Millennium Post

Make the Switch

In The Climate Solution, Mridula Ramesh's pragmatic ideas of pushing individual initiative and climate-resilient start-ups to solve various climatic issues offer an original roadmap to policymakers as well as the people of India for years to come. Excerpts:

More than a century ago, when electricity began to flow into homes, it was considered Satan's work. People feared this unseen power that could dispel darkness. If our ancients were to visit us today, they might believe we had God on tap – that is, available at the flip of a switch. A switch brings warmth to the unforgiving night, runs a machine to clear polluted air, or delivers warm water in the dead cold of winter. Electricity – arguably more than anything else – defines man's mastery over nature.

Only, now, the servant is now revolting.

No one can deny the importance of electricity and the very central role it plays in our lives – indeed, the true value it has created for our billions. Can we replace the master–servant relationship with something more in keeping with our democratic ethos? Can we make electricity 'greener'?

This is not going to be easy. Most of the electricity in the world comes from burning coal, oil or gas. Burning these fossil fuels releases CO2 into the air. Nearly a third of India's greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of electricity. About a fifth of electricity in India goes towards powering the residential sector. Taken together, this means 7 per cent of India's greenhouse gas emissions come from households flipping on switches. The climate impact of powering India's homes is a big deal, and it's slated to grow fast as Indians buy up washing machines and air conditioners.

There needs to be some notion of fairness in the solutions we come up to green India's electricity. For starters, in 2017, 300 million Indians lack access to electricity as per the latest government data. That means their children cannot study in the night. They are exposed to the worst of the heat in the summers. They cannot keep their food from spoiling. These people need access.

After access comes use. In 2014, an average Indian consumed one sixteenth of the electricity an average American used. This means that India's electricity consumption will need to grow and

must grow. We, who have gained the benefits of electricity, cannot deny those benefits to others. The beauty is that we need not.

Green Electricity

While, historically, electricity use and greenhouse gas emissions have been tightly correlated, technology is untying the stay-laces of that correlation. To explain, let me split electricity use into three parts: the source of our electricity; how much of it is 'lost' on the way and why; and how much electricity we consume to perform a given task. A story might illuminate (pun unintended) this point.

Kumar, a student studying for his Class 12 final exams, needs lights to study at night. Kumar does not care how many units the lights in his house consume. All he cares about is that lighting is available to him at night, every night. Consider a base case. Kumar's lighting is provided by a common tube light. Kumar's house is powered by the grid which, in turn, is primarily powered by burning coal. Kumar studies for about four hours a night, so the power to run his single tube light (while he studies) emits 117 g of CO2. But on at least four nights in a week, the power is cut. Kumar's family must run the inverter or if that fails, the emergency light, which makes studying very hard.

Kumar's friend, Sara, visits him and is shocked that Kumar and his family have not switched to using LED lighting. 'It's so much brighter, yaar. And greener,' she tells him.

Kumar and his mother visit the designated shop the next day and buy a set of LED tube lights under the UJALA Yojana. They get the tube lights for Rs 220 apiece, a sharp discount on the market price, and can pay for it monthly through their electricity bill.

In the next month, their electricity bill goes down by 15 per cent. At this rate, the LED tube lights will pay for themselves in less than 10 months! The family is happy and so is the planet as the CO2-eq emissions of lighting the house have fallen by more than half.

But Sara is not done. She asks Kumar to try solar panels on the roof – there is a kit available online for less than Rs 8,000 that powers lights and a small table fan. This way, the lights would come on even during power cuts. The direct CO2 emissions of the lighting drops to zero and, as a bonus, Kumar can study even through the power cuts. Soon, he is among the top five students of his class. The family is happy. The planet is thrilled.

Kumar's example illustrates three levers to improve the greenness of our electricity:

Go for a greener source (grid to solar),

Reduce transmission loss (solar on rooftop),

Reduce consumption by improving technology (LED lights).

Sources of Power

Choosing the source of our electricity involves making a trade-off across four metrics: cost, availability, seasonality and planet-friendliness.

Coal, for now, is the cheapest type of power for India and is plentifully available. Its availability is independent of seasons or the time of day. But coal emits the largest amount of CO2 per unit generated of any source of power. Coal power plants use up tremendous amounts of water in their cooling towers and release large amounts of particulate matter that is harmful for our health. The Delhi smog is caused in small part because of emissions from the power plants around Delhi.

Another source of power – hydroelectric – is renewable, which means the source of the power (flowing water) will not run out. It is relatively cheap and has no direct greenhouse gas emissions, although we will need to factor in the emissions from building the dam. However, hydel power is seasonal – many rivers will run full only during and afte r the monsoons. This means it is not a good option to provide electricity all year round. Building a dam also displaces populations that live in the reservoir area and increases earthquake and flood risks. There is also a matter of the destruction of forests – both by the building process and by the dam itself. Rivers in peninsular India originate in these forests and keeping them intact is one of the best adaptive actions a water-poor country like India can take. Dams have also become potent geopolitical weapons. China's flexing of its hydel muscles on the Brahmaputra (which, on a regional scale, Karnataka is mimicking with the Kaveri) only serves to underscore this point.

(Excerpted with permission from The Climate Solution; written by Mridula Ramesh; published by Hachette India. The excerpt here is a part of the chapter titled ' Let There Be Light'.)

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