Weaning ourselves away from the carbon economy

The American Civil War, with its lessons of a house divided, the economics of slave trade and industrialisation, holds important lessons for a climate transition and the role of innovation

US civil war re-enactment - Ulster Amercian Folk Park, Omagh, Feb 2010 [image by: Aidan McMichael]

Over the years one of the more powerful explanations for the American Civil War was the divergence of the economies of the North and South. As the North became more industrialised it was more committed to wage labour, while the South was still wedded to exploiting slave labour for everything from tobacco to cotton plantations. As with most single-issue explanations of large historical events, it is not quite true. There were a number of other factors, particularly the collapse of the Whig party, and the rise of the Republicans, with Lincoln at the helm. Parts of the South were also quite industrialised, and the competition between the North and South of the new states of the western frontier, as native Americans were divested of their lands, were not plantation states.

That said, the competitive advantage of the North, especially in industry and production, was one of the deciding factors for the outcome of the war. Post the Civil War, ironically, manufacturing sped up massively in the South as it expanded elsewhere, leading to the United States quickly becoming one of the most industrialised countries on the planet.

The lessons of the American Civil War are worth bearing in mind as we talk of the climate transition in India. Framed as a moral question – most prominently in Lincoln’s “A House Divided” speech – the battle against slavery was partially driven, and most definitely won, by a more competitive economic system. Moral positions, by themselves, are no guarantors of success, no matter how high-minded. In the classic dialogue between the Athenians and the people of Melos in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has the Athenians state, “The powerful do as the wish, and the weak do as they must.”

This statement, written 2,500 years ago, is often considered the foundational idea around which international politics is based. What it neglects to state is whether the weak and strong can change positions. It is this very question that is at the heart of how the world changes.

While the American North was clearly more powerful than the South, it had not always been the case, with the money from sugar, tobacco, and later cotton plantations making the South quite rich. Moreover cotton fed the textile dominance of Northern mills, and slaves – as property – were valued at about 3 times the money invested in banks, and many banks in the North were part of the business of making money off of this “value”.

Put in these terms, it seems that there was no real economic incentive for the North to go to war with the South. It was the combination of both the building outrage against slavery as a system as well as a different, competitive model of growth that allowed things to finally tip the balance. Bear in mind that there were abolitionists within the group that framed the US Constitution itself, but these issues were overridden in the battle for independence against Britain. It would take nearly a hundred years for the US to act on the moral issue, and much of this can be explained by the fact that the wealth generated from slavery flowed through all of the institutions of the US.

These lessons are important as we contemplate an energy transition. Climate change as an issue has been well known for decades. The fact that the current rise in global temperatures is human induced, and due to carbon emissions through, ironically, the same industrialisation that challenged slave labour is not a seriously contested position. Nevertheless, the world has continued largely along the same pathway of destructive growth.

While the moral imperative becomes starker year on year, with huge losses in lives, wealth, and opportunity, an alternative, competitive system has not really emerged. The amount of money from the carbon economy runs through almost every governance institution on the planet. It has an impact.

This is one of the reasons why green innovation is so important. Especially for countries with large poor populations like India, there is no morally feasible position where one can argue against growth. A starving person will not continue to starve to save the planet from warming up, especially if they are told that their children will have to starve too. And it is imperative that innovations made in developing countries occupy centrestage because unless they work, unless they are affordable in Indian conditions, they will not be easily adopted in India.

Today we feature an interview with Vivek Jha who has been involved in developing, and implementing, floating solar power solutions in India. This form of innovation is not just adapted to Indian conditions, but is developed in them, and therefore allows us to see what could be possible. And it is around such innovations that we can build a competitive system that may help us challenge the dominance of the carbon economy, so that we can do as we wish, not merely what we must.

The Interview

Vivek Jha is an independent researcher in clean tech, has more than sixteen years of experience in energy access, energy policy reforms, grid connected and off grid renewable energy, new and emerging technologies, and associated policies. His work is centred around conducting evidence-based research, assessments and evaluation related to various aspects of energy infrastructure including technological innovations, governance, energy, poverty and social inclusion issues. He has worked in different work environments – as a policy researcher, as a grassroots field implementation professional and as a clean-tech start up founder. Vivek has also made multiple keynote speeches and media interviews at national and international fora. He has six publications in peer reviewed journals and three technology patents.

Q. What are floating solar plants?

A. Floating solar photovoltaic (FSPV) plants are an alternative to traditional utility scale ground-mounted solar photovoltaic plants, such as the 750 MW Rewa (Madhya Pradesh) solar project spread over 1590 acres - that provides electricity to Delhi Metro.

As the name suggests, FSPV are deployed over under-utilised water bodies such as irrigation/hydel reservoirs or artificial industrial ponds. In other words, solar photovoltaic modules are mounted over buoyant units called floaters which subsequently float on top of the water only restricted by an appropriate station keeping system to limit horizontal excursions of the plant.

FSPV avoids the use of land, provides a marginally higher efficiency (as compared to a ground mounted project) and can be an effective means of arresting evaporation (especially from dry regions).

Q. Won’t they have an impact on water ecosystems?

A. The environmental effects of FSPV have not been studied in detail and can range from [a] low temperature variation between different layers of water due to shading effect of FSPV and thereby prolonged stratification of water column; [b] low Dissolved Oxygen (DO) as level of oxygen concentration in water is a function of the available water plane area, which may be restricted due to FSPV; [c] lower sunlight penetration and as a result lowering of phytoplankton and thus lesser food for zooplankton, fishes and birds - impact on aquatic life; [d] impact on feeding habitat of migratory as well as resident birds; [e] loss of livelihood for fishermen.

These can be avoided by - limiting the coverage ratio (area covered by FSPV as a proportion of the available water surface) to approximately 10% in case of natural water bodies which have presence of aquatic life (coverage ratio can be larger in case of artificial water bodies), or, by including mitigating technologies such as aerators that may help improve the oxygen concentration in water. Hence, in the initial period an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is recommended even though renewable plants are exempt from conducting an ESIA. 

Q. What are their advantages in India?

A. In India, by mid of 2021, the cumulative installed capacity of FSPV exceeded ~ 75 MW with a capacity of around 1,447 MW planned/under construction and 4,255 MW announced by various agencies where tenders are yet to be released. Evidently, it has garnered interest from government and developers alike. This has been driven by [a] availability of under-utilised water bodies (e.g., 5,475 large dams across India); [b] high opportunity cost (social and economic) of equivalent land; [c] possibility of additional sources of revenue for otherwise cost centres such as irrigation departments; and [d] possibility of financial savings. 

A. Does it make sense to innovate in the renewable space in India? What are the possibilities and challenges?

A. Yes, it absolutely makes sense to innovate. Given a changing climate, we have no option but to look at non-fossil-fuel based energy generation.

Innovation is required in almost all aspects - how we generate energy (onshore wind, offshore wind, ground mounted solar, rooftop and floating solar etc.), how we distribute it (virtual power plants, local mini-grids etc.), how we forecast and monitor it and how we consume it (in manufacturing, space conditioning, mobility etc.)

The major challenges from an entrepreneurial perspective are a long gestation period, large investment requirements (for development, testing, certifications) and relatively lower returns vis-a-vis other sectors such as SaaS, FMCG etc.

Q. What is the one big thing in renewable innovation in India that we should be discussing more about?

We should be discussing how 'small is beautiful'. In our ambition to create the 'biggest' we are forgetting that small closed-loop systems that are possible based on today's technology, which can improve accessibility, efficiency and reliability.

Critical reading

  1. India on slippery slope with palm oil push: The Indian cabinet cleared the National Mission on Edible Oils-Oil Palm with a financial outlay of Rs 11,040 crore over the next five years, to promote domestic production of palm oil. The proposal is to increase the land under oil palm plantations with a special focus on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in the North-East, due to their favourable rainfall and temperature. Environment groups and other agencies are protesting the move for multiple reasons, focusing on environmental and health impacts. Indonesia and Malaysia, which produce more than 80% of the global palm oil, are facing the resulting cost of deforestation and associated loss in biodiversity, land degradation, forest and peatland fires, greenhouse gas emissions and air and water pollution. Further, the impact of palm oil on cardiovascular health is a shining example of how bad nutrition translates into good business. Interestingly, Adani Wilmar, a joint venture between Gautam Adani’s eponymous Adani Enterprises and Singapore-based palm-oil giant Wilmar, is one of the companies that might end up benefiting the most from the government’s move.

  2. Why India Needs Coal-Ash Pond Design Standards ASAP: India produces almost three times as much coal ash every year as it does municipal waste. The coal ash is stored in poorly designed and engineered facilities that often fail in catastrophic fashion, especially during the monsoons. New coal ash produced annually adds to the 1.6 billion tonnes of unutilised ‘legacy’ ash already accumulated in large unplanned coal-ash dumps or dykes across India – enough to fill a thousand Taj Mahals. From 2010 to 2020 alone, 76 coal ash pond ‘incidents’ were reported across India – the most notable was the Reliance Sasan Power disaster of April 2020, which killed six people, damaged property and polluted water and soil in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh. But coal-ash ponds in India are not subject to any regulations, engineering standards and guidelines. 

  3. Dilution of Mining Norms: Linear Projects to be Considered Standalone: As India continues to make its big push towards coal energy, environmental norms continue to stand diluted. The Union environment ministry has now delinked projects associated with the mines – providing them with a status of standalone projects. Senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research Kanchi Kohli explained “This change is to allow mining companies to take approvals to set up extraction related operations first without the need to specify end use. With this clarification, the linear infrastructure to evacuate the mined-out material can continue to evolve during the life of the mine, with no thought given to how the social and environmental footprint will be managed."

  4. Biodiversity loss from mega real estate projects: What is missing, what can be done?: This is a 3-part series showing how the impact on biodiversity is completely ignored when real estate projects are given environment clearance, even though documents submitted by the builder are often completely obscure or even copy-pasted from other publications. Yet the State Environment Impact Assessment Authority clears most of these projects without question. For mega ‘township’ projects with built-up area above 1.5 lakh square metre, builders have to submit an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA), as per the union environment ministry’s 2010 guidance manual. Not only is the guidance manual vague about the methods to be used for studying flora and fauna, EIAs don’t seem to employ any established ecological methods. Pertinently, as the first part of the series stated: “In every project examined in this series, this writer tried to talk to all the parties concerned to clarify matters. The answers, if they came at all, were always laced with the attitude: “Biodiversity? What biodiversity?”

  5. Lower species richness in deforested landscapes tied to high Kyasanur forest disease risk: study: As outbreaks of Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) or ‘monkey fever’ rapidly expand across the Western Ghats, a study finds that landscapes of highest risk are those that have been subjected to diminished biodiversity following habitat fragmentation (i.e., forest loss). “These landscapes tend to be dominated by species that are resilient to human pressure, as those that are less resilient and which can be found in areas of greater biodiversity tend to disappear as habitat is lost. These species that are more resilient to human pressure also tend to be species that are more efficient viral hosts because those aspects of their biology that make them resilient also make them more efficient hosts,” says the study’s corresponding author Michael Walsh, a landscape epidemiologist with the Sydney Institute for Infectious Diseases and the Sydney School of Public Health. 

  6. Odisha's decision to auction virgin mines raises environmental concerns: Odisha is proposing to auction seven fresh mines which together could result in the loss of about 4,000 acres of forest land including the biodiversity-rich Karlapat and Gandhalpada forests. These forests are not only a source of livelihood for the indigenous communities, but also crucial to their cultural identity. Environmentalists allege that the state government has not consulted the communities who will be impacted by mining activities and is forcing their decision on the indigenous communities. Environmentalist Prafulla Samantara, who is leading the movement, asked: “There is also no emergency need of iron ore in the state as the existing industries already have captive mines to produce steel. So, why such a hurry to destroy the valuable forests of the state which will take at least 500 years to replenish if destroyed now?”

  7. What is killing Uttarakhand's small wetlands? Degraded Niranjanpur pond carves a live example :  Nearly 70 per cent of Uttarakhand’s wetlands have been destroyed over the years due to delayed conservation action. A majority of them (816 of 994) are small wetlands of less than 2.25-hectare area. They are undervalued for their small size despite their substantial numbers and environmental benefits. Many of these wetlands disappear even before being recognised or documented as they are least protected under most environmental regulations. The 2.62 ha Niranjanpur pond, strangled by Dehradun’s mindless urbanisation, is facing a similar fate. 

  8. Tougher than steel: Decades on, Odisha villagers still struggle to protect their land: Residents of Jagatsinghpur village in Odisha have alleged that JSW Utkal Steel Ltd. provided false information and fake letters of representation during a public hearing regarding the setting up of a greenfield integrated steel plant – 1082 written representations were sent in favour of the project before, during and after the public hearing on December 20, 2019. But local communities have long opposed the construction of the integrated plant fearing the destruction of the local ecosystem and livelihoods of indigenous groups. They have informed the government that many of the signatories in the said representations are either illiterate or children, and in some cases did not even exist. Fearing the possibility of a crude steel production unit, a cement grinding unit and a 900 MW captive power plant in their vicinity, their 13 September letter to the expert appraisal committee includes signatures and thumbprints of the same people whose names were mentioned in JSW’s documents without their consent. 

  9. Dalit Women Wait To Till Their Lands In Gujarat: Recent reporting by Behenbox covers just how poorly Gujarat’s Zameen Santhani scheme has been designed and implemented. This scheme was meant to acquire wasteland and distribute it to landless agricultural labourers, marginal farmers, ex-servicemen and registered cooperative societies of backward classes. Between 2005 and 2009, administrations of 19 districts allotted almost 20,000 acres of wasteland to nearly 7000 landless families under the Santhani scheme. However, most of the land allocated under the Santhani scheme was uncultivable. The reporters spoke with three Dalit women farmers, none of whom have been able to use their plots, which are either unavailable for various reasons or are unsuitable for farming, or both. The women farmers have struggled with red tape, discrimination and the backlash from dominant castes to cultivate what they can, to make some sense of their ownership of these barren lands.

  10. People Bristle at Waste-to-Energy Project's Rush To Expand in the Aravalli: Environmental groups have raised objections to the Haryana government’s push to a waste-to-energy (WTE) project at the Bandhwari landfill site in the Gurugram Aravalli. Instead of the mandatory 30-day period required by law, the government authorities in Haryana gave the public four days to go through the hundreds of pages of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the hazardous project. “At a time when WTEs are being rejected across the world, it is shocking that Haryana is pushing for one in an area with residential population nearby,” said Let India Breathe founder Yash Marwah, adding that said such a project in the ecologically sensitive Aravalli area makes even less sense.