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TECH TALK: As India Develops: Energy

April 5th, 2004 · No Comments

One of the biggest challenges in India in the cities as well as rural areas is the availability of reliable power. Even as India goes about trying to set up gigantic power plants and revamp transmission to bridge the deficit, there is a need to think very differently about the power situation. Since there is little legacy in most parts of India (especially the rural sector), are there new options that can be looked at for providing power rapidly and cost-effectively across India?

Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins, writing in The American Prospect (February 2002) put forth the challenge and alternatives. Even though their focus is on the US, many of the ideas outlined are relevant in the Indian context for building out a next-generation energy platform.

Supplying secure and affordable electric power is similarly feasible. America’s electricity now comes mainly from big power plants that stopped getting more efficient in the sixties, cheaper in the seventies, bigger in the eighties, and built in the nineties. The ones we already have will continue to serve us for a long time, however, and should at least start reusing the waste heat they now throw away–as much energy as Japan consumes for everything. In principle that could cut America’s total fuel usage by one-third, halve net generating cost, and save a trillion dollars per decade if more regulators allowed it here as they do in Europe. But big power stations can’t supply really cheap and reliable electricity, for two reasons: The power delivery systems cost even more than the stations, and the grid causes almost all the power failures.

On-site and neighborhood micropower generated in or near customers’ premises can solve both problems, offering diverse, decentralized, and thus nearly invulnerable supplies of electricity. Because microgeneration is also more flexible and quickly built than large power plants–and because it benefits from the valuable financial and engineering advantages of electric sources that are the right size for the job–it is favored in the market as well.

Doubled-efficiency, combined-cycle, gas-fired power stations, each producing hundreds of megawatts, swept the market in the 1990s. Now becoming obsolete, they’re starting to be displaced by swarms of microturbines, engine generators, and fuel cells that are a thousand or even 10,000 times smaller but equally or more efficient (and can more easily recapture waste heat). Manhattan’s Cond Nast Building, for instance, was designed to use half the energy of an ordinary office building; and with the saved construction costs, the developers were able to equip it with the two most reliable known power sources–fuel cells and solar cells.

The next step will integrate efficiency with a shift from hydrocarbons to plain hydrogen. We’ve already made progress in reducing the carbon burning that harms the climate; today, two of every three fossil-fuel atoms we burn are hydrogen, the other one carbon. The emerging hydrogen economy eliminates both the burning and the rest of the carbon by using pure hydrogen in fuel cells. Remember the high-school chemistry experiment in which an electric current splits water into hydrogen and oxygen? A fuel cell reverses this process, chemically recombining these gases to produce electricity, pure hot water, and nothing else. Fuel cells are the most efficient, clean, and reliable known source of electricity.

Initially, the hydrogen that they need will be made mainly from natural gas, but that’s no obstacle. An already mature hydrogen industry has developed ways to do this economically at all scales, though smaller is often cheaper as well as less vulnerable. Hydrogen is cost-competitive today in many uses. Moreover, the buoyant, clear-flame gas is safer to use and store than gasoline, and new research suggests that its refueling infrastructure would be cheaper.

The future hope for India lies in looking at distributed generation of micropower and alternate sources of energy solar, wind, perhaps biodiesel, and most importantly, hydrogen-powered fuel cells, tied together in an Energy Internet.

Tomorrow: Energy (continued)

TECH TALK As India Develops+T

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