Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dirty Coal, Clean Water?

Shyam Ponappa / New Delhi December 06, 2007

Choosing Between Coal-Fired Power & Hydroelectric Power
It's not so simple, and good decisions need informed analysis

The fracas over the 123 Agreement led to a very useful result: finally, information is being made available about what it would mean to be able to import nuclear supplies, the pros and cons of recent developments in nuclear power generation technology versus other fuels, and the benefits and costs associated with choices. What if this process of impasse-and-reluctant-communication — a grudging divulgence of information — were reversed? Imagine how it might be if expert information from various perspectives were aggregated and disseminated early on in a process, if the public and parliament were educated about the possibilities, choices, benefits and costs. We might actually achieve some rational decision-making.

Of course, this is not our way. Our way is either by political accommodation or by committee. Political accommodation is inappropriate for engineering and management decisions, e.g., for telecommunications, and can lead to outcomes like the regulatory confusion and low level of true broadband (at least 500 kbps), or the problems of electricity supply. Solutions that depend on science, engineering, economics, and/or management simply do not work if they are based on accommodation instead of rational analysis. Committees should be able to do the aggregation of information, analysis, and problem solving to arrive at informed conclusions. However, in our environment, they can take to obfuscation or delay, or worse, resort to decisions by accommodation.It is time we adopted better reasoning as our way. Dealing with issues that affect our lives with more rationality and expertise, so that the facts surface, are subjected to expert inputs given the state of knowledge, and we can watch and contribute to having informed opinion give shape to decisions. Begin with information and facts made public, elicit expert opinion from various domains, then develop conclusions, thereby reducing the extent of uninformed emotional argumentation.

For instance, an estimate that surfaced about the supposedly low potential for nuclear power was that it was actually the same as for the much-touted hydroelectric potential: 6 per cent by 2032. There are still problems that are glossed over associated with coal and hydroelectric power:

Problems With Coal

Rarely do coal enthusiasts mention the difficulty of exploiting dirty coal, from mining our high-ash reserves, to transporting coal by our stretched railway system, to the high level of emissions from plants using this fuel. The ravages of fly ash from coal plants, which in India apparently has higher levels of silicon dioxide, aluminum oxide, ferrous oxide, sulphur trioxide, and unburnt carbon, are completely overlooked in the reckoning, as is the water needed to clean up (e.g. the effects on the Yamuna for Delhi).

Problems With Hydro-electric Power

Likewise for hydroelectric potential. One need only recall the difficulties of getting such projects going, especially when they involve large dams such as the Sardar Sarovar or the Tehri Dam. Granted such issues are aggravated by the lack of equitable resettlement, on which we just have to do much better, perhaps on the lines shown by JSW Steel.

Such complex issues need strong government-sponsored initiatives with private participation for the requisite depth and breadth of expertise, and neutrality (multi-partisanship), with the all-important feature of Project Management oriented to well-defined goals, to achieve good results. As always, we need to prioritise for these essential infrastructure and governance issues that are at the heart of our inadequacies. Like communications, energy decisions for transport, heating and lighting are critical areas needing attention. This is primarily from our own need to correct our trajectory for better living, rather than for reasons relating to the Kyoto Protocol.

Action at the local level, whether it is water management for conserving rainwater and applications for gardens, or energy applications such as solar water heaters, cookers or lighting, requires a much more organised effort to be practised widely and have a significant beneficial impact. So do national initiatives on fuels for transport, including petrol, diesel, and biofuels. Areas like these need focused, intense efforts at information aggregation and expert analysis, followed by solution formulation and execution. Most important, there has to be the follow-up for effective dissemination, with implementation support on the ground.

Take the example of biodiesel. The knowledge available with TERI (, the Planning Commission’s National Mission on Bio Diesel — whose role is overall coordination? — the Petroleum Conservation Research Association’s National Biofuel Centre (, the Agriculture Ministry’s National Oilseeds and Vegetable Oils Development Board (, the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute at Bhavnagar, and so on, as well as information on commercial initiatives such as D1 Oils of the UK with their wide-ranging efforts in India at extensive plantation and procurement of jatropha through ventures with Mohan Breweries (D1 Mohan Oils) for the south, Williamson Magor for the northeast, and PManek for Gujarat, could be pulled together and made accessible in one place. Further, the findings and conclusions could be used for systematic, country-wide implementation with institutional processes for support.

In the case of petrol, issues relating to ethanol need equally intense efforts at aggregation, expert analysis, and solution development. I was horrified to learn that a company was considering ethanol production from corn here in association with an American company. The inadvisability of corn-to-ethanol is well known even for the US, despite its extensive corn-growing practices.

An example of a glaring anomaly awaiting attention in the subset of transportation fuels is the policy for diesel and petrol. While lower prices for diesel for mass transport and freight make sense, with our atmospheric pollution levels, the current incentives for small diesel car production and use in India appear to defy logic. The Centre for Science and Environment has been campaigning against diesel cars for so long that some of us do not see or hear their plaint. Also, many of us have been lulled by the “clean diesel” story from Europe and whatever tradeoffs they have made. But this is not Europe, and given the state of our atmosphere, the black carbon emissions as well as the oxides of nitrogen from diesel with their effects on smog creation, and the perceivable improvement in atmospheric pollution in Delhi with CNG buses followed by reversals, there is a critical need for immediate, focused, unbiased government initiative, with comprehensive policies and follow-up action.

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