Tuesday, May 26, 2015

MUSINGS FROM PRIYADARSHINI KARVE: Nuclear Vs Renewable

I have often come across this argument: India's energy need is growing exponentially. How can we possibly meet this requirement of energy, just through renewable energy? We have no option but to focus on nuclear power. The person raising this point often quotes Dr. Kalam or Dr. Kakodkar, and the general attitude is that if such great people are saying so, then it must be so. 

With due respect to both these eminent persons, I would like to humbly point out that both of them are human beings, and human beings do make mistakes and errors of judgement. Therefore 'some xyz person says such and such.. ' is no argument to accept any opinion. Obviously, it also means that whatever I am going to say here may also be totally wrong! I invite all the readers to think over the logic, and reach their own conclusions, without prejudice to who is saying what. 

Let's first understand the reasoning behind the above argument. 

This argument is first and foremost based on accepting without question the idea that if we are 'developing' we must consume more and more energy. But do we really need energy, or do we need the end product or service that is created using the energy? 

Let me give you an example. When the night falls, we want some illumination in our house. Would you really care, if the illumination comes through use of electricity, or by any other means, as long as you get light when you turn on a switch? What you really care about is the 'service' and not what technology or energy carrier is used for delivering that service. People were getting illumination in their homes even before electricity was discovered, and some of those technologies, if revived and advanced, can provide the same quality of service as electricity does. In modern times very good quality solar powered lights are available, that can provide adequate illumination without using a single unit of grid power. Even when you are using electricity, the quantity required to achieve the same level of illumination will vary depending on what type of light bulb is being used - incandescent lamp, tube light, CFL, or LED. 

Under these circumstances if someone made an assumption that all the homes in India are going to use only grid electricity for illumination, and then came up with a number as our electricity 'demand' for home lighting in say 2025, isn't that estimate open to debate? Depending on what combination of technologies I consider for illumination, I can come up with different estimates! Even if I am not considering any non-electric technologies, I will come up with different answers if I assume that 0 or 50 or 100 percent households will use LED lights, for example.  And all these estimates will be equally valid! 


Let's say that we do not want to assume development of any newer and/or more efficient technologies than those that are in existence now. Therefore, electricity is the only clean and user friendly option for illumination. In that case, obviously, the country's energy demand is going to be the least if by 2025 everyone shifts to LED lighting, which is the most efficient option that is already available in the market. The barriers to getting 100% families in India to use LED lighting are cost and availability. In that case, should not the energy policy focus on making LED lighting accessible to everyone? We may not even need to increase our existing electricity generation capacity allotted for home lighting, even though we may have lighted each and every house in the country, if we use LEDs, which are fantastically more efficient than any other type of light bulbs. (Here is one comparison for anyone who is interested in actual quantitative data.)
However, if we are not going to focus on putting in place the most efficient technology already available, and are going to base our requirement in future on the basis of inefficient technologies, we are bound to come up with a higher number for electricity requirement. This is like continuing to use leaky buckets in the house, and then estimating the daily water requirement! Which approach makes more sense? First, get good quality buckets, and then monitor the water meter to make future projections, or ignore the buckets, just see the current water meter reading and calculate on that basis?

The point I am trying to make here is that first and foremost, I would like to question these so-called energy demand projections which are being thrown about without giving any explanation as to the assumptions behind them. 


Another 'pillar' of the 'we cannot do without nuclear' argument is the blind faith in electricity. 

Taking the same example of illumination - if we have different options like gaslights, solar powered LEDs, etc., why are we so obsessed with 'electric' lighting? A common presumption is that energy means electricity, and that too grid power. You may be astonished to know that out of the total energy consumed in developed countries only about 40-45% is in the form of electricity. Even in our daily lives, do we use only electricity? We need thermal energy for cooking, we need fuels to produce mechanical energy to help us travel from one place to another. 

When people compare nuclear energy and renewable energy, they are only comparing the respective potentials for electricity generation - because with nuclear power plants that is the only form of energy you get. This is an unfair comparison, because renewable energy sources can give us electricity, heat, or motive power. This argument is like comparing only the bowling statistics of a specialist bowler and an all rounder player to conclude that the specialist bowler is a superior cricketer. 

I certainly have more to say on this topic, but will stop here for now. Please feel free to share your opinions! 

Priyadarshini Karve


Director, Samuchit Enviro Tech





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