India spent Rs 610 crore on R&D in atomic energy in 2004-05 though the former currently provides only 3 per cent of our power supply. Despite being regarded as the mainstay of India’s current energy mix, the coal sector received a meagre Rs 70 crore. Energy R&D in India is dominated by the public sector, led by vibrant PSUs like BHEL, IOCL and ONGC. On the whole, Indian industry spent a mere 0.2 per cent of its turnover on R&D, one tenth of the 2 per cent spent by industry in the developed world.
To augment funding, the Planning Commission’s report on Integrated Energy Policy has recommended the setting up of a National Energy Fund (NEF), with an initial corpus of Rs 1000 crore, for R&D in the energy sector. It suggests a mandatory spending of 0.4 per cent of turnover by each company in the energy field.
The Standing Committee on R&D has drawn a roadmap to strengthen power delivery infrastructure through programmes like the APDRP by 2005. But most distribution utilities in India have virtually no R&D and even in the National Perspective Plan on R&D in the Indian Power Sector up to 2015, distribution was identified as the key area. Energy R&D allocations have been highly skewed, and though research into atomic energy requires massive spending, it should not be at the expense of investment into cleaner coal technologies, as coal will dominate the Indian energy landscape for the next three decades.
Clean coal technology through gasification that helps in separation and underground storage of CO2, has the potential to provide zero emissions. India has joined the US’s FutureGen programme based on international public-private partnership. The $1 billion project will be operational by 2012, and aims at building a coal-based electricity and hydrogen production plant that will produce electricity at only 10 per cent additional cost. Stepping up research into coal gasification, BHEL and NTPC are collaborating on a 100 MW clean coal thermal plant based on the integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology at Dadri near Delhi.
Focussed R&D can help reduce costs of renewable energy devices and make their production commercially viable. India stands seventh in the world in solar photovoltaics, and ninth in solar thermal systems, but the initial high cost of equipment has made it unattractive to end-users. Speaking at a FICCI conference on R&D in 2005, President APJ Abdul Kalam advocated greater R&D in biofuels to increase the oil yield of biofuel plants from 30 to 50 per cent, and reduce cost by a third.
Finally, every unit of energy saved, also known as a negawatt, saves more than a megawatt generated. Since enormous amounts of energy are wasted, there is a need to focus energy R&D on achieving higher levels of efficiency, reducing costs for end-consumers, minimising environmental damage and easing dependence on non-renewable sources.