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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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.
it (national river network) be a non-starter as a project or a
non-operational project in future?
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.
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?
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.
do you compare thermal, hydro and nuclear power generation prospects
and which of the three you will prefer given to decide for India
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Will and when approximately India will become sufficient in matters
of power generation commensurate to its demand?
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.
is your message to people back home giving them some hope and
a promise for solution of impending power crisis?
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.
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.