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.
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.
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