Four hundred million Indians have no access to electricity, with little hope of receiving any in their lifetimes. Several parts of the country suffer from persistent power shortages, and blackouts and brownouts have become a part of daily life. In fact, even villages that have been electrified don't have power in their homes and use it largely for irrigation pumping etc. Here again, they have to make do with electricity being supplied just for a few hours at night when demand from other sectors is low. That India has serious challenges in the energy sector is clear. But the solutions require bold vision and major reform. And a large number of steps need to be taken urgently.
First, energy pricing has to be carried out on a professionally rational basis by the regulatory commission in each state. The subsidies provided on electricity supplied to farmers are leading to overexploitation of groundwater resources in several parts of the country and the proliferation of inefficient pump-sets. Metered supply and pricing of power would make a substantial difference in addressing these two problems.
Similarly, in the case of kerosene pricing, over 40% of subsidized kerosene, it is estimated, is diverted for adulteration of other petroleum products. Also, since kerosene is used largely for lighting of rural homes, this represents a sub-optimal solution. TERI's Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) campaign has clearly established that lanterns based on solar energy are not only a cleaner option but are also economically superior to other forms of lighting. Typically, this programme is based on one individual in a village, generally a women, being trained to charge solar lanterns during the day with a simple photovoltaic panel on the roof and renting out the lanterns to other households overnight. If the subsidy on kerosene were to be transferred to solar lanterns, not only would adulteration of petroleum products be wiped out, but homes in rural areas would also be lit very soon across the country.
Solutions as innovative as the LaBL campaign also need to be found for cooking by the poor sections of society. The fuel generally used for cooking in rural areas is poor quality biomass. This is clearly not a sustainable solution, and creates serious health problems on account of high levels of indoor air pollution.
At the macro level, a major shift towards renewable sources of energy along with a carefully planned expansion of nuclear power is required. Our buildings, both existing and new ones, require changes in design and structure, by which energy efficiency can be improved substantially. We also need to exploit solar, wind and biomass energy for power generation. This requires urgent research and development.
Overall, India's energy problem needs a major change in direction and a set of fresh initiatives, which are now long overdue. If the right measures are taken, it would be possible for India to provide energy to meet the basic needs of its entire population by 2015 and at the same time attain a high level of energy security and protection of the environment.
The author is Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Director-General of The Energy & Resources Institute (TERI).