Misleading Hype on Green Energy
We hear many tall claims about green energy. A few examples:
- Farmers will be urja-data (energy-providers), not just anna-data (food-providers), and save Rs16 lakh crore of oil imports.
 
- India will export green hydrogen to the whole world.
 
- Petrol will disappear within five years.
 
- Electric vehicles will swap batteries at service stations. 
 
- Highways will be electrified.
 
Let’s check out these pronouncements.
Yes, ethanol can partially replace petrol and diesel. Today’s petrol already contains 20% ethanol. But, to go from 20% to 100% is not quite simple, because:
 
- Ethanol is currently being made from molasses. It can also be made from food grains, such as rice and wheat.  But, replacing fossil fuels with alcohol will require a massive increase in food grain production which is simply not possible. 
 
- Indian cars can handle 20% ethanol, but going beyond 20% will require major modifications to the engines and fuel systems. How will older cars cope?
 
- Ethanol is cheaper than petrol/ diesel because it is taxed much less. If ethanol replaces fossil fuels, the government will have to forego a large source of tax revenue or increase the tax on ethanol.
Green hydrogen (GH2) is, well, a myth.
 
To produce GH2 you need clean electricity (solar/ wind/ hydro) and electrolysers. Neither is available in the quantities that are needed to make significant amounts of GH2. 
 
Even if we are able to find the capital to set up massive facilities for generating clean electricity and manufacturing electrolysers, the cost will be too high to make GH2 viable. Unless a new, and cheap, technology arrives, GH2 won’t be worthwhile.
 
Finally, even if ample amounts of cheap GH2 somehow become available, a huge amount of investment would be needed before it can be used commercially, because storing and transporting GH2 (a volatile and explosive gas) requires an extensive and solid infrastructure.
 
Electric Vehicles...
 
All over the world, EVs are losing their charm.  They are expensive, their range is limited, charging takes time, charging stations are not easy to find, and swapping batteries is not feasible for cars because the battery pack is usually an integral part of the car’s structure and cannot be easily taken out and put back in.
 
Electric two-wheelers, however, are a good fit for India because they are used for relatively short runs, and the batteries can be removed for charging at home overnight. 
 
Electric highway? Bah!
 
Not that the idea is bunkum, but it is simply too far away. Not only will highways need to be electrified, but trucks will have to be modified or replaced. This will be a chicken-and-egg issue – will we build the electric highways first or the electric trucks first?
 
So, what do we do to ‘save the environment’?
 
First and foremost, we need to accept that nothing is going to change soon in the way we produce and consume energy. We will still burn coal, diesel and petrol in prodigious quantities, at least for several more decades.
 
The options available for going green are solar, wind and hydro, plus (perhaps) thorium-based nuclear power in the distant future. 
 
But, clean electricity brings its own challenges:
- How to produce massive amounts of clean electricity?
 
- How to transmit electricity efficiently from one corner of the country to another? 
 
- How to store surplus electricity to balance out supply and demand in a 24-hour cycle?
 
We have already built gigantic (gigawatt-size) solar power plants. We have the land required for installing them. But, we don’t have the ability to produce large quantities of cheap, efficient solar panels.
 
We depend on China for getting solar panels, because China accounts for 80% of the solar panel production worldwide. Going green will require us to produce solar panels ourselves.
 
Besides, producing clean electricity is not enough. It has to be sent to wherever it is needed. That requires an electric grid which connects all the power producers and power consumers across the country.
 
Unfortunately, our existing electric grid is not efficient. The transmission loss in the Indian grid, i.e., the portion of electricity that is ‘lost in transit’, is as high as 20%, with some parts of India recording 33% loss. Compare this to the world average of 8%, or the USA (6%) or China (5%). 
 
Techniques are available for improving the efficiency of transmission grids, but again, this requires huge investments and a long time.
 
Finally – where do we store the surplus electricity produced during the day, when the sun is shining, and release it at night, when the sun is gone?
 
The answer to this might be in the offing.
 
Hitherto, the common way to store electricity has been lithium-ion batteries. This is not a good solution because lithium is expensive, lithium mines are highly polluting, and (not again!) China dominates the world market in lithium and Li-ion batteries.
 
However, great progress is being made in the production of sodium-ion batteries. Fortunately, sodium is easily available, non-inflammable, and eco-friendly. Moreover, it is cheap.
 
The major negative of the sodium-ion battery has been its weight, which makes it unsuitable for use in cars.  But this is no issue for bulk storage applications, i.e., massive banks of batteries which take in solar electricity during the day and release it into the grid at night.
 
If we are able to generate, transmit and store clean electricity in large quantities, we can make some serious progress in cutting down on burning fossil fuels, especially coal, and progress toward going green.
 
Coming back to transport, a quick fix is hybrid cars and buses, which use 20%-30% less petrol/ diesel. For some reason unknown to me, the government has been ignoring hybrids. Perhaps this will change.
 
Therefore, we have to ask our leaders to, please, stop making unrealistic promises on becoming green.
 
After all, the elections are over!
 
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)
Comments
prasanna
2 weeks ago
Thorium based nuclear plants are a decade away. What about next 10 years? We are in serious trouble with heat waves felt in past couple of months. Water has dried up in dams. One should not consider a solution for energy production in isolation but a holistic approach is required considering its impact on environment for the short term and for the long term.
saurabh.khanna
3 weeks ago
When fossil fuel based automobile invented, must have been a great pom and show and celebrated as a revolution to mobility.
At that time time any concern about its negative effects ( pollution) and limited availability of fossil fuel were never thought of.
After few years of exploitation of our planet and experiencing global warming , we are now awoken to look for other alternatives.
During last century we have created sufficient infrastructure for fossil fuel based mobility. Now its s time to replicate the same kind of infrastructure for green energy as well.

It is well said that - we don't inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.
We have exploited and finished the natural resources and made a mess of our home planet.
May God give us sense and strength.

s5rwav
3 weeks ago
In a Pretty Big Country like India having Abundant Solar Power should be Tapped in a Decentralised Manner for a Housing Society or a Village or a Locality or a Big Complex or a Town in place of Heavily Centralised Solar Power Set ups.
mahidhar.equity
Replied to s5rwav comment 3 weeks ago
In 2018, I had written to the PMO a few times as well as other departments how Anna-Data can become Urja-data without the term but it was skewed in the Kusum scheme so the benefits are not seen. My scheme would have most probably prevented farmers uprising and is still relevant if implemented today.
mahidhar.equity
3 weeks ago
AB maybe right in many of the things he has mentioned but there are solution although the government is not listening. Setting up charging stations is not difficult as they can be automated as there is lesser risk then dispensing fossil fuels. There is no need to use land that can be used for other purposes as other options for laying panels is possible.
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