Powering aspirational India

How much electricity is needed by India? To answer this, one approach is to follow a top-down econometric model whereby one examines growth in the economy, looks at the relationship between economic growth and energy requirements, and incorporates influence of technological and policy changes exogenously. The alternative is a bottom-up approach, whereby one estimates demand based on equipment saturations, efficiencies and usage.

A simple method is to look around and draw conclusions. As per data for 2014 published by the International Energy Agency, average global per capita electricity consumption is 3030 kWh (kWh is colloquially known as a unit). The corresponding figure for India is about 805 units, and for developed countries of the OECD, it is 8,028. A majority of the OECD countries are in the temperate climate zone. Therefore, let us examine the scene around India: the corresponding figure for Singapore is 8,844, for Malaysia 4,646 and for Thailand 2,566. The projected global average per capita consumption by the middle of the century is 7,500 units. We can use this data to set a target which India can aim at.

Generation & projected need

An emphasis on energy conservation and improvement in energy efficiency of industry and household gadgets will help in reducing electricity consumption, but bringing it down to below 5,000 units per annum to enjoy a standard of living enjoyed by citizens of OECD countries seems difficult. Assuming India’s population by the middle of century will be about 1.6 billion and transmission and distribution losses will come down to the lowest technically feasible value of about 7%, India must plan to generate about 8,600 Billion Units (BU) to provide 5,000 units per capita per annum to its citizens.

The cumulative average growth rate of electricity generation in India for the period 2006-07 to 2015-16 was close to 6%. In 2016-17 generation by utilities was 1,242 BU. Data for generation from non-utilities is not yet available, but one can assume it to be around the same as in 2015-16, i.e. 168 BU. The total generation was thus 1,410 BU. Assuming a population of 1.3 billion, it translates to a per capita generation of 1,100 units. Thus, electricity generation projected for 2050 is six times the total generation in 2016-17 and in terms of per capita generation, it is about 4.5 times. India has a long way to go.

The target of per capita availability of 5,000 units per annum is very modest because of several reasons. The percentage share of electricity in total energy consumption is increasing. As per estimates by the International Atomic Energy Agency, this share was 34.8% in 2015 for Middle East and South Asia, and is projected to increase to 52% in 2050. The Government of India has announced policy initiatives such as electricity and housing for all, accelerated infrastructure development, Make in India, electrification of transport, etc. which call for more electricity and on a reliable basis.

Many have opined that we should return to a frugal way of living and consume less electricity. Can one expect the young in India to do that when electricity consumption is continuously rising elsewhere in the world? Aspirational India has a desire to work and live in air-conditioned spaces, reduce the drudgery of home work by using electrical appliances, entertain itself by deploying the best theatre system, commute in comfort in non-polluting transport and so on. Once basic amenities are available, an ordinary Indian will become an aspirational Indian.

Human lives have become more productive because of electrical lighting and indoor climate control. Indoor heating for climate control increased productivity in countries in colder regions of the world and air-conditioning is doing that now in tropical countries, including India.

Using alternative sources

Given this backdrop, we must maximise the use of low-carbon energy sources, i.e. hydropower, variable renewable energy (VRE), and nuclear power. Last year hydroelectricity generation was 122 BU; exploiting the additional potential will take time.

A NITI Aayog report says India’s solar and wind energy potential is greater than 750 GW and 302 GW respectively. Assuming a load factor of 20%, this could generate 1,840 BU. All these numbers are rough estimates, but make it clear that the total possible generation from hydropower and VRE can at best be about a quarter of the projected requirement of 8,600 BU.

Wherefrom will India get the rest of electricity? The share of electricity generated by nuclear power must be ramped up as soon as possible and large investments must be made in research and development in electricity storage technologies to derive full benefit from VRE sources. Until installed capacity based on low-carbon sources picks up, fossil fuels have to continue playing their role. Recent moves such as the Cabinet nod to the construction of 10 indigenous pressurised heavy water reactors, taking further steps for the construction of units 3-6 at Kudankulam, and completing all steps towards operationalisation of the nuclear cooperation agreement with Japan are all steps in the right direction.

R.B. Grover is Homi Bhabha Chair, Department of Atomic Energy and a Member of the Atomic Energy Commission

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