Two degrees of transformation: A step towards decarbonizing the world
I grew up in Worli, a residential neighbourhood of South Mumbai, India. The park in which my friends and I used to play, is now a parking lot. Across the street, the neighbourhood is a maze of tightly built mud and concrete houses. Given the population density, it is hard to find space and set up a new electricity pole. In India, we are used to densely populated areas. We brush aside inconveniences and get by with phrases like “Kindly adjust.” With those two words, we make space, we co-exist, and we get by.
In India and other parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, we have been ‘kindly adjusting’ with our lives, especially the way in which millions still access and consume electricity. However, despite the existing challenges, the Government of India has made great strides in connecting all households to the grid. Still, reliable power supply 24×7 continues to remain a challenge and thousands of households are having to invest in power back-up options. Interestingly the irony remains that India is not a power deficient nation. We generate far more than what we can use. Current challenge is to make reliable power reach to those who need it and when they need it. And it’s not just India alone but many other countries who are blessed with energy sources but have neither the resources nor the technical know-how to harness and distribute it.
We are amid a global energy transition
More than $2.5 trillion have been invested in renewable energy since 2009. Solar capacity has grown from 25GW in 2010 to 663GW today. In India, the current government has set ambitious growth targets for renewable energy – 175GW by 2022 and 450GW by 2030. So, while this augurs well for transition to a cleaner energy future and building energy inclusivity, what’s the problem? The challenge is two-fold.
The pace of energy transition is not fast enough
A report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in October 2018 struck a grim note: we had only 12 years to respond to the climate crisis before passing the point of no return. This is after 6 years of global consensus building between the UN Climate Conference in Denmark in 2009 and the Paris Agreement in 2016 signed by countries to keep global temperature increase “well below’ 2 degrees Celsius and to “endeavour to limit them to 1.5degrees Celsius.” However, scientific evidence shows that far from declining, world emissions continue to grow. According to Global Carbon Project, world-wide fossil fuel emissions are expected to be up by 0.6% in 2019 over 2018. We are simply not doing enough and fast enough.
Infrastructure readiness for supporting the energy transition
The second part of the challenge is that our infrastructure readiness to keep pace with the speed of the current energy transition to renewables is not adequate. As governments, especially in developing nations, go about reforms to alleviate poverty, and provide quality and reliable electricity to almost 2 billion unreached population, we are going to witness a hockey-stick pattern of growth. For example, currently the per capita power consumption in India is 1189 units as against a global average of 3600 units. Generation is no longer a problem as we are a power surplus nation. We now need to focus on reliable transportation of power. This a critical element and must be addressed through proactive planning and rapid deployment. However, transportation and delivery of power face the following challenges:
Matching the pace of renewable energy deployment
Renewable energy infrastructure assignments are commissioned at almost a fifth of the time of traditional thermal energy infrastructure. Transmission infrastructure deployment will need to match that pace to ensure timely energy delivery.
Increased urbanisation and lack of space
Much like the slums of Mumbai, rapid urbanisation and increased population density will make it harder to find large, open spaces for transmission infrastructure to be deployed. Instead, the transmission capacity of the existing infrastructure will need to be upgraded manifold.
Financial capacity for capital-intensive investments
India alone needs an investment of US$60-80bn in the next five years to address the growing demand for power. Traditional forms of capital and relying solely on government funding will not be adequate. Instead, we will see the emergence of new forms of capital through Investment Trusts or Yield Cos and other forms of collaborative funding.
What can help
Here are the key factors for the world to successfully address the transportation and delivery of energy services for an additional 2 billion people while keeping temperature rise within 2 degrees centigrade:
Stepping up renewable integration into the Grid
According to the International Energy Agency, wind and solar energy in many countries are now competitive with or even cheaper than fossil fuel-based electricity. While there is greater emphasis on renewables, it should be kept in mind that they are highly intermittent in nature. Large-scale integration of renewables into the electricity grid may lead to voltage and frequency instability. This can be addressed by a combination of increased transmission, grid scale storage and gas-fired power plants to act as natural balancer for renewables.
Embracing disruptive technologies in transmission and distribution
One of the biggest challenges facing the power sector is constructing transmission lines on time. Whether its deployment of heli–cranes to reach sites where transmission infrastructure is hard to build or use of satellite based technologies for topographic mapping, use of drones and robotics for wire stringing and monitoring, today’s developers have access to technology which can solve the challenges of space and time.
In the era of distributed generation, communities and households could use Blockchain and IoT- enabled smart meters to reduce their electricity bills and consume electricity locally. For example, on a sunny afternoon a rooftop solar PV system may produce more electricity than the household consumes. If connected to the main grid, the producer can sell excess electricity to earn credits which can be adjusted against the billing cycle. On the distribution side, I envision a free market where consumers can choose their energy supplier from their phones, based on factors like source of power, convenience, service and pricing – and similar to what aggregators have managed for food and mobility.
Regional collaboration in power sharing
The intermittency of renewable energy generation is one of the biggest challenges preventing nations from fully harnessing its potential. Countries located between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn receive an abundance of sunshine. This can power multiple economies if captured and used optimally leveraging the time zone difference between various countries. We must take advantage of our regional strength with neighbours and make the Intercontinental Grid a reality. If the International Solar Alliance is the OPEC of the future, one must work towards ‘One Sun, One World, One Grid’ – after all, what good is it to have excess sunlight if we can’t share it’s benefits with our neighbours? This will not only boost economic trade but also help deliver services, grow economies, create jobs and keep the lights on.
Today, there is greater public awareness than ever before about the irreversible damages of climate change. People are making conscious choices about how their homes will be lit and what powers their car. Universal focus has shifted to clean energy. The young are taking the lead, and the old world will be forced to listen, sooner or later.
Pratik Agarwal, Managing Director, Sterlite Power