Thursday, February 19, 2015

Brightening the future with the sun and wind

The Renewable Energy (RE) Global Investor’s Meet inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 15 invited participation in funding India’s RE growth ambitions, which include almost 1,00,000 MW of growth in solar power in just seven years (about 40 per cent of today’s total installed capacity) and some 50,000 MW of wind power. This is bold and ambitious to say the least. The event was a success, finding investment commitments for some 2, 60,000 MW of RE!
But a serious question facing Indians is whether at a time when most people are struggling to keep the lights on at home, because of the shortage of power, do citizens really care about carbon emissions and climate change, which have become the primary rationale for pushing green energy? Also if Indians are as notoriously price-sensitive as pundits claim, how much of a premium will they be willing to pay for RE?
Let’s not beat around the bush — RE, attractive as it might sound and improving in price performance every year, does require support. Support isn’t inappropriate, especially given the benefits of RE, but there are also externalities of another kind including implications for the rest of the grid. This needs deeper analysis.
Contextualising RE
In the West, utilities are already worrying about the Utility Death Spiral, where RE and storage and smart grids mean some consumers reduce, if not cut off, their utility purchases. This raises costs for the rest of the grid, which must still keep the system in balance and stable, and also serve the least profitable consumers. This prompts others to exit the system, and so on. While India isn’t quite there yet, we must first understand that an end consumer opting for RE and finding it worthwhile is based on his/her comparing retail tariff with generation costs, which aren’t comparable. First, distribution has its own costs, even after accounting for savings in distribution losses. Second, retail tariffs for so-called paying customers (especially commercial and industrial) are artificially high, since they cross-subsidise other users.
Renewables in India are different from renewables deployed in the U.S. and Europe, and understanding the differences is the key to viable policies. The triad of “usual” challenges of renewables remains in India, such as: intermittency/variability; location-specific potential (concentrated in areas sometimes away from consumers or the grid); and higher costs. However, there are specific differences and needs that demand deeper analysis for the long-term viability of renewable energy.
In India, our peak demand is mostly in the evening, and the sun surely isn’t very bright at 7 p.m. Storage technologies are niche and expensive today, so solar power helps with energy (kilowatt-hour) needs, but not with our capacity needs. Wind is not much better, given its seasonality.
One of the typical calculations that power systems operators do is estimate how much RE the grid can handle. Typical figures from elsewhere are in the range of 20-30 per cent, with more requiring significant investments in transmission or peaker plants. India is different because its grid is very weak and unstable, and instead of having a reasonable reserve margin (which is typically 15-20 per cent in the West), there is a shortfall in the grid, officially in the range of 5 per cent or so, but actually much higher. The grid is kept afloat through massive “load-shedding” (feeder-level cut outs of supply).
There are other technical reasons why the Indian grid is weak, including lack of ancillary services (systems designed to keep the grid stable, instead of just pricing kilowatt-hours), and even a lack of time-of-day pricing for bulk procurement of power. There are few peaker plants (which would operate only some 5-10 per cent of hours in a year), since there isn’t sufficient incentive for these. Without incentives for plants that can ramp up quickly but may not get used much, how will the grid handle 20 per cent renewables?
Even worse, the types of plants capable of fast ramping are limited in near-term growth in India — hydropower (due to land and social/environmental challenges) and natural gas (due to supply constraints). Hydropower has an additional constraint when considering peaking or storage — its additional duty for water management (irrigation) limits when water can be stored versus released. Also, natural gas has overwhelmingly been built for baseload needs (with combined cycle plants), which cannot meet peaking requirements.
Making RE sustainable
Renewables can and should play a greater role in our sustainable energy future, but we need proper accounting and specialised effort to understand their grid implications and scalability. As part of a recent book on Making Renewable Power Sustainable in India , launched by Piyush Goyal, Minister for Power, Renewables, and Coal, we at Brookings India identified a number of policy imperatives for making RE sustainable. While the technical details need working out, especially in terms of regulations, support and incentive mechanisms, grid management, etc., we also identified a need to ramp up skills and innovation. All solar cells are imported today — this shouldn’t remain so. The first step towards making RE sustainable is a nuanced examination of the issues and trade-offs, and dialogue among all the stakeholders, especially state utilities, which ultimately deliver electricity to consumers.
Renewables have a bright future, and must play a leading role in India’s power security and growth. They aren’t a silver bullet, but a vital tool in the broader spectrum of India’s energy future. Most importantly, renewables should not be viewed in isolation, as a drop-in supply-side solution, but rather as part of a transition if not transformation of the grid, which includes variable and dynamic pricing, distributed generation, storage technologies and smart grids. If RE is referred to as the energy source of the future, that future is well-nigh.

(Rahul Tongia is a Fellow at Brookings India, and Adjunct Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He is also Advisor, Smart Grid Task Force, Government of India )

UNSC meet to discuss situation in Libya

The U.N. Security Council will meet on Wednesday to discuss the situation in Libya after the apparent IS execution of 21 Egyptian Christians, with Egypt’s Foreign Minister in attendance, diplomats said Tuesday.
The meeting follows the release of a videotape by the Islamic State group purportedly showing the mass beheading in Libya. Egypt launched retaliatory air strikes against IS targets in Libya on Monday.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry is in New York where he will also hold bilateral meetings with Security Council members and Arab representatives, diplomats said.
Egypt has asked the U.N. Security Council to provide a mandate for an international intervention in Libya, where fighting among rival militias has thrust the country into chaos.
France and Italy also called for a Security Council meeting to decide on “new measures” in Libya.
The meeting was scheduled for 3:00 pm (2000 GMT) on Wednesday and was to be followed by closed-door consultations.
Mr. Shoukry will lay out the situation in public before the council, Britain’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations Peter Wilson told reporters.
Asked about the Egyptian demand for an intervention, Mr. Wilson said, “We are waiting to see what Foreign Minister Shoukry has to say.”
While supporting the Egyptian request, Arab diplomats at the United Nations said they thought it would also require a formal request by the Libyan government.
But Libya currently has two governments and two rival Parliaments, one close to the Fajr Libya coalition and the other recognized by the international community and based in Tobruk.
An intervention “requires a lot of Europeans to come in, it requires a U.N. blessing and it requires also a letter from the Libyan government saying that it will allow troops to get in,” Iraq’s ambassador to the United Nations, Mohamed Ali Alhakim, said. “Without that, the U.N. cannot move.”
U.N. diplomats said they expected no decisions on Wednesday, or even a council statement at the end of the meeting.
Russia and China have been notoriously reluctant to support interventions under a U.N. banner. Moscow accused the United Nations of overstepping its role when it adopted resolutions that led to the international military operation that helped oust Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi in 2011.

Smart City Projects: Factors, Questions and Plan

Even before concrete work begins on the government’s ambitious smart-city project, there seems to be increasing concern over the initiative turning into an elitist concept.

While the National Democratic Alliance government has been striking deals for the project with other countries and international entities (the latest was with Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City), participants at a summit on Tuesday sounded a cautious note, saying the government should think of the project as an “inclusive” venture, not a gated community for the rich and privileged.

The two-day summit is organised by First Smart Cities Council, the India chapter of Global Smart Cities Council, a Washington DC-based research body.

On Monday, it was decided Michael Bloomberg’s Bloomberg Philanthropies would assist the Ministry of Urban Development in selecting cities for the smart city project, on a continuous basis. Japan, Germany, Singapore and the US are among the countries that have expressed interest in partnering the government in this initiative. A signature project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it envisages 100 smart cities, most of which will involve upgrade and conversion of existing ones. It is expected 2015-16 will make a pitch for smart cities; Budget 2014-15 had allocated about Rs 7,000 crore towards this.

A K Jain, architect and town planner and former commissioner (planning) at the Delhi Development Authority, told Business Standard as of now, the project to build 100 smart cities was just “a slogan”. Other government initiatives, such as the Swachh Bharat, housing for all, and the urban renewal mission, should have been clubbed under this project, Jain said, adding he was against too much foreign participation and a significant role for developers in this initiative. Jain highlights the risk of developers making it a luxury and upmarket project and says there is a need for local expertise to come up with smart cities in India. “We cannot forget the poor; it should not end up as a posh locality.” Tying up with foreign entities could be done later, he said, adding “planning has to be done in-house, with the needs of the local population as the key point”.

Jayesh Ranjan, commissioner of industries, Telangana, also stressed the need to make the smart city project inclusive. If it was a brownfield project (redevelopment of existing cities), chances of smart cities being inclusive were greater, Ranjan said.

He, however, added, this wasn’t a simple project that could be completed quickly and without hurdles. “You need a great deal of patience for the smart city project,” he said, pointing to problems related to “retro-fitting” in case of brownfield projects. He buttressed his argument by citing the lessons learnt from the retro-fitting underway in Cyberabad, which came up as an information technology (IT) hub in 2002, as an amalgamation of four villages. Even after it became an IT park, with companies such as setting up offices, the authorities realised much more had to be done. That’s how retro-fitting started, along with several partners, Ranjan said. “Retrofitting is an arduous and long path. There’s nothing instant about it.’’

At the stage of drawing up a master plan, local and regional involvement was important, said P N Rao, founder — director of Urban Development Research Institute. Rao said while drawing up plans, the less privileged should be kept in mind. He concurred with Jain that though 70 per cent of India’s gross domestic product came from urban areas, economic growth should not be the only criterion for a smart city. International participants such as Sabrina Coccia, an expert on smart cities (Paris), said strategy was the primary aspect of the smart city project. It “shouldn’t be about cut and paste” of initiatives taken up by others, she added.

Last month, was shunted from the post of secretary in the urban development ministry and replaced with from the commerce ministry. While the two-day summit on smart cities is backed by the urban development ministry, no official from the ministry was present.


A matter of time

If you thought India was far behind other countries in terms of smart cities, think again. Leaving aside some pockets of Barcelona or Paris, most smart city projects are still in the making, says Pratap Padode, chairman of First Smart Cities Council. These projects include the ambitious Songdo in South Korea and Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. Singapore wasn’t a smart city, Padode said, adding there were “livable cities such as Melbourne and Vancouver”. On being asked the time taken to complete such projects, he said Songdo was work in progress for 12 years, adding it wouldn’t be completed before another five years.

Green concern

Of the buildings in Cyberabad, an information technology hub, 99.9 per cent aren’t ‘Green’, a key benchmark in defining smart cities. Another important aspect in terms of making Cyberabad ‘smart’ is the number of people cycling to work. Jayesh Ranjan, commissioner of industries, Telangana, said against the current 400, the target was to have 4,000 people cycle to work by the end of this year.

The cost factor

Even as much is being talked about financing models for smart cities, one thing is for sure: the cost on brownfield projects (redeveloping existing cities) will be much lower than those on greenfield ones (building fresh cities). Though the National Democratic Alliance government is considering brownfield projects, a negative is it is much tougher to execute such smart city projects, while new smart cities can be rolled out more easily.

Wholesome offerings

If there’s any confusion, smart city trackers like to make it clear — smart cities are very different from smart buildings. Such cities are wholesome, covering everything from technology to security and sustainability to infrastructure. And yes, climate designers, or architects planning according to climate needs, might soon be in vogue.

Banking on technology

In between presentations on data collection and analysis in the context of smart cities, there were lighter moments, too. It was said on being asked why she hadn’t turned up for work, a domestic help told her mistress she had put up the message on a Facebook post, adding, “Sir had liked it, too.”