Power Shift

Sustainable development and changing global energy landscape

 By Praveen Kumar, Deputy Manager (R&D), Engineers India Limited

The need to reduce the carbon footprint has been reverberating in every corner of the world, with technologists, economists, industrialists and academicians pitching for it to propel the global market and achieve green economy targets. Stakeholders around the world are trying to make it to the finish line quickly, disregarding the fact that their existing experience, strategies, technologies and methodologies adopted to survive the marathon are still amateur. In the present scenario, the know-how of efficient systems needs to be developed to a great extent while addressing the conundrum around the implementation of advantageous methods and ensuring the optimal utilisation of resources.

“Sustainable development” was coined to create an economy that not only grows by utilising the available resources, but also cares about how these resources could be replenished so that the equilibrium of the natural ecosystem remains unaltered. The term has lingered in academic parlance for a long time since it was recognised in 1972 at the UN Conference on Human Environment held in Stockholm and popularised through the World Commission of Environment and Development report titled “Our Common Future”, released in the year 1987, widely known as the Brundtland Report. Since then, the term has been used extensively at almost all the major environmental summits including the UN Conference on Environment and Development held in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, but it has not yet been fully realised in practice globally.

Growth of hydrogen and solar power

In terms of the technologies of the future, there are many research areas. The hydrogen economy, the addition of solar power projects, the gradual increase in wind energy, crude oil to chemicals, valorisation of biomass and other waste-to-energy projects are some of the ongoing research areas expected to achieve the requisite pace to minimise the burden on fossil fuels. Hydrogen and solar energy inter alia are two key areas that are emerging as frontrunners in changing the global energy landscape. The “Future of Hydrogen”, a technology report by the International Energy Agency, has indicated a gradual rise in pure hydrogen demand during 1975-2018.

Japan did considerable homework to launch a hydrogen-based society at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020, which unfortunately got delayed by at least one year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Covid-19 crisis has irrefutably given a big jolt to the global economy. Japan had also planned to showcase the application of hydrogen in almost all the event-related activities, starting from lighting the iconic Olympic flame using hydrogen energy and movement of sports stars and personnel in hydrogen fuel-driven vehicles to designing residential complexes for athletes employing hydrogen fuel cells and plying them in the city using fuel cell buses. However, an article published in The Diplomat titled “Japan Promotes Clean Coal in the Battle Against Climate Change”, indicating that Japan is the largest G-7 financier of domestic and overseas coal power generation, creates a sense of doubt about the country’s commitment to decarbonisation. That said, the fact that Japan is not a resource-rich country and is making efforts to introduce new technologies to the world is worth appreciation.

Solar energy will account for a major chunk of the global energy mix in the path to decarbonisation. As per International Renewable Energy Agency statistics, China led the top 10 countries of the world with more than 150,000 MW of installed capacity in the year 2018, followed by Japan and the US. “Australia’s Mission to Become a Global Powerhouse”, authored by Joshua Mcdonald has given a glimpse of the role Australia is likely to play on the global energy platform, but apparently it is dealing with a similar energy conundrum as Japan, that is, one section of the power block is running anti-parallel to the ongoing renewable energy revolution in the country. The international resolve in the area of solar energy can be traced to the launch of the International Solar Alliance at the 21st session of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP21) held in Paris, France, which is an alliance of sunlight-resource-rich nations. These countries are committed to collectively addressing the challenges associated with the scale-up of solar energy applications in line with their needs without replicating the efforts of other leading international organisations that are active in this area.

India, in particular, has a huge potential to increase the band of solar energy in its energy spectrum. India’s solar PV installed cumulative capacity multiplied manyfold in the past decade and reached 37,627 MW in March 2020. In line with the target of solar energy production, the Indian prime minister recently dedicated a 750 MW solar power plant as part of a 1,500 hectare solar park in Madhya Pradesh, which is expected to reduce 1.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This will also be a significant step towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG-7: Affordable and Clean Energy and SDG-13: Climate Action.

Continued dominance of fossil fuels

In addition to initiatives being taken to propel renewable energy growth, significant technological advancement can also be seen in the non-renewable energy segment. The development of shale gas production technology in the US led the world towards an economy based on natural gas, a cleaner and reliable source of energy. The gas-based economy led to the proliferation of natural gas networks for industrial, transportation and household needs. In India, the gas pipeline network has witnessed a significant revamp and many new networks have been proposed to be set up to cater to various needs. The capital inflows for projects in the oil and gas segment suggest that many countries are augmenting their overall refining capacity and many petrochemical complexes are planned to be set up when the economy starts picking up pace after the pandemic. So, it can be expected that the energy landscape of the world in the decade to follow will have a huge pie of the oil and gas and related segments. However, the oil and gas industry may witness a transition in the areas of crude oil to chemicals, upgradation of product specifications as per the environmental norms and process intensification.

Coal is still an important source of energy in developing countries. For instance, India is still fulfilling its domestic electricity demand primarily through coal-based power plants. Coal cleaning has become a global practice nowadays in the wake of stringent emission norms adopted by countries around the world. It reduces the emission of sulphur dioxide and ash from the burning of coal. Other than washing, researchers are working on clean coal technologies that can potentially help reduce the carbon dioxide discharge in the atmosphere. Some of those technological interventions include, but are not limited to, flue gas desulphurisation, low-NOx burners, integrated gasification combined cycle for increasing thermal efficiency and other catalyst-based systems for emission reduction. Although various technological solutions have been developed, the cost associated with these technologies leaves little room for their adoption in cash-strapped countries like India. There are developments in the area of coal gasification including in situ underground coal gasification and related technologies for cleaner transportation, but these are still not mature enough to be adopted on an industrial scale. With countries like Japan pushing for clean coal technologies, fossil fuel will certainly be part of the energy mix in the future, though its form may change from time to time.

As per COP21, India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions include, inter alia, achieving about 40 per cent cumulative electric power installed capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources by the year 2030. To realise this ambitious target, India needs to develop renewable energy research and development capabilities and reduce its significant dependence on coal for electricity generation.

Outlook

It, therefore, appears that a paradigm shift in the global energy landscape is inevitable, in which all the segments of energy production and storage as we see them today will be present in a range of amplitudes, though their forms might be different. Hydrogen-based energy and solar energy will play a greater role in driving the world’s economy. The stage is set for developing countries like India to become self-reliant. It is committed to a mammoth economic target and has huge potential in terms of demographic dividend and resources for rapid infrastructure development in alternative sources of energy, which will help keep pace with the leading nations. There is an urgent need for these countries to formulate a robust policy framework for the upcoming decade so that they can create a niche for themselves in the league of countries involved in sustainable energy research.

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