ECO TALK
 

T.S.Gopi Rethinaraj is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Nuclear, Plasma and Radiological Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and a research affiliate with the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security (ACDIS) at UIUC. His interests include energy economics and security, arms control and international security, climate change policy, water and environmental issues. He is also actively involved in undergraduate teaching in the nuclear engineering and physics departments since August 1999. Mr. Rethinaraj was a science reporter in India for four years till coming to the United States. He also writes for Jane's Intelligence Review on energy and nuclear issues.

We understand you were a promising journalist in your early professional career, and then switched over to a research career involving energy, water, environment and international security issues. It would be really great speaking to you for Eco-Talk. Just for the readership of Eco-Friends tell us some thing about yourself and how you got involved in energy studies?

First let me thank you for giving an opportunity to share some of my thoughts on energy and environment. I feel honored to share my views and concerns on these issues with you for a group that is working for a noble cause.
I was born and brought up in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu and received my college education in physics from A.V.V.M. Sri Pushpam College in 1995. Soon after graduation, I started my career as a science reporter for The Indian Express in Mumbai and worked for four years till coming to the United States in March 1999 on a fellowship offered by the Chicago-based Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I owe my current interest in energy and security issues to my association with Prof. Clifford Singer, my mentor and doctoral thesis advisor. I got involved with him in teaching an energy systems course since August 1999 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) besides my doctoral thesis research on energy econometrics and modeling. I am also affiliated to the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security, an interdisciplinary research program on UIUC campus. My affiliation to this program has helped shape my outlook on global and regional energy issues from engineering as well as social science perspective.

You have been born and brought up in South India and lived in metropolis of Mumbai for some time and now in Urbana-Champaign. What changes have you seen in environment of these places?

First let me talk about Thanjavur, where I spent my early formative years. This small town once had the reputation as the rice bowl of South India. Now it no longer enjoys that status. Declining rainfall and continuing upper-riparian arrogance by the neighboring state of Karnataka, which has been denying the rightful share of Cauvery river water to its lower-riparian neighbor despite the Supreme Court's directive in this regard, is threatening to reduce Thanjavur into a barren district. This has had a huge impact on the local environment and the economic condition of Thanjavur, which is largely an agricultural district and entirely dependent on Cauvery for irrigation. Within a span of 15 to 20 years I've seen vast stretches of agricultural lands turning barren due to this deteriorating environment. About Mumbai, it is my favorite city. I am still to see a place that matches Mumbai for its vibrant quality. But Mumbai cannot indefinitely handle the kind of human influx it has been experiencing. This puts tremendous pressure on Mumbai's resources and hence its environment. But somehow Mumbai seems to have a magical quality to absorb people. Any other city in India would have collapsed if it were to handle such human influx for a long time. Kolkata, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad are also facing similar problems due to overcrowding. Urbana-Champaign resembles in many ways the environment in which I grew earlier in Thanjavur. The cornfields outside the university campus in summer often remind me of the vast stretches of paddy fields in Thanjavur during monsoon.

You must have heard and read about Ganga. Do you have some religious sentiment about the river?

I have never seen Ganga in my life, but do share a religious feeling toward it because of its importance and centrality to India's spiritual culture and heritage.

What is the production and future prospect of hydropower generation in India?

Roughly 27,000 MW (megawatts) of hydroelectric generation capacity is in place today. Given the resistance to huge dams in recent times we should rethink about the desirability and feasibility of large-scale hydro projects. However, we cannot afford to ignore the huge hydropower potential that is still untapped in many parts of the country. In the past, international funding agencies like the World Bank financed huge hydropower projects in developing countries like India. The organization of opposition to large hydropower projects by environmentalists and displaced people has now changed the outlook of those agencies and their funding priorities. So India has to use its own resources to fund large hydropower projects. Since large-scale hydro projects cannot be carried out avoiding massive public disruption, we should think of alternative ways to exploit the untapped hydropower potential.

What in your assumption is the current utilization of water resources in India vis-à-vis power generation?

Current utilization of water resources for power generation in India is far below its gross theoretical capability, which is estimated around 2.6 trillion-kilowatt hours per year. This is roughly 30 times our current utilization. In terms of numbers this may sound attractive, but it is impossible to use all potential hydropower resources. Even if we can increase our current hydropower capability by a factor of 2 it would be big leap in terms of providing additional non-fossil source of electricity. The environmental benefits of hydropower in India are contentious. In my opinion it is definitely a better alternative than nuclear plants or burning coal without adequate environmental control, which impacts public health and results in environmental degradation. More specifically, I would place a special and increased role for small hydropower projects.

Can Ganga, Brahmaputra and other rivers of India be exploited for power generation in a better way and has there been some epoch-making leap in technology of hydropower generation?

There is lot of potential. But one has to carefully weigh the environmental and social displacement costs a new large-scale hydro facility would entail. As you might be aware, large hydropower projects cannot be carried out as effectively as in the past for many reasons. In this context, an old technology in the form of small hydropower plants offers lots of promise. Small hydropower facilities have been in place for more than 100 years, but didn't receive sufficient policy attention until recently. In the past, this technology was used in many North Indian villages along the Himalayan belt in the form of waterwheels to provide motive power to operate simple mechanical devices. Small-scale hydropower is an attractive option because its impact on environment is modest and manageable. As the name suggests, the electricity produced in small hydropower facilities is also modest compared to large generating plants operated by public utilities. In addition to these benefits, small hydro plants have enormous economic benefits and can contribute to the economic development of remote areas that lack access to grid electricity. It has been estimated that around 10,000 MW can be generated in the Himalayan states alone through this way. Since these facilities are relatively free from contentious issues plaguing large hydropower projects, the government can support rapid expansion in this area. This makes sound economic sense too because of the low cost, short gestation period, advances in fully automated installations and reductions in manufacturing costs of turbines and generators.

What will be the implication of using river waters for power generation on water quality of major rivers?

Nuclear and thermal plants use nearby water bodies for condenser cooling, which can be a source of thermal pollution. Sometimes river waters are diverted to create local reservoirs for rinsing chemical effluents while handling fuel for thermal plants. About hydropower, there is a widespread belief that it is a clean and environmentally safe method of producing electricity. This is certainly misplaced. It may be clean, but cannot be termed environmentally safe. Hydropower projects do have many environmental impacts, even though it is not often treated like other impacts mentioned in the case of nuclear or thermal plants. Large dams can have impacts on a watershed and alter the amount and quality of water in the river downstream of the dam. We have seen this impact on fresh water fish populations. The other problem is silting of dams. Silt, which is normally carried downstream, can be trapped and deposited on the bed of the reservoir. This can slowly fill up the reservoir and decrease the amount of water that can be stored for power generation. The water quality of many large dams also poses a health hazard due to new forms of bacteria that grow in regions of decaying vegetation. This bacterium is known to convert mercury present in rocks along the reservoir bed into a soluble form, which can accumulate in fish populations. So you can see that each form of power generation has its own share of impact on environmental and water qualityAmong nuclear, thermal and large hydro plants, the impact of nuclear plants on water quality is the least. But nuclear plants have other types of problems. Given these, one can appreciate the importance of small hydropower facilities in utilizing untapped water resources for power generation with minimal and manageable impact.

India has taken a policy decision on interlinking of rivers, in an effort to maximize water use to boost power generation, apart other benefits. How do you rate the river interlinking project with special reference to its massive energy needs to transfer waters across the mountains when there is such an acute power crisis in the country?

As far as your question about the energy needs to transfer water across the Vindhyas is concerned, in principle one could recover the energy spent to transfer waters uphill by setting up generation facilities downhill. Even if we allow losses due to inefficiency, the benefits of adding more land under irrigation and increased access to drinking water would offset those losses. But the main problem is this sort of massive river network has never been done before anywhere in the world. Besides requiring a huge pool of civil engineering talent the country has to be prepared for massive financial allocations spread out over 20 to 30 years

India abounds in large number of dams involved in power generation. Are they not enough that interlinking river project is still required at huge social cost? Are alternatives not available?

If implemented, however, this massive river network will have lots benefits like bringing more dry land under irrigation, additional hydroelectric generation capacity and providing safe drinking water to people in dry areas. These prospects seem quite tempting. But look at the huge economic, political and social costs involved. We have to think of alternative ways, which are less disruptive, to achieve the same objectives. This can be best done my micro-managing our water resources. Local and simple solutions are far more effective than grand solutions to address our water problem. These solutions may not add more hydropower generating capacity, but will definitely go a long way in addressing basic water issues for drinking and irrigation. To give a few examples, fixing our drainage system and supply system to local water bodies will solve half of our water problems. What we see today in our villages, towns and cities is very disturbing. Encroachments of lakes and ponds are becoming common in villages. In many towns these are slowly turning into real estate properties. In big cities we find widespread encroachment of the water supply system. So we have water scarcity in summer despite receiving modest to adequate rainfall. Next, we can increase our water table by investments (this is far modest compared to the amount of resources required for building a national river network) in maintenance of our local water bodies by regular dredging and deepening of lakes and ponds and cleaning up the existing rivers and irrigation systems. In order to use untapped water resources for power generation, we can invest in small-scale hydropower facilities as discussed earlier because the era of building new large-scale dams and hydro facilities are over in India.

Will it (national river network) be a non-starter as a project or a non-operational project in future?

My assessment is that the project is a non-starter. First, can we achieve groundswell public consensus in the country to carry out this project? It is impossible. There are disputes in even equally sharing water resources within a river basin, let alone convincing states and people to transfer water to a different basin. The project would open a Pandora's Box and lead to a litany of litigations and states fighting with each other in courts. Even if we assume that there is political will at the centre to implement the project, it cannot be effectively operational because certain states can be a major hurdle. Such a grand project requires nationalization of our rivers. Nationalization of rivers is a good step in its own right because we are increasingly seeing incidents of upper-riparian states denying the rightful share of river waters to lower riparian states in India. But if state governments and people can go beyond regionalism and parochial interests, the picture would be entirely different. I don't see that happening in the near future - at least in the timeframe the current government in India has proposed to carry out the plan. If the government is keen on effective and increased utilization of river waters, they can increase access to dry areas within the river basin without affecting the share or rights of traditional users.

Intermixing of river waters accompanying interlinking have certain effects on thinking of people, don't you feel the specialty of various rivers and sentimental attachment of people will be dampened?

There might be some religious reservations against interlinking of major rivers, but that is trivial. More than religious reservations, the main fear among people would be whether they would end up losing their traditional rights or share over the river. The best way to handle this is ensure intra-basin water sharing equitable before thinking about transferring water between basins.

How do you compare thermal, hydro and nuclear power generation prospects and which of the three you will prefer given to decide for India to expand?

Thermal power stations burning coal provide the bulk of electricity generated in India. The total electric generating capacity under public utilities is around 108,000 MW, of which 77,000 MW comes from thermal power plants, 27,000 MW from hydropower plants, 2700 MW from nuclear and 1700 MW from wind power plants. Our current electric generating capacity is much below the peak demand. Even though access to electricity is fairly widespread, electricity supplies are highly uncertain with frequent power outages and poor quality of supplies. This can be a huge impediment to the country's economic development and raising the living standards of the people.

Personally, I would prefer a policy that expands our hydroelectric capacity through large number of small scale-facilities and renewable sources like solar and wind. Solar and wind offers tremendous scope for innovation and potential in our country. But India doesn't have the luxury to choose one over the other now because it needs to achieve quick capacity additions in the short term to keep the pace of current development going. So we cannot abandon 100 to 200 years worth coal reserves that currently exist in our mines. But, expansion in thermal power generation should be accompanied by substantial increases in investment in environmental controls comparable to western standards. Natural gas is going to play a major role in the energy mix of our country in the coming decades. Since natural gas is cleaner compared to coal and oil, it would be a desirable expansion. I am very skeptical about the role of nuclear power in India. There is a big debate about the desirability of nuclear power expansion in countries that pioneered the technology, both for sound economic reasons and for concerns about safety and waste disposal issues. I don't think we are adequately prepared to address nuclear waste disposal issues. I am not suggesting a complete phase out of our nuclear power program, but would prefer to cap the nuclear generation capacity at 10,000 MW and retain an active research and development program to keep the country at the forefront of other areas of nuclear research.

What is the basic problem in distribution and supply system in India and reason for acute shortages? Can it ever attain the efficiency of the United States of America where you have been residing or for that matter other European countries?

In our effort to increase access to electricity we have been loading our power grid severely. Investment in our transmission and supply systems has not kept pace with the increased generating capacity and widespread access. As result, India has one of the highest transmission and distribution (T&D) losses in the world. Even official estimates put T&D losses at 23 percent, suggesting that actual losses may be between 30 and 40 percent. Independent assessments put these losses as high as 50 percent in some states. I must clarify that included in this general category of T&D losses are technical and commercial losses. We can reduce technical losses by upgrading our transmission and supply system. In India, there is lots of wastage due to pilferage (individual and commercial). To fix this problem we need a rigorous energy accounting system in place. Sadly, Indian customers are ending up paying for the inefficiencies of the system and unauthorized pilferage.

If the government is serious about fixing these two problems, we can certainly reach western standards in increasing the efficiency of our power system and hence the quality of our supplies.

Finally! Will and when approximately India will become sufficient in matters of power generation commensurate to its demand?

We can achieve that goal if the government takes appropriate steps to foster quick capacity additions within 10-15 years. India's per capita electricity consumption is around 400 kilowatt-hours per year, which is much below the global average of around 2000 kW-hr per year. Even to catch up with China's per capita consumption (which is roughly two and a half times ours), India will have to add 15,000 to 20,000 MW every year for the next 10 to 15 years. This requires an investment ranging from 100 to 200 billion U.S. dollars (1 billion dollar is around 4500 crore rupees). India has been finding it very difficult to attract foreign investment in the area of power production because of the financial problems of the state electricity boards and corruption in our political system. As you are aware, many multinationals have either cancelled or delayed their projects in recent years. Our power sector needs to be restructured better to attract investment, if the government doesn't have adequate resources to invest on its own. Part of the problem is we don't have a uniform energy policy because of the bureaucratic divisions within the government. We have separate ministries for the grid, coal, oil and gas, water resources, non-conventional energy sources and a distinct one for nuclear power. This has resulted in a situation where we cannot identify our priorities clearly, which would be in the overall interests of providing additional generating capacity quickly. We find each ministries pushing for what they see fit to serve their interests notwithstanding the merits of their case. This has often resulted in distortion of priorities. The rate at which we are adding additional generating capacity is not sufficient to fuel the projected growth in the coming years. This will only lead to more blackouts and brownouts.

What is your message to people back home giving them some hope and a promise for solution of impending power crisis?

Achieving quality power supplies to all people is within our capability. The government should have a specific action plan to achieve the target mentioned earlier by making it a top priority of national importance. Providing safe drinking water, dependable irrigation and quality power supply should be a top priority. I have never seen any political parties talking about this in election campaigns prominently, though it is a problem that affects people throughout the country. The key is a more informed electorate. A more informed electorate could put tremendous pressure on the political system to deliver the goods they deserve. Public interests groups should campaign and even approach the courts to force the establishment to pay adequate attention to these issues. Since educating the public is a long process, concerned citizens and public interest groups can precipitate judicial activism on these issues.

It has been great speaking to you and you deserve an expression of gratefulness for your time and patience. I wish you all the best in service of humanity to make the common Indian dream to see India getting dragged out of whirlpool of power cuts and shortages. Eco Friends thanks you for the candid talk.

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