Inattention is fatal

As the ongoing pandemic shows, ignoring weak social infrastructure at a time when crises are becoming increasingly global and costly, is a dangerous strategy

Adani power plant and the conveyor belt that transports coal from the port to the power plants and passes through the Tunda Vandh village, Mundra [image by: Ariane Wilkinson / Flickr]

As the pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives every day in India, the question of India’s energy transition seems an almost academic issue. And yet the truth of the climate crisis is not about either or, but a compounding of problems. Almost nothing illustrates this more than the reports about the link between air pollution and the pandemic. The coronavirus is a respiratory infection, it attacks the lungs, making breathing difficult, and lowering the oxygen absorption capability of lungs.

India has the most polluted cities in the world. Its citizens were already dealing with respiratory problems long before the pandemic, amounting to thousands of avoidable deaths, and many already suffering from a rise of asthma. This was a known problem, and also one that was going unaddressed because – as Swati D’souza explains in her interview below – it required a “whole of the system” approach, one that has been missing in our approach to the climate crisis.

It will take time to figure out the full toll of the pandemic on Indians. The experience of both doctors and patients, though, are already coming in, and it is clear that lungs weakened by their exposure to dangerous levels of air pollution have made the disease harder to fight, and made recovery more difficult. Additionally, due to the prevalence of air pollution which the virus can ride as it spreads, the infection rate will be higher. By ignoring a known problem, we have ended up weakening our ability to respond to a surprising new one.

The energy transition, though, is not just about pollution. Unlike developed countries who are already locked into long-term carbon-intensive architecture of energy consumption, India has a chance to leapfrog into new areas. This means that India can create new technologies, not merely import old ones. The example of floating solar plants, that track the angle of the sun, adding significant efficiency to solar plants, while managing to stay both cool and relatively clean, without having to encroach on land, is a great example. An example of using solar power to provide electricity for maternal and child care from neighbouring Pakistan shows how, instead of depending on legacy energy architecture that is hugely costly to extend to off-grid areas, developing countries can use renewable energy for solutions that they desperately need.

An additional problem is that water availability is the most visible impact of climate change. Either there is too little water in some seasons, or too much. This has a direct impact on coal power generation. As D’souza points out, coal plants had a plant load factor of only 66% in March 2021. Water is essential to the functioning of these plants, and lower water availability will mean that their efficiency will drop still further. Worse, even though the law states that people in the vicinity have the first right to water, in most cases since the plants are either owned by the state, or by very powerful and influential people, they get the right to first access, reducing clean water available for those that live in the area.

These are known problems, and neglected ones. In failing to address them, in pushing the problem further until we are in crisis, we risk making the next crisis – one we cannot anticipate – far worse because of existing problems weakening the system. These limit our capacity to respond, and worse, they stop India from setting the agenda, and Indians from benefitting from the innovations that could emerge in tackling these problems. We make our losses worse, while passing up on potential profits.

Inattention has always been dangerous. As the climate crisis piles on problem upon problem, it is becoming lethal. We need to pay attention, to ask the difficult question of why we are stuck where we are, and in identifying which pathways have led us to this point, maybe find other ways that may help us find a way out.

Swati Dsouza, is the Research Lead on Climate Action at the National Foundation of India. Her research interest lies at the intersection of energy transition and climate policy. Her research has spanned a range of topics including regulatory challenges, resource assessment and planning, pricing structures, financial risks, governance frameworks, and infrastructure planning across the fossil fuel supply chain. Previously, Brookings India (now CSEP), Swati managed and co-edited a book on framing a long-term policy for natural gas in India. Prior to that, she was associated with TERI, where she led the supply side work on fossil fuels and energy transition.

Q. What is happening in the energy sector, with fossil fuels and renewables, as the pandemic rages on?

A. There has been a slight uptick in coal-powered energy over the last year. In March 2020 the coal plants were struggling with not enough demand, but this revived a little by November-December. Part of this was because states were able to schedule electricity from coal more easily than renewables, with less uncertainty. Workers at electricity were deemed “frontline workers”.

But this is from a low baseline. There hasn’t been a net increase since 2019. The plant load factor is still at 66%, with rising variable costs due to low efficiency. There has not been any new investment in the coal sector for the last four years, but the auctioning of coal blocks has sent a signal that this may change.

Q. Where is the enthusiasm for coal coming from.

A. It is hard to tell. One answer may be vertical integration. So, Adani buys mines for coal for Adani plants to transmit electricity through distribution companies (discoms) owned by Adani, and through transmission lines owned by them. You also have to remember that we import 200-220 MT of coal per year, so the acquisition of mines can work to replace that, and that coal is not just for electricity, but also for cement, steel and other industries. 19 coal blocks have been auctioned. The government is expected to auction another 67. It takes 3-4 years for mines to become functional. These are sunk costs. Japan, China, and Korea – who were the main investors in Indian coal plants – are no longer funding them. The Public Sector banks have huge stranded assets with old coal projects, and have not been keen for a while. Overseas investors see higher returns from renewables.

Q. But with low efficiency, is the overall coal sector unattractive?

A. You have to have a sectoral perspective. The centrally owned plants, under NTPC, perform at higher efficiencies. They are located right next to mines, so they have lower variable costs. In plants run by the state governments it is easier to manage payment, if there is a delay it is only the state balancing its books. This is not the case for the private sector. Plant load factor is 66% overall in March 2021, but 80% for centrally owned plants, 63% for state owned ones, and 57% for private ones.

Q. What is happening in the energy sector beyond coal?

A. Gas infrastructure has stagnated over the last year due to the pandemic. In the 9th & 10th bidding round for CNG and piped gas, the companies were given exclusive rights to provide gas to certain areas, and were required to achieve a certain level of connections per year. Due to the pandemic this was not possible, and the Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board waived the penalties.

In the oil sector we have an odd situation where the government wants to expand refining capacity from 296 MT to 400 MT by 2040. This is in direct contradiction to its clean energy goals. Why are you expanding oil in the market if you want to shift to electric vehicles?

The electricity sector, overall, has been decarbonising since 2016 for a variety of reasons. Policies have made renewables more competitive through subsidies, by making states have a purchase obligation of a minimum of renewable energy. This requirement has not been fully met, but it is getting there. Then – as mentioned above – large investors have moved away from coal. Lastly, technology advances have made solar power much cheaper. From 7.8 crore per MW in 2015-16 it has come down to 4-4.5 crore per MW now. This is a very big change, and is making the change organic in nature, which will only become bigger as economies of scale kick in.

Q. If it is doing so well, price-wise, why has the renewable sector not taken over more?

A. Lots of issues. Discoms are struggling with money and are not able to pay the RE companies providing them with power, creating a snag. There are individual actions, such as Andhra Pradesh cancelling contracts by previous because prices are dropping. The policy flip-flop doesn’t send a good message, and while you may be able to source the power at cheaper prices, the money may not be enough to set up the plant itself. You kill the goose before it has laid the egg.

An assembly line of renewable energy takes time to put together. Import duties on Chinese solar panels is not helping, because they are still far cheaper than the anything being produced here. There is also a problem of plenty in states like Tamil Nadu that have gone for solar and wind in a big way. They cannot fully utilise the power that they are generating.

Q. Will that remain a hurdle, the fact that only coal is able to supply base load?

A. Not really, the challenge is to deal with the base load at specific times. Currently we have two peak demand times in a day, mid-morning, and about 7-7:30 in the evening. Since the sun does not shine in the evening, what states in the south – which have incorporated renewables most into the grid – are doing is creating battery storage. The stated goal by the Ministry of Power is to create a 30 GW battery storage capacity by 2030. This could then be used to deal with that base load.

Q. Is there a particular issue we are not paying attention to in the energy sector?

A. Air pollution. This has multiple effects, and is cross cutting. It links energy and the environment. It is an outcome of how labour is organised, and how farming cycle and climate change drives stubble burning at farms, and how construction contributes to the problem. This is an easily visible problem that requires concentrated policy action across sectors, and that is the type of thinking we need to deal with India’s future challenges.

Q. How did you get into this field?

A. I am curious. I like to find answers. You know that saying curiosity killed the cat, that’s me. I wanted to find out how the energy sector works, and this is a way of me satisfying my curiosity of what is happening, and why.

Critical reading on the environment of India, 13.05.2021, compiled by Shambhavi Madan

1.       Global Covid-19 vaccine crisis sends ominous signal for fighting climate change: The long running global battle over intellectual property rights in access to medical care has a parallel to climate action, too, with the Paris climate agreement having explicitly called for the transfer of technology to develop clean energy infrastructure. Both contexts – the global north-south gap in the rate of Covid-19 vaccination and access to clean technology and funding – relate to the question of willingness to redistribute resources. More immediately, this year’s vaccine shortages in the nations of the global South could hinder their ability to participate in the United Nations-led climate talks in Glasgow set for November, minimizing their voice in critical policy decisions about how to wean the global economy away from fossil fuels. 

2.       Odisha diverts DMF funds to urban areas as mining-affected communities suffer: The Odisha government has approved a proposal to use the District Mineral Foundation (DMF) funds, meant for the mining-affected community in the Sundergarh district, for construction of an international stadium in Rourkela town. This is not a one-off incident – DMF funds have been illegally repurposed on a regular basis for works that have nothing to do with the welfare of vulnerable mining-affected communities, or have been diverted to urban areas – which dilutes the very concept of these funds. A study conducted by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) on the usage of DMF funds in Odisha’s mining districts points to the constitution of the DMF committee in the districts as one of the main problems, i.e. local politicians exerting more power in fund allocation. The state has more than Rs. 110 billion under the DMF funds but these are yet to find their way to the mining-affected communities.

3.       Jammu and Kashmir's drinking water poisoned by pesticides: Jammu & Kashmir’s abundant water sources are getting increasingly contaminated due to seepage of chemicals from pesticide use across orchard farms and paddy fields as well as dumping of municipal solid waste. The contaminated water bodies include rivers Doodh Ganga, Vishaw, Shali Ganga, and the Dal Lake. While inputs from health experts and scientists paint a grim picture of the impact on people and biodiversity, little has been done by authorities including the J&K Pollution Control Committee. 

4.       The upcoming marina at Malpe and why the local residents are against it: A majority of local residents stand in strong opposition to a marina project proposed at the Padukere beach in Malpe, Karnataka, because they believe that it will harm their livelihoods as fishing communities, and the region’s environment and biodiversity. Planned as a state-of-the-art project to attract international tourism, the aspects which the government sees as economy-boosting are precisely what the villagers are dreading. In light of multiple coastal infrastructure projects being planned across the country, it is important to consider that research has already well-highlighted the impact of anthropogenic modifications to waterways, on the existing quality of seas, biodiversity, quality of water, quality of air, and the environment as a whole. 

5.       Govt Ignored NTCA Warning that Sagarmala Plan is Bad for Western Ghats Biodiversity: The Sagarmala railways project is one of the many projects the Central Government has proposed in a narrow stretch of the Western Ghats between Goa and Karnataka, and that are being opposed by the Save Mollem campaign in Goa. In April 2021, a petition challenging the railways project in the Karnataka high court presented government records suggesting that government approval to the project had ignored warnings by the National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA) over the project’s ecological costs. The NTCA’s full site visit report and its recommendations were suppressed by the NTCA’s own headquarters, which conveyed only a short version to the National Board for Wildlife. Sreeja Chakraborty, the counsel in the high court petition, called this a ‘mala fide’ decision of the government. “Any administrative decision which is mala fide is illegal because it vitiates the decision-making process. It deserves to be struck down by the courts under judicial review,” she said.

6.       India's fight against energy poverty is going to be tough in coming future: Adoption of modern and clean energy sources continues to be a big challenge in India, as it is directly linked to purchasing power of the people, and therefore to wealth distribution. COVID-19 will greatly impact energy accessas more people will be pushed to poverty and they will not be able to spend money on clean fuel.

7.       Why India Should Assess Biodiversity Impacts as Part of 'Green Energy' Proposals: India does not have a framework to assess environmental impacts of green energy, much less biodiversity impacts, including loss of habitat for critically endangered species. Given documented wildlife mortalities and injuries, and India’s renewable energy ambition, this is a gap that needs to be addressed. Socio-ecological impacts of clean energy sources also include issues such as land grabs and illegal usage of water as fallouts of large-scale solar plants. “Fossil fuels are seen as bad. Renewables are seen as the solution,” said Priya Pillai, senior researcher at Asar. But, this myopic perspective is the problem, she pointed out. “Just because the energy source is ‘greener’, it does not mean the system has changed or that the way capital behaves has changed.” 

8.       Forest conservation must be important part of global response to COVID pandemic: The Global Forest Goals Report 2021 by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs is the first evaluation of where the world stands in regard to implementing the UN Strategic Plan for Forests 2017-2030 – a blueprint for forests and people, expressed through six Global Forest Goals and 26 targets. The 2021 report emphasizes that forests have a critical role to play in building resilience and reducing the risk of future pandemics, such as local communities relying on them for subsistence needs or creating natural buffers against transmission of zoonoses. It also outlines how pandemic-driven health and socio-economic outcomes have increased the pressure on forests. Therefore, a recovery from the pandemic, along with responses to the climate and biodiversity crises, must be rooted in restoring healthy forest ecosystems and safeguarding forest-dependent communities.

9.       Green panel clears Central Vista projects: Despite the deadly COVID-19 surge and subsequent lockdown, work on the Central Vista redevelopment project continues under the ambit of essential services. The Environment Ministry recently accorded environmental approval to multiple ancillary projects that are part of the construction of a new Parliament. Environmentalists have pointed out that the project is being approved under a piece-meal approach to obscure its true environmental impact. 

10.   Is Sulphur Dioxide a Problem in India's Ambient Air?: After repeated extension of timelines for coal-based power plants to meet sulphur dioxide emission norms issued by the Union environment ministry in 2015, and only one-third of these plants having taken any serious initiative thus far while the sector continues lobbying for dilution, the ministry recently extended the timeline again for three to four years, failing which they would only have to pay a meagre penalty and continue to spew emissions. Such complacency has underlying support in a 2020 report by the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) that had questioned the need for stronger norms for sulphur dioxide emissions for thermal power plants. But a new, 27 April 2021, report by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) explains how the CEA report ignores the fact that sulphur dioxide gas has the potential to form sulphates and increase particulate matter in the environment. Pointing out the missing links in that study, CSE emphasises the necessity to implement the norms on an urgent basis.