Economic Survey: Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Energy

Electricity is one the key sectors of the Indian economy and with the emergence of non-fossil power plants unsettling the traditional businesses it was high time to have a comprehensive take on the subject, the recent economic survey tries to do just that. A chapter aptly titled ‘Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Energy’  is a clear indication that the electricity sector today has wider impact on the people than portrayed by the phrase ‘Bijli, Sadak, Pani‘ (Electricity, Road, Water).

Climate Change

The chapter on economic survey clearly brings out the Govt.’s objective to stick to its commitment to the Paris Agreement (Read more on India’s climate commitment). The chief economist goes on to say India will stick to its stand irrespective of what happens with the US’s stance on climate change.

Sustainable Development

Its been over two years since UN released its objectives for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (Know more about SDGs) and India has produced the first review of the goals. As expected the emphasis is on SDG 7, “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Incidentally, SDGs also have 2030 as the target year like the Paris Agreement.

Energy

The narrative of the chapter is quite clear right from the start, justify the need to transition to Renewable Energy (RE) alternatives by stressing the benefits of climate change and sustainable development. A detailed analysis on the costs of energy and net benefits have been studied and presented in the study. A few of the analysis have been spot on like the one on anticipated RE penetration by 2027, a 43% of the grid total and getting better of coal.

RECoal

Solar Power

The past year has been a clear indication that rapid deployment of solar power is possible with declining costs (highlighted below). (Solar bids: No more outliers)

Solar

The survey interestingly points out to the key factor that determines if a solar power development is really sustainable. I’m glad to be proved right, that the development costs of solar power is high considering land use is impacted especially if the plants are performing below their efficiencies (Read more: Is Solar Power Development Sustainable?) Survey points out the land requirement for solar is 10 times the requirement for coal plants, clearly a loss of opportunity cost.

Need explanation: Social costs

As a surprise, in what looks to be a clear approach to show the net benefits of RE switch is not significant as thought, the economic survey throws up an analysis that points social costs of Renewables is three times that of coal but reduces as we progress to 2030.

SocialCosts

Similarly an explanation is needed to justify the lack of accounting of actual costs of stranded assets in thermal power plants while the same has been well accounted for renewables. If there is a valid justification, calculations have to be made public for debate.

SocialCosts1

Subsidies

It is understandable that subsidies for RE have been high in the past and wind accounted for a major chunk considering the Generation Based Incentives (GBI) were in place until March 2017. How are the budget estimates for 2017-18 FY expected to be close to last year when the major financial incentive of GBI has been waived off? There have been no known policy announcement that can justify this estimate.

Subsidies

National Clean Energy and Environment Fund (NCEEF)

A topic that needs further debate considering that the new proposal of  Govt. is to use this fund for compensating states for the loss of revenues from GST implementation. I had earlier pointed out NCEEF allocation had to be re-looked considering its objectives (NCEEF: A review). The survey points out the NCEEF has been under utilized, no projects have been recommended by Inter Ministerial Group (IMG) to be funded from this corpus for the past two years.

NCEF

Overall, summaries from a few analysis are highly debatable especially related to social costs of renewable energy. But, the Economic Survey brings out the major topics for discussion in the public domain, a clear indication that the government is actively pursuing these policy objectives. The chief economist has promised to release all the data pertaining to the economic survey in public domain in due course and I’m looking forward to it.

On a personal note, I’m glad that a chapter in Economic Survey talks about Climate Change, Sustainable Development and Energy in the same breadth, the very topics I have been writing about in my website.

 

 

 

 

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Energy as a Service

In the last few weeks two big announcements caught my attention. Incidentally both of them happened to be Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations. The first one garnered more attention because the union Minister for Roads inaugurated what was claimed to be ‘ The first public EV charging station’ in India (Nagpur). Following that, India’s largest power generating company NTPC announced its foray into EV charging stations.  Interestingly these are not the first EV charging stations, they are quite a few and in fact a website hosts a list of all such stations. Most of them are Mahindra showrooms considering they have the only 2 EV models manufactured in India.

Are we in a hurry or already late?- The missing gaps

The development in this space are encouraging but is this model sustainable or is it just a stop-gap arrangement tiding the wave of excitement in this sector? Before concluding on that here are a few open points:

  • The Electricity Act (2003) doesn’t permit sale of electricity unless you are registered as a distribution licensee. In this case, the energy resale to charge batteries is categorically not allowed.
  • Standards for charging stations are yet to be formalised. Public charging stations have to be compatible with a host of vehicles and chargers. Automotive Research Association of India (ARAI) has only recently finalised the standards for AC charging while the DC charging standards are yet to be announced.
  • Chargers

    The range of standards: Cty-IEA EV outlook 2017

  • Bharat Charger: The charger for India, a DHI initiative under the vision to get an all-electric fleet by 2030 has proposed a standard for charger. The initiative is laudable considering the grand vision but we are yet to have a final specification on that.

Energy as a Service (EaaS)

In spite of having a few gaps in the system both at the regulatory and technical front it is quite interesting to see the so called ‘public EV charging stations’ springing up in the country. As in any nascent market development it could be due to either of the two reasons; there is a significant demand for these or the businesses’ are keen to be front-runners in this space. I believe it is more of the latter and a little probe into these businesses have confirmed the same. While the developed world is trying to create a market for these, India has already begun what will be called ‘Energy as a Service (EaaS)’ business model.

evHow else does one account the amount of electricity dispensed at these stations to charge the batteries without being termed a ‘resale’? Only the ones being setup by Tata Power Delhi Distribution could escape being termed a resale. (However the 5 stations setup by them offers charging free of cost to Mahindra vehicles). The charging stations at Mahindra showrooms are as expected, ‘free’ with the costs in built in the sale. Similarly the charging station at Nagpur is an exclusive model developed in partnership with OLA.

The EV charging stations although not a perfect model for EaaS, is a good starting point. In due course, the charging stations would start differentiating in terms of the source of power, charging frequencies, time of charging etc. which would provide customers a wide range of choice, something we have been used too in other new-age services. However, in order to create a sustainable business model, the charging stations have be to be compliant within the regulatory and technical frameworks in due course.

Is solar power development sustainable?

RE20173I got an opportunity to speak at the Times Renewable Energy Expo, a Renewable Energy (RE) conference in Pune this past week. I was privileged to be part of the panel featuring Dr Chetan Singh Solanki, Prof. IIT Bombay who has pioneered the adoption of solar power in rural communities. The theme of the panel was ‘Pace of RE scale-up in India’.

I represented India Energy Storage Alliance (IESA) and spoke about integration of energy storage with RE. The intent was to emphasise the need for energy storage in providing flexibility to the grid under increasing penetration of renewable energy. Being intermittent and seasonal, wind and solar energy do have its drawbacks. In spite of being a clean source of energy, the intermittent nature stresses the traditional fossil fuel plants and forces them to operate below optimal efficiency thereby increasing the operating cost and associated emissions. The message was well received by the audience comprising of project developers, researchers, policy makers and RE enthusiasts. But, the burning topic throughout the conference was ‘Are the record low solar tariffs realistic?’

The drop in solar prices

The recent bids in Bhadla that resulted in record low tariffs of ₹ 2.62/kWh and ₹ 2.44/kWh in a span of 2 days was a major discussion point. The drop from ₹ 3.15/kWh to ₹ 2.44/kWh (23%) in a month was never expected. (Read more about why there are no more outliers in solar)

 IMG-20170513-WA0002

Module costs

The drop in solar prices is attributed to the decline in module prices which is true but it hides the bigger picture. In a recent publication by Bloomberg, an Altman Z score analysis(see below) of the module manufacturers reveals a gloomy picture. Only one company lies above the mark with three others in ‘just safe’ zone while the rest have all indications to go burst. Incidentally Solar World just announced the beginning of its end. (Also, interestingly Bloomberg lists most of these companies under Tier 1 suppliers).

IMG-20170517-WA0002

Is the development sustainable?

Wind recently witnessed an intense debut reverse bidding and if the indications are right, it could well follow the solar route albeit at a lower rate. So the big question then turns out to be, ‘Is RE development sustainable?’ ‘Can companies and the stakeholders sustain this in the long run?’ I have due respect to all the experts in the big corporations who are winning projects at this price, I wouldn’t challenge their acumen. At a personal level, I just have a few points to say why I believe this development is not sustainable in the overall gambit of things.

  • There is intense corporate competition, with no long term visibility and the urge to develop large portfolios in a short time is driving the bids.
  • How can module manufacturers who are financially weak be trusted to produce quality product that performs for 25 years?
  • Supply is just one side, on the other side low tariffs is also driving down installation costs. There is an even bigger pool of ‘installation experts’ who offer manpower services at any price asked for (What about the logic that says your pay increases as you build expertise?).
  • And, the last one, preserve natural resources. I personally feel this is a huge problem, we don’t want to destroy land (and water) resources on projects whose performance is going to decline rapidly every year.

Renewable Energy development that is sustainable is the need of the hour!