Making sense of the energy conundrum

In this excerpt from their new book, Akshay Tyagi and Akshat Tyagi break down the central debate of our time

Akshay Tyagi and Akshat Tyagi | June 1, 2021


#Energy   #electricity   #environment   #carbon   #climate change  


Now that we’re here: The Future of Everything
By Akshay Tyagi and Akshat Tyagi
Penguin, 336 pages, Rs 299

How do you prepare for a future if you don’t know what it is? How do you specialize in anything if the horizon is constantly shifting? What’s the goalpost and how do we get there? Is there even a goalpost? The hyperconnected world that once seemed futuristic is now here. And now that we’re here, it’s time for us to educate ourselves for sweeping and endless possibilities. One way to do that is to blur the lines between technology, democracy, design, economics and data, and reconfigure our approach to learning altogether. This book is a giant leap in that direction. By harnessing the wisdom of thought leaders and intellectuals throughout history, by blending business and humanity, industry and society, and by covering cross-disciplinary themes, authors Akshay Tyagi and Akshat Tyagi give us a groundbreaking, genre-defying and utterly mind-bending collection of essays that will help us prepare for the here and now.

Here is an excerpt from ‘Now that we’re here: The Future of Everything’:

The energy grid and carbon

Food, water and energy are the three most important things that can lift the last billion out of poverty. Cavemen got by on just food, water and fire (energy) to cook the food. In the 21st century, these three are still the most important resources essential for survival. The most common methods of energy distribution now are electricity, followed by hydrocarbon fuels like petrol, diesel and LPG/CNG.

Energy helps substitute a large portion of manual labour needed to survive, freeing up our time for other things. Ever since Benjamin Franklin invented electricity and Thomas Edison commercialized it, electricity has been the most viable format of energy distribution, thanks to its versatility. Cheaper electric energy can directly enable us to get food and water to the poor. There’s a water shortage only because we can’t consume salty ocean water as is. Right now, desalination is not cheap enough to be done on a mass scale. We need it to be 10x cheaper to be viable. And the major cost of desalination is energy. We could essentially desalinate infinite amounts of water if energy were 10x cheaper. And that water and cheap energy could in turn be used to grow tons of food. It all boils down to energy. And it goes beyond just food and water. Cheap energy can single-handedly improve the standard of living of billions.

One of the most important things that separate the Indian middle class from the poor is cooling. And the primary barrier to air conditioning is electricity costs. If energy could be made cheaper, it would make life better for a lot of us. And we need a lot more of it. This is not a recipe for infinite consumption, however. The energy consumption per person has already peaked in places like New York City, where it has been stagnant for decades. Since most of our domestic consumption comes from heating and cooling both air and water, after we achieve that, the consumption should not increase much for a long while.

If you read the newspapers and look at the numbers though, you would conclude that we are in power-surplus. We have a peak installed capacity of 350 GW, with our demand peaking at only 180 GW. Some of that installed capacity is not met due to fuel shortages, some due to the cyclic nature of renewable energy, while some is lost in transit. But despite that we do have energy that nobody is willing to buy because the rates are too high for most people. In fact, most energy distribution companies (discoms) in India are operating in losses because they are selling energy at lower rates than they buy it at. The issue is of price.

The average American consumes about 12,000 kWh of energy per year as compared to only 1000 kWh by the average Indian. We can consume way more and, as we get richer, we will. The second part of the problem is that the grid isn’t expansive enough. Every year, Piyush Goyal, the erstwhile power minister, claims that 100 per cent rural electrification is just a few months away, and the media reports it with a sense of amnesia about his previous announcements. While that is good PR for the government, the fact remains that people in both cities and villages often resort to diesel generators to meet their power demands, which clearly shows that supply does not meet demand.

Our energy production is the largest contributor to carbon emissions in the atmosphere. When including all sectors, like transportation, in addition to electricity, energy production contributes to over 70 per cent of all greenhouse gases (GHGs). Given our increasing energy demands, if we don’t solve this now, we will not be able to stop global warming wreaking irreversible damage.

Walk into any electronics store and you will find a wall littered with ACs with varying star ratings, depending on how much energy they consume. India also suffers from badly designed homes with insufficient insulation which require ACs to run for longer to maintain a cool temperature.

In November 2019, the Government of India selected eight finalists for its ‘Global Cooling Prize’. The idea was to develop new technology for cooling that has a lower carbon footprint, with the winner taking home over a million dollars. Ever seen a Hollywood movie where you see steam coming out of the vents on the side of the roads? That was most likely set in New York, one of the few cities in the world that has a steam system in place. It supplies houses with, well, steam through pipes, so that it can be used for heating as well as cooling, at a much lower carbon footprint than traditional methods. And the steam is mostly a by-product of electricity production, not requiring new energy production.

The Government of India issued an advisory17 in June 2018, asking AC manufacturers and commercial buildings to have the default temperature set at 24 degrees Celsius, up from the 16–18 that was sometimes used, which would help reduce energy consumption. But no matter how efficient we make our ACs, it is never going to reduce the nation’s total energy consumption. That’s because there will always be more and more people coming out of poverty buying new ACs and these small percentages of efficiencies will not matter.

We have to increase efficiency by a factor of 10 rather than 10 per cent, and the only way to do that is to focus on the production end, not the consumption end. Five-star devices and better-thermally-insulated houses do, however, reduce your personal bill by a bit, so feel free to buy them for that reason.

The way we produce most of our energy is by turning a turbine. Aside from solar, all of our energy sources work this way. Coal is used to create steam, which in turn rotates the wings of a turbine. Nuclear reactors create steam as well. Wind and tidal turn the turbine directly, no steam required. India produces most of its energy from coal. The catch-22 with coal is that it is pure carbon (C), which makes it a high-density store of energy. And of potential CO2. When we burn coal to make electricity, it oxidizes to CO2. Carbon emissions from coal are too high, and Indian coal plants are exceptionally inefficient. Indian coal plants produce .91 to .95 kilograms per kWh (1 kWh is 1 ‘unit’ on your electricity bill).

Carbon capture, or ‘sequestration’, is a set of technologies that attempt to absorb carbon from the atmosphere in some form that can ideally be buried underground (or recycled to produce something else). Carbon capture right now costs anywhere between $300–600 per ton of CO2 absorbed.

Some companies claim they can get it down to $50, but they are assuming the carbon captured will be used to make other products, like making sodas bubbly. But in all honesty, even tech titans like Bill Gates couldn’t drink enough diet coke to save the environment.

Assuming the carbon is buried underground, and being optimistic, let’s say we can bring down the cost of carbon capture to $100 per ton. Assuming this cost will be born at the point of production by discoms, to absorb the extra cost, this would increase the price of 1 unit (1 kWh) by Rs 7. Currently, one unit costs between Rs 4–8 in Delhi, depending on usage. This would increase the cost by a factor of 2–3x. That is steep. And if there’s something the Delhi government does not seem to like, it is increasing the cost of power. And we still don’t know how to safely lock in and store the captured carbon.

[Excerpt reproduced with the permission of the publishers.]
 

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