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Why energy security must be the Narendra modi government’s top priority

According to reports, if India’s prime minister-designate Narendra Modi is the pragmatist he is made out to be, he will realise India’s energy security does not lie in lofty promises of fast-track clearances for coal mines and thermal power projects, something the industry pack is baying for. In a country of more than a billion people, you cannot ride roughshod over peoples’ rights and livelihoods by brute force – not for long, as the Congress has discovered.

If energy security is indeed the goal, we must first acknowledge that our current energy crisis is not due to slow clearances, pesky tribals, green activists or an interfering judiciary as much as it is due to the wrong energy choices made over the last decade. Choices that have prioritised coal and given step-motherly treatment to cleaner, lower impact renewable energy options.

Coal has failed India, not because past governments have been unwilling to raze forests to mine the black stuff (a record 26,000 hectares of forest was cleared for coal mining from 2007 to 2012), or been reluctant to push farmers and tribals off their lands (they have not), or grown wary of supercharging our air with toxic pollutants (over 100,000 Indians die prematurely every year from coal pollution). No, coal has failed India because it is now outdated as a source of electricity and has too much going against it. It is no longer cheap, as spiralling electricity tariffs show. It necessitates a long supply chain with too many links prone to disruption or cost escalation (mine-rail-power plant-distributor-consumer; in some cases coastal seaborne transport is involved as well).

To make things worse, 25% or more of the electricity produced by our existing power plants is “lost” in transit between the point of generation to the consumer. The price of coal has too many escalating variables – diesel cost, wage increases, disruption due to floods, cyclones and other weather events. Imported coal remains very expensive for India, even in a depressed global coal market. Even the most anti-environment growth hawks will agree that deepening India’s reliance on the global coal market is not a smart move – any escalation in coal prices, or disruption in supply could have devastating consequences on the Indian economy.

Compare coal’s many drawbacks to existing and proven renewable alternatives: solar (mainly photovoltaic, but also solar thermal) and wind. Not only are these proving easier to site than giant power plants, they can be brought on stream in a fraction of the five-seven years it takes to build a coal-fired thermal power plant. They are more flexible in terms of capacity and size, (large solar or wind farms are grid connected, smaller setups cater to the urgent need for distributed generation at town, village, hamlet or individual urban household level).

Both wind and solar have low or zero input costs; the price of electricity from a wind or solar PV farm will not escalate over the project’s lifetime, unlike with a coal power plant. Renewable energy thus has a deflationary impact on electricity prices, as compared to conventional thermal power.

In terms of costs, wind power is now at grid parity with coal across most of India, and solar is expected to be at grid parity in three-five years, meaning renewable energy is no longer an expensive luxury India cannot afford. It is in fact coal that has become the expensive option, both in terms of its real money cost to consumers as well as its cost to the health and livelihoods of millions of Indians, its toll on forests, the environment and on the climate.

So if Narendra Modi and his government are serious about putting India on a path to energy security, it will abandon the Congress’ tired rhetoric of fast track clearances for big ticket projects and instead focus, literally, on delivering power to the people via a clear policy vision for renewable energy – both decentralized and grid connected – a vision that weans India off its coal addiction and puts it on the path to energy swadeshi.

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