particularly to the people without access to electricity; RE options can contribute to a more secure energy supply.

  • In addition to reduced GHG emissions, RE technologies can provide other important environmental benefits.

The scientists have also predicted in this report that the RE will play a greater role than either nuclear or carbon capture and storage in reducing the GHG emissions by 2050. The calamitous path of the present govt. to increase the nuclear power capacity from 4,800 MW to 275,000 MW by 2050; the projection by Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) that coal power capacity should increase from 80,000 MW to 400,000 MW and the hydel capacity to grow from 37,000 MW to 150,000 MW by 2031-32 should be objectively questioned in this context.

Through a recent referendum Germany has decided to close down all its nuclear power plants by 2022.  Japan also is known to be reviewing its nuclear policy.  It must be noted that both Germany and Japan have more than 20% of their power generation capacity from nuclear power plants. Both countries are large importers of fossil fuels.  Despite these constraints they are reviewing their policy of nuclear reliance. Many other countries are trying to come out of the shackles of their respective nuclear lobbies to review their own energy strategies.  But it is rather shocking that India is still dithering on responding effectively to the global rethink on nuclear power.

The social, economic and environmental issues associated with nuclear power should be of great concern to our communities.  Hence there is an urgent need for the country to adopt a paradigm shift in the way we look at the demand and supply of energy, and accept the reality that only the renewable energy sources can provide sustainable development for our communities.

Since India is still in the developmental stage, and since its many communities have not committed to huge reliance on commercial energy sources, it is in a very good position to move away from the calamitous path of over reliance on conventional energy sources without having to experience great socio-economic upheavals. India’s tropical location provides huge potential in RE sources.  Even if a small percentage of the money that is planned to be spent on conventional power sources in next 20 years is invested wisely in encouraging the widespread usage of RE, the country’s move to low carbon energy pathway will be quicker, cheaper and smoother. This will be in the overall interest of the society too.

A quick appreciation of the huge solar energy potential provides a stark figure. Assuming about 30 crore house holds in the country by 2031-32 (@ 4 persons per house), and assuming that about 7.5 crore houses (25% of the total) in the country will be suitable and economically able to install roof-top solar photo voltaic systems of 2 kW each, about 150,000 MW installed capacity of solar power in distributed mode is feasible at low additional cost to the society.  If we also exploit a small percentage of the roof top surfaces available at schools, colleges, industries, offices, commercial and sports establishments etc. the potential available through solar energy alone is gigantic.  The real cost to society of this investment will be very small as compared to that of nuclear power.

According to the World Institute of Sustainable Energy (WISE), the grid connected renewable energy potential of the country is very high.  Its estimates are:

  • Wind Energy – 100,000 MW;

  • CSP based solar power generation – 200,000 MW;

  • Solar PV based power generation – 200,000 MW (here available space may not be a problem, if we also consider all the rooftops available).

Whereas as per IEP projection the demand for electricity generation by 2031-32 is about 3,600 Billion kWH/year, solar energy potential in the country is estimated to be about  5,000 trillion kWH/year. The true potential of various modes of solar power is so great that even if we can harness about 0.1% of it, all the energy needs of the country can be met.

IEP has basically looked at the grid interactive potential of renewable energy sources.  These sources, especially solar energy has very huge potential, if distributed type potential such as small size roof top or community based renewable energy plants are considered. The same is true with all other renewable energy sources. Because of the huge losses involved in Transmission and Distribution of generated electricity, all the attendant problems such as theft, organizational issues, huge capital expenditure to the state, technical problems such as voltage stability etc., which are salient features of a grid interactive energy sources, distributed renewable energy sources are best suited for rural electrification and for small loads such as lighting, other domestic appliances, small pumping needs etc.  The potential of the new & renewable energy sources can almost be termed as unlimited when they are effectively used as distributed energy sources.

The distributed renewable energy sources have the following advantages as compared to the present grid based system of large conventional power plants:

  • Will greatly reduce the effective demand on the grid based power supply system; will drastically reduce the T&D losses; and vastly improve the power supply to those consumers essentially needing the grid supply; much better voltage profile; leads to much reduced spending on grid management;

  • Will drastically reduce the need for fossil fuel based, dam based and nuclear power stations and the associated transmission & distribution network; reduced complexity in system operation;

  • Will assist in drastically reducing the GHG emissions and other pollutants;

  • Will provide a sustainable, environmental and people friendly energy supply model;

  • Will accelerate the rural electrification due to shorter gestation period of individual projects;

  • Will lead to increase in rural employment opportunities, and hence assists in minimizing urban migration;

  • Will require negligible or nil additional resources such as land and water;

  • Their impact on the environment will be minimal, and they are inexhaustible;

  • Lead to much reduced growth in demand (CAGR) for grid electricity;

  • Avoided costs of recurring fuel expenditure and of peak load power stations;

  • Absence of the need for people’s displacement.

Two most common questions raised in case of new and renewable energy sources are that they are not firm power and that their comparable cost with conventional energy sources is high. The reality behind these issues is as follows:

  • Many applications like lighting loads, water pumping for domestic and smaller agricultural needs, water heating for bathing etc. are not heavy and do not require 24 hours supply.  Lighting loads can be adequately met by backup battery systems when the main sources like solar or wind energy is not available. These battery systems can be charged by the respective energy sources.  Applications like solar water heating with adequate capacity water storage facility need no battery backups.  Solar water pumps for lighter agricultural or domestic loads are ideal for usage during the sunlight hours. These can also function much more reliably in conjunction with other renewable energy source of bio-mass and wind turbines where feasible.  These sources are already in use in the country.

  • Though it is true that the initial cost of these new and renewable energy sources seem to be high as compared to the conventional energy sources, it is only because the society has already invested very heavily for the infrastructure required for the development of the latter.  Also, the real cost of recurring fuel needs in case of coal, diesel, natural gas or nuclear fuel will be avoided in the case of renewable energy sources. Whereas both the capital cost and energy cost from the conventional energy sources is increasing all the time, the same is opposite in case of new and renewable energy sources. Already the cost of new and renewable energy sources has come down by many times in the last decade.  In addition, if we take the environmental costs, social costs, health costs, Global Warming mitigation costs, T&D losses and the large infrastructure required for the grid quality conventional energy sources, the distributed energy generation based on new and renewable energy sources will be much cheaper.

Ever growing competitiveness of solar power has become evident as per a recent report on India’s solar power programme of adding 20,000 MW by Year 2020 through which the government has proposed to buy solar power at 15,390 rupees a megawatt-hour. The lowest bid in a recent national solar auction (December 2011) came from Solairedirect SA, France’s second-largest producer, who is reported to have offered to sell photovoltaic-based electricity at 7,490 rupees a megawatt-hour. That’s less than half the rate the government proposed, and 38 percent below the average price set in a previous round in December 2010.  As per the industry observers, the solar power may equal the cost of fossil fuel-based electricity sold to commercial businesses as early as 2014 or 2015 if prices continue to fall at the rate seen in India in recent months.

In this context it is sad to observe that the total budgetary spending on new & renewable energy sources by the union govt. has been a small fraction of that spent on nuclear power. An objective analysis of all the societal costs and real benefits over the duration of the known life cycle of nuclear power as compared to that of new and renewable energy sources will reveal that the renewable energy sources are of much higher benefits to our society in from all considerations.

In this regard it is perplexing as to why the government is insisting to build many nuclear power plants such as Koodankulam at huge costs & risks to the society, when the much benign, less costly and more suitable renewable energy sources are waiting to be harnessed.  With the recent IPCC report being so unambiguous on the potential of renewable energy sources, the Union govt. has no excuse anymore to continue to ignore the crucial role of renewable energy in our developmental path.  India could be a leader in harnessing renewable energy since our life style is congenial for low per capita energy consumption, and since our country has a huge potential.


Shankar Sharma
Power Policy Analyst
Mulubagilu, Doorvasapuram Post, Thirthahally
Shimoga District, Karnataka – 577432
Phone: 08181 203 703 / 296 402 & 94482 72503
[email protected]
[email protected]