Energy is a key factor in socio-economic development and a common thread that runs through the UN Millennium Development Goals. In energy-starved countries like India, renewable energy is gaining focus for its potential to bridge energy-supply gaps and help provide universal energy access. It is a topic that will be addressed in considerable detail at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit 2014 in early February. However, for any energy source to be utilised on a large scale, reliability and affordability are crucial. While these parameters have long been proven in conventional fossil fuels, questions are being directed at renewable energy technologies.
Reliability is crucial
Renewable energy technologies have come a long way from the prototypes of about three decades ago and are sophisticated devices today. They range from multi-megawatt wind turbines and biomass gasifiers for rural electrification to small solar lanterns. Wind turbines and solar heating systems, for instance, have shown their mettle in diverse geographical conditions and applications, from a remote, high-altitude cold desert like Ladakh to Jaisalmer — a part of the Great Indian Thar desert.
Some 19,000 megawatts of wind power produced in difficult terrains now feed the grids. Some of wind farms in India are situated on hilly terrain where transporting and erecting the equipment can be daunting. However, the country has overcome challenges to infrastructure, logistics, and grid connectivity to make the wind farms completely reliable. Similarly, the use of solar water-heating systems in homes and commercial establishments is now commonplace.
Since the reliable operation of renewable energy systems depends on local geographical conditions, their design, optimisation, and installation are important. Traditional components such as electric motors and batteries can fail giving the renewable energy a bad name. Reliability entails appropriate design, correct installation practices and proper after-sales service. These, in turn, demand trained human resources. In short, it would be unfair to sweepingly question the reliability of renewable energy systems.
Affordability is a must too
The affordability of renewable energy systems is contextual. A household in a remote village with no experience of electric lighting would see affordable electricity from renewable energy very differently from a household in an urban setting that has access to conventional power supply.
The true cost of not providing any electricity — if lost opportunities in education and income generation are factored in — is much more than that of providing renewable electricity.
At another level, while it is true that initial costs of renewable energy systems are high, they work out cheaper in the long run because solar, wind or hydro systems do not have recurring fuel costs. Solar water-heating systems typically recover their costs in five years and provide free service for another 15 years. So, the question of affordability is really one of meeting initial costs.
The answer may lie in easy-to-access financing on the lines of those already being offered for consumer durables like refrigerators, washing machines and cars. Similarly, the cost of financing large projects can be brought down substantially by addressing banks’ risk perceptions. Today, many services being provided using renewables, like heat or electricity, can compete with those based on conventional fuels. Solar electricity is certainly cheaper than that from diesel generator sets.
Getting the perspectives right
There is a need to put things in the right perspective. Technologies based on fossil fuels are the result of many decades of research and continuous refinement, and benefit from enormous economies of scale — any critique of renewable must therefore take these into account. Given the fact that developing countries like India need all kinds of clean energy sources to power inclusive and green growth, accelerated utilisation of renewable energy must be encouraged while seeking ways and means to address constraints in a constructive fashion.
Amit Kumar is director and senior fellow at the Energy - Environment Technology Development Division at The Energy and Resources Institute, New Delhi. He can be contacted at [email protected]