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The myths in power generation

E. A. S. Sarma

Power problems are attributed to shortage in generation capacity, not inefficiencies in the supply chain.

From thermal power generation to end-use appliances, energy inefficiency can be reduced. — Raju V

From thermal power generation to end-use appliances, inefficiency can be reduced. — Raju V
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It is a myth that increase in per capita energy consumption measures “development”. The Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) report of the Planning Commission projects the energy needs of the country on the premise that GDP growth and the increase in energy needs are closely correlated.

IPE uses “elasticity coefficients” to estimate future energy needs. Is it a reliable basis?

In his path-breaking book Soft Energy Paths-Towards a durable peace, Amory B. Lovins (1977) provided the following insights into the way the per capita primary energy consumption levels in Denmark varied over the last five centuries.

’s per capita primary energy use evidently declined between 1500 and 1900, not because of any negative but on account of the combined effect of a shift in the fuel base and the improvements in efficiency.

The increase in the per capita primary energy use between 1900 and 1975 and the decline between 1975 and 2004 were the compound outcomes of the growth in Denmark’s GDP, the fuel shifts and the efficiency improvements.

These trends show that the per capita energy use is not necessarily linked exclusively to the rate of increase of GDP.

What matters in terms of the quality of life is the per capita useful energy use, not per capita gross energy use, as the latter hides the inefficiencies down the supply chain of electricity from the generation station to the end-use appliance.

THERMAL-HYDEL MISMATCH

The other myth is that “electricity development” is synonymous with “setting up new generation projects”. The end product of electricity is different in different sectors. It is luminosity in lighting, lifting water in irrigation, turning the wheel in industry, circulation of wind in fans and space cooling in air-conditioning. The energy required for this can come from a new MW based on a renewable or a non-renewable resource or from a saved MW through efficiency improvement.

In other words, setting up a new generation project is one among the several alternatives available and it may not be the most optimal from the point of view of cost and long-term sustainability.

If the unit cost is high, the poor cannot access electricity. If the resource is non-renewable, energy security is threatened. The challenge, therefore, lies in choosing the alternative that ensures an affordable cost and long-term sustainability.

Our electricity system is based primarily on large projects generating electricity that is conveyed over long distances to remotely located consumers through an extensive system of transmission and distribution (T&D) network. The investment we have made in T&D has not kept pace with the investment in generation.

As a result, more than one-third of the generated electricity is lost in T&D and the electricity finally supplied to the consumer is of poor quality.

Within the generation sector itself, the investment we have made in peak-load hydro generation has not kept pace with the investment we have made in base-load thermal projects, causing an unhealthy imbalance.

EXPENSIVE POWER

It is an expensive way to provide electricity to the consumers whose cumulative demand has diurnal and seasonal variation. Thermal generation (coal, combined-cycle gas, nuclear) can best cater to the steady component of the demand, whereas the peaking stations (largely storage hydro) can optimally meet the peak load.

As a result of the imbalance in thermal-hydro mix, the thermal capacity, though available, is not utilised fully and the shortfall in peaking capacity has resulted in peak-time shortages that have crippled the economy.

These distortions have imposed a heavy cost burden on the consumer who is not only forced to pay for the high T&D losses but also forced to invest on voltage stabilisers and inverters.

The high cost barrier has stood in the way of electricity reaching the poor. No wonder that it is usually the existing affluent consumers who use highly inefficient electric appliances and grab most of the additional electricity generated in the country. Meanwhile, the poor seem to remain where they are!

Between 2001 and 2011, the country added 85,000 MW of new capacity. The number of rural households who had no access to electricity in 2001 was 7.5 crore. In 2011, it was 7.8 crore! Similarly, in 2001, the number of urban households who had no access to electricity was 0.6 crore. It increased to 0.7 crore in 2011!

DISPLACEMENT EFFECTS

We have a spacious building constructed recently in Visakhapatnam, standing majestically in the salubrious environment of the beach. It is sealed on all sides with heavily tinted glass, letting in neither natural light nor fresh wind. It uses hundreds of inefficient electric lamps to illuminate within and a large number of heavy duty ACs to cool the space. It is a veritable energy guzzler.

If we mine coal with 100 units of heat value to start with, at the end of the supply chain that feeds into an incandescent lamp, the luminosity we get is equivalent to 0.39 units of the original heat energy. The rest, i.e. 91.61 per cent of the original heat energy of coal, is wasted. If we can double the efficiency of the lamp, we can do with coal of 50 units of heat value and reduce displacement of people by 50 per cent!

The corresponding savings in the generation capacity would have avoided the displacement of people at the site of the generation project by 50 per cent. Going one step farther, if we replace the conventional lamp by a solar PV-based LED, we can avoid coal mining altogether and do away with displacement of people at both the coal mine and the thermal power project.

Prayas, in its Discussion Paper on Thermal Power plants on the Anvil – Implications and need for rationalisation, pointed out in August, 2011, that 7,01,802 MW of coal and gas power plants had either been cleared or about to be cleared by the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MOEF) and they were most likely to be set up during the next few years!

This worked out to thrice the capacity addition required to meet the needs of the high-renewable, high-efficiency scenario for the year 2032 projected by the Planning Commission’s Integrated Energy Policy (IEP) study.

This will pre-empt all efforts to remove the existing imbalance in the thermal-hydro mix and compound the problems of both peak-time shortages and the high cost of electricity.

Prayas’ study further reveals that these capacity additions are largely concentrated in areas that are already categorised as “critically polluted industrial clusters” by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB).

Plants of 30,470 MW and 24,380 MW capacity will come up in two districts of Chattisgarh, namely, Janjgir-Champa and Raigarh respectively, followed by 22,700 MW within 10 km of Krishnapatnam Port in Nellore district in AP.

In the districts of Rewa, Sonbhadra, Sidhi and Allahabad on MP-UP border, plants of 51,218 MW will come up in close proximity!

The capacity additions proposed include projects that are located in precious wetlands, irrigated tracts and fragile regions rich in biodiversity. The social costs imposed by such projects far exceed the social benefits.

(The author is former Union Power Secretary.)

Excerpts from the recent Girish Sant Memorial Lecture, organised by Prayas, Pune.

(This article was published on February 24, 2013)

 

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