Power and the Skoch Summit 2009

I was at the Skoch Summit 2009 Jan 22-23 held at the India Habitat in New Delhi. It was one of the better conferences that I have been to of late. Aside from the usual sponsors such as Microsoft and HP, consistent with the theme, “India: Challenges & Policy Responses,” it was co-organized by the Planning Commission, the Ministry of Human Resource Development, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, the National Institute for Rural Development and the National Disaster Management Authority. So naturally the discussion panels were packed with lots of bureaucrats from these institutions.

One of my major concerns is energy, as it is a binding constraint on the possibility of India’s economic development and growth. Given half a chance, I make the case that if there is any planning that needs to be done, it has to do with energy. I was on a panel, “Gearing-up the Power Sector“, which was ably chaired by Mr S P Sethi, principal advisor to the Planning Commission. In his introductory remarks, Sethi spoke passionately about the serious challenge India faces regarding electrical power. He said that the targets set by the 11th Plan were totally unrealistic. I was pleasantly surprised by his ability to do arithmetic.[1]

When it was my turn to speak, I made my familiar pitch: that India has to think broadly about energy.[2] I quickly made the case that I had made previously here.

The advanced industrialized economies were lucky to have had their development fuelled by cheap fossil energy. Today’s developing economies have a much tougher challenge. It was a very short window of opportunity which opened just about 150 years ago and is likely to close in the next 40 years, by when the known reserves will be depleted at current levels of consumption.

All told, 200 years is a very brief interlude considering thousands of years of human civilization and hopefully hundreds of thousands of years yet to come. At some time in the distant future, they will look back and remark that the age of fossil fuel was a short inflection point, a point at which humanity passed through the bottleneck of dependency on oil from the ground. Before that point, humanity’s primary source of energy was the sun, and so it will be after that point.

India has to invest in developing technology for using solar power. It will not be easy or cheap, as it could easily cost something of the order of $100 billion spent over five years or so to achieve the breakthroughs required to make solar energy competitive with other sources. Though expensive and hard, some entity somewhere someday will develop that technology. They do solve hard problems, don’t they? Recall the Manhattan Project, or the Apollo Project. The Americans have a way of defining a goal and then achieving it by sheer will and determination.

If India has any hopes of being a super power, it has to work on solving one hard problem by itself. Develop technology for solar power or else be forever relegated to being a second rate state at best. But second rate is what one hopes to be when one is firmly in the “third world” set. Hard though it is to admit, it is pitiable to see India on its knees groveling before the US and the nuclear suppliers group begging for nuclear technology. I don’t want to see India doing the same, begging for solar technology about 20 years from now. Which is what it would be forced to do because it will need to use that technology. So the choice is clear: either India develops it and not only gains from domestic use, but gains more from selling it to the rest of the world; or it just waits for others to develop it and then goes begging to be given the technology.

In the panel discussion I came across a familiar objection which goes thus: solar energy is not viable as it is too inefficient (and therefore costly) compared to the alternative sources such as nuclear, coal, oil, bio-mass, etc. But of course! Isn’t that the whole point of investing in R&D? To develop the technology to make solar energy viable? Which part of the “we need to invest in R&D” is hard to understand?

Sorry for sounding like a broken record, but I have to say this. All progress is fueled by will and vision. India’s development challenge is that it does not what it takes to outline a vision and then gather the national will to achieve it. How can it?

In another session (on education and employability) after listening to all the dismal talk of how poorly India is doing in terms of human resources, I had asked: “Has anybody ever considered abolishing the ministry for Human Resource Development? Is it possible that India might have a decent shot at having an educated and employable work force if it just dismantles the enormous government machinery in place which appears to do everything it can to block human capital formation?”

Not the most politically correct question to address a panel packed with government officials and chaired by a principal advisor to the Planning Commission (Mr Bhaskar Chatterjee). I did upset him.

Final point: how on earth does one maintain the status quo and still make progress?

Notes:

[1] The Financial Express of Jan 27th carried a brief news report of the panel.

[2] It would be good if people figured out the distinction between power and energy. Power, measured in units such as watts, is the rate of use of energy which is measured in units such as joules. One watt of power is equivalent to one joule per second.

2 thoughts on “Power and the Skoch Summit 2009

  1. ranjit Wednesday February 4, 2009 / 6:18 am

    India does not have a spectacular record in tech. R&D whether government or private sector that suggests that it would be able to develop the next gen solar tech. before any of the other nations/regions such as the U.S., EU, Australia, Japan, etc. At this point, most of these nations are motivated and throwing cash/brain-power at exactly this (e.g. “Helios” program at UC Berkeley worth $500M over 5 years; and several other multi-million dollar programs in other univs./research centers and also VC-funded). So this is nothing but a pipe-dream! What India can do is develop partnerships with these leading research groups – funding them and serving as a test-bed for the next gen technologies. India can lure private sector to play in this field by setting appropriate policies (e.g. aggressive renewable portfolio standards, feed-in tariffs, least-cost planning, some sort of environmental regime that raises cost of fossil-fuel power relative to renewable sources, subsidies and leveraged loans from the WBs/ADBs/etc.).

    Bottomline – if India is not convinced otherwise, we are likely to see almost a doubling of the current fossil-capacity and an addition of large chunk of nuclear capacity – all expensive and environmentally harmful.

    Disclosure: I am currently providing assistance to the Indian regulators/utilities about clean energy options.

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