Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sunny India needs German solar technology

During her day’s sojourn in India earlier this month on the invitation of the Indian Prime Minister Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, held inter-governmental consultations, quite unusually, at the cabinet level. Such cabinet-level discussions are held with very few countries. India is the first Asian country with which such discussions have been held. About half a dozen ministers accompanied her with the intentions of further expanding and intensifying economic cooperation between the two countries. Germany is the largest trading partner of India in the European Union.

Although, the discussions were slated to be held on cooperation in building up and modernising India's infrastructure, development of renewable and conventional energy, etc., the two countries signed pacts for cooperation in the areas of education, research and nuclear physics. India did not, apparently, seek cooperation in solar energy, currently a strong point of German industry. The Chancellor utilised the trip for canvassing for support for Christine Lagarde, the French Finance Minister, for appointment to the top IMF post and pushing for multi-million dollar deal on the sale of 126 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to India.

While she was in India a report appeared in the newspapers that Germany had decided to phase out all its 17 nuclear power plants by 2022. This happened to be in glaring contrast to the statement of India’s Prime Minister that by 2020 the country expected to raise the installed nuclear power capacity to 20000 MW (as against the current around 6000 MW) in an effort to “meet its emission targets”. India has been going hard at negotiating agreements with various countries for establishment of nuclear power plants after it signed the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement. However, post Fukushima many rich and industrialised countries, including those in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), are having a re-think about nuclear power. Angela Merkel, herself a nuclear power enthusiast, after Fukushima has, apparently, heeded the very widely shared concern in Germany about the hazards of nuclear power and has gone by the recommendations of a panel she appointed to consider the question in depth. Presumably on India’s insistence, however, the German Chancellor agreed to help India in areas relating to nuclear safety. The Chancellor also said that her country would ensure that the safety standards of Indian nuclear power plants are of world class. She went on to add that Germany would help India achieve a “broad energy base” and help in development of renewable energy.

Obsessed with costly, unsustainable and hazardous nuclear power as the current Indian government is, it seems it failed to raise in its talks with the Germans the matter of providing assistance in solar energy. During Merkel’s earlier visit in 2007 a series of agreements were signed which included, among others, enlarging the ties in environmental technology. Somehow, India has failed to tap the German expertise in alternative energy, especially solar energy. Barring seminars and presentations made by German experts and entrepreneurs no headway has been made in this direction. I recall having read a report of a visit by representatives of German solar technology companies to Kolkata in 2010 as part of Renewable Energy Export Initiative initiated by the German Ministry of Economics and Technology and jointly executed by the Berlin-based Renewables Academy and the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce. The excitement generated by the delegation somehow dissipated with the initiative, seemingly, fizzling out.

One wonders as to why the Indian government has not been interested in making use of German expertise in solar energy. Quite incredibly, the mostly cloudy Germany today is a powerhouse of solar power. With an average of only 1500 hours of sunshine and around 60 sunny days in a year, the country has become a world leader in solar power. As the world’s sixth biggest emitter of carbon Germany is trying to slash its carbon emissions and wants renewable sources to supply a quarter of its energy needs by 2020. It has almost half of the world’s solar installations and it has gone ahead of everyone in production of photovoltaic cells. A law adopted in 2000 requires the country's huge power utility companies to subsidize the solar start-ups by buying their electricity at marked-up rates that makes it easy for the newcomers to turn a profit. Their green power enters the grid for sale to consumers. The law was part of a broader measure adopted by the German government to boost production of energy from renewable sources.

Germany seems to have embraced solar technology not just for its environmental benefits. German firms that manufacture photovoltaic (PV) panels and other components have prospered under the new Renewable Energy Act and have spectacularly boosted generation not only of solar power but also of employment. The German solar PV industry installed 7,400 MW from nearly one-quarter million individual systems in 2010, and there is now 16,500 MW of solar PV capacity on line in Germany. Solar PV provided 12 TWh (billion kilowatt-hours) of electricity in 2010 - about 2% of total electricity. The country’s solar thermal industry, however, has not been doing so well because of the recent economic slump. Although in 2009 a demonstration solar thermal tower went online near Cologne, yet this industry has had to lay off people. The photovoltaic industry, however, has been doing exceedingly well and has around 40000 employees. The country’s thriving solar technology industry has been looking for markets in the US, China, India and Pakistan.

India has vast solar power potential, far more than that of generally overcast Germany. With about 300 sunny days (as against 60 of Germany) and about 3000 sunshine hours per year even despite three monsoon months (as against 1500 in Germany) India can produce, estimates indicate, solar (photovoltaic) power enough to outstrip the domestic electricity demand in 2015 by as much as a thousand times, even if the efficiency of PV modules is taken as mere 10%, though currently their general efficiency is almost twice as much.

True, producing solar (photovoltaic) power is, presently, a costly proposition but with time, R&D and assisted proliferation the costs will surely come down. Initially, like in Germany, the government may have to subsidise solar power to make it affordable. Importantly, it will be energy with zero emission and will help set at rest the Prime Minister’s unease about meeting India’s, as of now, self-imposed emission targets.

In any case, nuclear power, too, is not cheap, with its high capital cost and costs on measures for several safeguards including those relating to environment and security as also high costs on radio-active waste disposal. Reports have indicated that the nuclear power lobby in India has consistently lied and understated costs to make nuclear power look economically viable and for making it attractive for those in power. Lately, even some of the European countries have been facing delay and consequential cost overruns in installation of nuclear power plants. Notably, as far back as in 2003 Belgium decided to phase out its seven reactors supplying 60% of its energy needs after 40 years of use as the energy produced by them was far too expensive. Besides, the perennial safety concerns kept nagging the administration. Post Fukushima, however, tables have been turned on nuclear energy in most parts of the world, including the industrialised OECD countries and China. However, India seems to be the only country which refuses to see the hazards of nuclear power despite its vulnerability of its nuclear installations.

Having articulated the ambition of generating 20 GW solar power (against current measly 10 MW) by 2020 and having progressively established a special relationship with Germany, it would be worth India’s while to seriously take the standing German offer of assistance in renewable energy. The synergy between German expertise in solar power and sunny India needs to be exploited for the mutual benefit of both.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Nuclear power causes unrest in India's Alphonso land

Grown mainly in the narrow strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea in the scenic Konkan region of India, the Alphonso mangoes are considered king among the several varieties that flood the market during the mango season. Known for their delectable flavour, richness of texture and sweetness they are coveted all over the world. In 2007, the US traded off the restrictions for their import against export of Harley Davidsons to the burgeoning Indian market. It is this Alphonso land that is today in a state of war.

The locals are up and against the proposal of the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) to set up the Jaitapur Nuclear Power Park (JNPP) on the Madban plateau (which is next to the ancient port of Jaitapur) in the Rajapur sub-division of Ratnagiri District – the home of the Alphonso. With six reactors, each capable of producing 1650 MW, the Park is billed to be one of the largest in the world. When commissioned, it is expected to produce 9900 MW of electricity. The NPCIL has signed an agreement with the French company AREVA for establishing the Park which will initially have two 1650 MW units.

The NPCIL’s Environment Impact Assessment reports described Madban as barren. On the contrary, the plateau has green forests along the hill slopes. The area’s thick mangroves along the creek are rich in marine life. They, together, form an integrated and unique ecosystem, supporting wide variety of flora and fauna.
Protests have been simmering for a long time against the proposal. Erroneous portrayal of the terrain also complicated matters. The farmers who not only farm rice but also grow the Alphonso and cashews in this fertile tract have been against parting with their lands for the nuclear power project. The fishermen who have a sizable catch of mackerel, pomfret, prawns and oysters also find their livelihood threatened.

The matters came to a head a few weeks ago when a fisherman lost his life in a demonstration that attacked a local police station. Reports indicate that the extreme Right Wing Shiva Sena got muscled into the melee to get political mileage out of the protests. Things have become more difficult for the protesters as the entire issue is now politicised. The Sena’s unwelcome participation has stiffened the attitude of the ruling Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre. No wonder, the sensible Environment Minister, who had earlier put the Jaitapur proposal on the ice until safety and livelihood concerns were addressed, has had to relent, as pausing the project would not be politically sound.

The Congress-ruled state government has “taken up cudgels against the imported (read Shiva Sena) protesters.” It’s a pity that such a grave matter which could be of serious concern, in the event of an accident, to not only the country but also the region is being bulldozed through for considerations that are purely political. Nonetheless, thanks to “Fukushima”, the Centre is considering certain reforms among which are creation of an independent and autonomous nuclear regulatory authority, making public the reports of the reviews of nuclear reactors conducted after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents as also of the one that will be submitted by the panel constituted post “Fukushima” and conduct of safety audits by the Operational Safety Review Team of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

And, yet environmental and safety considerations of “Jaitapur” remain. Apart from the people’s livelihood, the environmental damage that may be caused to the unique ecosystem is likely to be colossal. The studies of Bombay natural History Society have testified to that. Besides, the National Oceanography Institute, Goa, has indicated that nuclear power plants at Jaitapur are not advisable as it falls in an earthquake-prone zone.

With our lackadaisical ways and the kind of shambolic disaster management system that we have, one wonders whether we would be able to deal effectively with a nuclear catastrophe. Even the French feel “when there is a major natural disaster, all the so-called safety measures (in nuclear power plants) fail in countries with greatest technical know-how.” Can we really claim to be better than such countries?

Worse, the government has opted for JNPP the European Pressure Reactors (EPRs) of the French company AREVA which are not yet functional anywhere in the world.
In Finland and in France, where these reactors are in the process of being installed, design and safety issues have led, apart from delays, to cost escalations to the extent of 50%. The EPR technology is still untested. Pushed by French President Sarkozy we have bargained for it. What is more, power generated by them, after taking into account costs of safeguards against accidents, terror attacks and environmental degradation, is likely to be unaffordable. Not included in these are the costs of eventual disposal of the nuclear wastes for which a suitable safe burial place in the bowels of the earth will have to be identified. The US is yet to find one in its vast territories.

A major national daily, lobbying for the project, said in its editorial the other day that India needs to enhance its “nuclear literacy”. The comment, apparently, was made in the context of opposition of the villagers and certain environmentalists to the proposed nuclear park in Jaitapur.Yes, we in this country are not really ‘nuclear literate’. People may know about nuclear bombs but, no, they do not know much about nuclear power.

However, by contrast, the Japanese people should be considered to have a high level of “literacy” in nuclear power – with about 30% of their power being generated (before Fukushima) by about 55 nuclear power plants. And, yet on a Sunday a few weeks ago, after Fukushima, there was a massive demonstration (by Japanese standards) in Tokyo against nuclear power plants. About 5000 demonstrators marched through Central Tokyo carrying placards that said “bye bye Genpatsu” (Goodbye nuclear power) demanding an end to nuclear power and a switch to alternative energy. The demonstrators included many young people and families who clearly appeared worried about the future of their children. Were they all, shall we say, “nuclear illiterates”?

Likewise, what would one call the Germans who get almost 25% of their energy requirements from 40 to 50 years old nuclear power plants? On 15th March 2011, after Fukushima, on account of a renewed general concern about nuclear power Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, once an active proponent of nuclear power, announced shut down of nuclear reactors that went on line before 1981. On 26th March in the largest anti-nuclear demonstration ever held in Germany 250,000 protested under the slogan “heed Fukushima – shut off all nuclear plants”.

France, second to the United States in nuclear power and meeting about 80% of its electricity demand from this source, has, of late, seen demonstrations and protests – even demands for a referendum to decide whether or not the country should stop producing nuclear power.Italy has also banned nuclear power. Italy has been nuclear-free since the Chernobyl accident in 1986 when it dismantled all its nuclear power plants. It was in the process of re-evaluating building of such plants when “Fukushima” happened. Switzerland, too, has given up plans to upgrade its aging nuclear power plants although the chances of an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude are reported to be once in 100,000 years. All but one of its nuclear power plants are capable of withstanding such an earthquake. Yet, the Swiss have refused to consider upgrading their plants. For them “security and wellbeing” of their people is an absolute priority. Are they all ignorant about nuclear power?

In India, however, things are different. Here we do not learn from all that happens around us. We seem to strike our own lonely path even if that happens to lead us to disaster. As some hack had once said we seem to go to the very edge before we retrace back our steps. That seems to be in our psyche. “Jaitapur” is no different! Even after “Fukushima” the environmentalists who oppose the proposed Jaitapur Nuclear Power Park (JNPP) are branded “green fanatics” and “myopic” and the protesting farmers and fishermen who are likely to lose their livelihoods because of the Park are called “anti-national”.

Clearly, while the need indicated for enhanced “nuclear literacy” is unexceptionable there is no gainsaying the fact that, considering all factors, nuclear power is not for us, as indeed it doesn’t seem to be so for others – even in the First World. We, along with the rest of the world, need to look for alternative cheaper, greener and less hazardous sources of energy.