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Green energy: a viable power source?

The new government in Pakistan faces almost a power famine as the real power shortfall during peak hours veers up to 12,000 megawatts (MW). The demand gap for electricity in India in December 2012 was even more than that of Pakistan. For a much bigger country like India, the situation is not as worrisome as it is for Pakistan. The Central Electricity Authority, the main advisory body to India’s power ministry, has set a target of 100,000MW of additional power generation capacity during the 12th five-year plan (2012-2017), based on the projected annual power demand growth of nine per cent. The Indian Planning Commission has endorsed the plan but the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has put a rider that this may be “ecologically unsustainable” as 70 per cent of this is to be coal-based. For Pakistan, it is an uphill task to build new capacities to generate 12,000MW (this could have been less than 7,500MW, but for the burdensome circular debt).

Indeed, the chase for more megawatts is like running after a mirage. We need to look to ‘negawatts’ or negative megawatts, meaning saving through increasing efficiency or reducing consumption. The term negawatts (NW) was coined by American physicist and environmental scientist Amory Bloch Lovins, who is the chairman cum chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute. His keynote address at the Green Energy Conference in Montreal, in 1989, was captioned “Negawatt revolution — solving the CO2 problem” and was ignored by the US megacorp biggies that wield a systemic hegemony through the ideology of neo-liberal finance capital. Yet, its relevance has been proved by several success stories of significant electricity-saving. Terming it the “soft energy path”, Lovins stated poignantly, “Electricity has huge environmental leverage. Power plants burn a third of the fuel in the world. They account for a third of the CO2, therefore, released from the burning of fossil fuel. In my own country, they release two-thirds of the sulphur oxides and a third of the nitrogen oxides. Further, every unit of electricity you save at the point of use saves typically three or four units of fuel, namely coal at the power plant.”

Look at the pace-setting recovery of waste heat in Copenhagen — the recovered heat is piped back to homes. In 2006, it accounted for 97 per cent of heat supply. The energy saving in the Copenhagen district was estimated to be equivalent to 203,000 tonnes of oil (or 665,000 tons of CO2) seven years ago. The saving in annual energy expenses was 1,400 euros on average. The heating is clean, reliable and affordable. It was replicated in, at least, five cities of Denmark and helps carbon heating plants switch over from coal to natural gas and biofuels, such as straw and wood pillars. Some 300,000 tonnes of wood pellets and 150,000 tonnes of straw are used every year.

Professor Sujay Basu, the former director of the School of Energy Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata, and a staunch opponent of nuclear power, drew my attention to the NW concept and its author, Amory Lovins. He was inspired by Lovins, who put it illustratively in Montreal, “One compact fluorescent lamp, over its life, will keep from putting into the air from coal plants about a tonne of CO2 and eight kilos of SO2 and various other bad things. Or, if it’s displacing oil-fired electricity, one such lamp will save enough oil to run your family car 1,000 miles.”

This subcontinent is overdependent on grid power, which is subservient to transmission and distribution losses, now defined as the aggregate transmission and commercial losses. Losses occuring due to hooking and tapping are prevalent all over the subcontinent. Fortunately, these can be drastically slashed through the installation of aerial bunched cables (ABC) that are useful in protecting overhead power distribution. ABC is an in-built safety and reliability system, which is especially suitable for rural distribution and attractive for installation in difficult terrains — including hilly, forest and coastal areas.

Increased emphasis on renewable energy and reduced dependence on non-renewable generation utilities is a must in the near future. Alongside, let us judiciously cut the present energy use, which is economically justified.

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