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A feasibility check

Exploring the viability of two big ideas being thrown up in energy discussions in the public forum while establishing methods of achieving these ideas

A feasibility check

Two big ideas in the energy sector are doing the rounds in print media these days. First, the idea of generating enough green power (hydro, solar, wind) to replace all thermal power plants and meet all future energy needs.

The second is Power Minister, RK Singh's assertion that "India will eventually be an electricity-based economy. The energy needs will be met through electricity rather than through petroleum products. We will make electricity green. These are our long term goals." These two big ideas are fantastic, feasible and even achievable if a little short on pragmatism. Let us discuss these in detail.

Replacing all thermal power plants

Presently, the electricity used in the nation is generated from four sources i. e., thermal power plants, hydropower stations, wind turbines and solar panels. The power generated from these sources is 210GW, 45GW, 20GW, 35GW (1GW = I,000MW) respectively. One MW of thermal power equals six MW of solar power as it generates only 4000 units per day. Thermal power plants are the mainstay of power generation. The replacement of thermal power with green power will give the following advantages:

One MW of thermal power consumes 15 tonnes of coal per day to generate 24,000 units of power. So all thermal power stations combined are consuming 3.0 million tonnes(mt) of coal daily. As a result, coal constitutes 80 per cent of freight loads for goods trains. Replacement of thermal power will make free up these trains, giving much-needed relief on busy routes.

Burning of 3 mt of coal daily produces huge volumes of carbon-dioxide, besides other toxic gases like sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and ultrafine coal dust. Replacement of thermal plants will go in a long way to combat this.

Thermal power plants also produce huge quantities of fly ash, causing a lot of disposal problems which can be mitigated.

Consumption of coal at this rate will exhaust the total coal reserves of the country in 90 years. An energy shift will alleviate this constant drain.

All said and done, the billion-dollar question is how to generate these alternate renewable sources of green energy. Let us discuss the ways.

Hydropower

The Brahmaputra River Basin alone can generate 70,000 MW of power with a power load factor of 80 per cent. This potential can be unlocked if there is an uninterrupted flow of funds and various clearances are secured quickly. But seeking these environmental and forest clearances is a herculean task.

Rivers in Himachal Pradesh and other hilly states have a potential of generating an additional 50,000 MW of hydropower. Presently, the cost of generating one MW of hydropower is Rs 10 crore and gestation period of a normal hydropower plant is 8 years.

Wind power

Wind power turbines are economically viable only if the wind velocity is more than 5 kilometres per second and is available for at least 8 hours in a day. According to various surveys, hardly 10,000 MW more wind power is left for generation along the coastline. Accordingly, we cannot rely upon wind power to replace the thermal plants anymore. Additionally, all the turbine manufacturing companies are under heavy debts.

Solar Energy

Solar energy has unlimited scope for development in our country. This is because we have 300 clear sky days in a year, the highest solar radiation incident in the Thar desert of Rajasthan and gestation period of solar projects is much less. A 100 MW power plant can be set up in six months.

Its main limitations are the big requirement of land (27 acres per MW of thermal power), a small number of units manufacturing solar panels within the country, the quality or life span of solar cells imported from China, which is not encouraging and the problem of disposing huge number of solar panels and batteries after the life span of 25 years.

Presently we have 2 lakh MW capacity thermal power plants in the country. NTPC is also adding 5,000 MW capacity every year. If all goes well, the replacement of thermal power with green power will take 15 years. But, by that time power demand will increase by another 75,000 MW of power. 1.75 lakh MW of thermal power needs to be replaced with solar power plants. 2 lakh MW can be developed with the help of rooftop solar panels. The remaining balance of 8.5 lakh MW of power is to be generated in large-sized solar parks. These parks will require 38 lakh acres which the government may or may not be able to procure.

Use of electricity in transport sector

90 per cent of the transport sector runs on oil i.e., petrol, diesel, etc. 40 per cent of trains and metro rails use electricity for traction. India is importing 135 million tonnes of crude oil from different countries at a huge cost. Therefore, it is the endeavour of the government to use electric energy in the transport sector as much as possible firstly to save valuable foreign exchange and secondly to reduce air pollution. We cannot use electricity for running trucks, tractors and even buses. But if all railway tracks were to be electrified with an increased share of freight load with metro trains becoming mass transport in cities and all cars and three-wheelers running on electricity adding to which, all generators are eliminated and farmers start using solar pumps for irrigation, then oil import will be reduced by 70 per cent.

To replace all the cars, three-wheelers and two-wheelers with electric ones is a very difficult proposition. Electric car manufacturing has recently taken hold in India. Mahindra is producing 2,000 such cars annually. Running cost per km of electric cars is only one rupee against Rs 5.5 in the case of petrol or diesel cars.

Possibility of achieving goals

First, let us assess the likelihood of replacing thermal power. It is possible to shut down thermal power plants of 2.25 lakh MW capacity provided the government is able to acquire enough land both for solar and hydropower plants while securing various clearances and arranging an uninterrupted flow of funds. Then replacement can be achieved in fifteen years. Furthermore, NTPC should be asked to develop hydropower as well in collaboration with NHPC. Finally, the Government itself should form a policy to popularise e-cars and phase out cars using fossil fuels in due course of time.

Views expressed are strictly personal

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