Keeping the home fires burning

Innovation in the energy sector should be led by government investment rather than the market. Priyamvada Natarajan writes.

india Updated: Aug 02, 2011 22:50 IST
Priyamvada Natarajan
Priyamvada Natarajan
Hindustan Times

It was recently reported that massive uranium deposits have been discovered in the Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh, estimated at up to 150,000 tonnes, of which 49,000 tonnes have been currently confirmed. If this estimate holds up, we might have one of the largest uranium reserves in the world.

Despite the scale of this find, we are nowhere near solving our energy needs. The earthquake in Japan earlier this year and the resultant damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant revealed the inadequate safety measures adopted by the nuclear industry in general. Despite having tapped nuclear power for the past 48 years, insufficient investments have been made to improve the technology, its safety, waste disposal and crisis management.

The current plan is to set up 30 nuclear reactors over the next three decades to supply a quarter of our electricity demand. By 2050, it is expected that 25% of our energy needs will be met by nuclear power.

What is sorely needed for the kind of scale-up India envisions is a safe template for nuclear power plants that is approved by a strict regulatory process before handing over to the private sector to build, operate and maintain. The process for getting approval under strict safety and operational standards will have to be streamlined to get the programme up and running. This will avoid the delay in the regulatory and approval process that has dogged the US. We have now signed nuclear deals with nine countries, most recently with South Korea, to help develop civil nuclear energy in India. A powerful watchdog needs to be in place to monitor safety standards as nuclear technology and infrastructure are transferred from these partners to us.

Currently 88% of our energy needs are met by fossil fuels, with hydro-electric power, natural gas and and nuclear power providing the balance. New schemes, like levying carbon and emissions taxes on polluters, are important steps but cannot adequately capture all the long-term costs. The effects of polluting the atmosphere are cumulative. Economic calculations do not take these non-linear feedback loops into account.

In the short term, given India’s reliance on coal, installing scrubbers and importing South African coal liquefaction technology may be a realistic option. For the long term, we have to pin our hopes on technological breakthroughs.

The breakthroughs will take place if we pump sufficient money into research and development of alternative technologies. China has, strategically and aggressively, chosen to fund one of the world's best fuel cell research programmes. Even if our reliance on fossil fuels for transportation is reduced by electric or fuel cell-driven vehicles, power consumption for other activities will need to be taken care of.

For a viable electric car, a breakthrough is needed in storage battery technology. Meanwhile, for feasible fuel-cell driven vehicles, four miracles are needed: an affordable fuel cell; an efficient distribution network for hydrogen; onboard storage solutions for hydrogen and the sourcing of hydrogen to start with. At present, generating the hydrogen itself requires unacceptable levels of consumption of fossil fuels.

Innovation in the energy sector is best catalysed by government investment in research rather than leaving it to the mercy of market forces. Given the infrastructure costs involved in setting up research facilities and the complete lack of predictability of the timescale and particular technology that might provide a breakthrough, the risk and responsibility is better leveraged by the government rather than corporate research labs.

Priyamvada Natarajan is professor, departments of physics and astronomy, Yale University. The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Aug 02, 2011 22:45 IST