‘India must focus on renewable energy’

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Hans-Josef Fell, a German politician and international renewable energy activist, has spent more than 30 years working on solar and wind energy. In 1985, when running a home on 100 per cent solar energy was considered a highly uneconomical proposition, he installed a solar system in his villa. A physicist by profession, he joined the Green Party in 1992 and was a member of the German Parliament from 1998 to 2013.

Known as the father of the German renewable energy legislation (EEG), he got the clean energy revolution rolling in his country. The EEG has been a model policy for almost 100 countries worldwide. Hans-Josef Fell has authored nearly 2,000 drafts of the Renewable Energy Sources Act, which established the foundation for technological developments in photovoltaic, biogas, wind power and geothermal energy in Germany.

Currently, he is heading Energy Watch Group, a leading international organisation engaged in renewable energy promotion. He has received over two dozen awards including the Solar Prize of the European Solar Energy Association in 1994, Energy Globe Award in 2000, and Nuclear-Free Future Award in 2001. During his recent visit to India, he spoke to VIJAY THAKUR about the future of renewable energy in India, its challenges and solutions.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: India has announced doubling of its renewable energy targets. How do you see the future of renewables in India?

 A: First of all, India is very rich in renewable energy, whether it is solar energy, wind energy, bio energy or hydro energy. Our past two years’ experience shows that renewable energy has emerged as the cheapest option available. Therefore it makes business sense for India to go in for 100 per cent renewable energy. Grid integration and synchronisation of the balance of solar energy are the tasks for coming years. What India can do right now is to go for hybrid energy. Use solar energy during day and hydro or bio-energy when there is no sun. The government may also look for other options, including bio-energy and various other methods of energy storage systems. We had prepared a detailed simulation on renewables for India and presented its report to the Indian government. It is high time to say goodbye to conventional energy plants which are highly polluting and also cost more than renewable.

Q: Why you think going for renewable is important for a country like India?

 A: Besides pollution, there is one more reason why India should go for 100 per cent renewable energy. For operation of a renewable energy power plant, we require more unskilled and semi-skilled professionals as compared to conventional power plants. This sector can become a job making machine for a country like India where there are a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled unemployed people in rural areas. Ultimately this sector will help the government fight poverty.

Q: In India per capita income is very low. Can people afford renewable energy? Secondly, would it be advisable to go for renewables when we already have conventional systems in place like coal, oil and gas-based thermal power plants and a few nuclear power stations?

 A: You have a system in place which is dependent on fossil fuels. But this is polluting and costly as well. Renewable energy nowadays is cheaper, long lasting and environmentally friendly. The money the government would save from not importing fossil fuels should be spent on renewables. It is for the policy makers of the country to take a final call, but the sooner they take it the better. Fortunately today we see a good policy in place in India. That is why it is increasing its renewable energy generation capacity exponentially.

Worldwide, power industry experts are realising that renewable energy is more economical than conventional power plants. We see many countries closing their existing thermal power stations. Recently the USA has decided not to go in for new nuclear power plants, because energy produced would be very costly. Similarly, China is also closing some of its existing thermal power stations. It is not because they are polluting but because it is becoming uneconomical.

Q: What should India do to grow quickly in this sector?

 A:  The Indian government should give strong support to indigenous industries to set up their own factories and build a wide network of renewable energy equipment within the country to promote the sector. It should have more and more manufacturing plants of solar PV cells, solar inverters, wind power generators, batteries and other equipment which are currently being imported. This would not only generate employment, but also develop cost-effective indigenous technologies. India has capabilities, capacity and the market to develop its indigenous set-ups. It can become a global player in renewable energy sector, like China if the right policies are put in place.

Q: Recently, the Government of India has asked car manufacturing companies in India to switch over to electric vehicles. A minister went to the extent of saying that he would ‘bulldoze’ car manufacturing companies if they do not switch over to alternate fuels, mainly electricity. How do you view this?

A: I appreciate the decision. It is important to switch over to renewable not only in the energy sector, but in other sectors as well. Renewable sources should be used in transport sector, industrial sector, water cleaning, heating and cooling systems. Electric vehicles are a first step in this direction.

It would help India in making economical batteries and other infrastructure, and also in reducing pollution on the roads. Now we will see more and more companies producing batteries. The low cost batteries would promote solar power systems in rural areas.

We have already seen great work on electric vehicles in some countries including China, Germany, Norway and Netherlands. Some countries are targeting zero emission in coming years. Look at China; you may not see fossil fuel-powered motor cycles in most Chinese cities. In years to come electric vehicles would become cheaper.

But a lot of work needs to be done by the Indian government. There should be an emphasis on building infrastructure for electric vehicles. It should make arrangements for charging electric vehicles. More and more industries should be set up for low-cost, lightweight, fast-charging batteries, which do not pollute.

Lead acid batteries are outdated; lightweight lithium ion batteries are the future. But currently they are very costly. Just as prices of solar PV cells have reduced drastically, we hope to see a similar trend in batteries as well. We will soon find many more ways of storing electricity that are now at the testing stage.

 

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