Phasing down the use of coal power is a difficult and complex task. We can, however, move towards a “just transition” (Glasgow Climate Pact, 2021) by implementing a comprehensive strategy to maximise the utilisation of renewable energy. It will allow us to reduce CO2 emissions and provide targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Phasing down the use of coal represents an opportunity to expand the role of decentralised renewable energy systems to drive rural programmes to reduce poverty.
A “just transition” can be started immediately with existing technologies, using advanced software techniques to plan, design and optimise projects and programmes. Smart digital systems to control and manage power plants, microgrids and energy services, with programmes to develop local skills, will help large-scale replication.
The transformation process
Phasing down the use of coal was officially agreed to at COP26. Thus India, like every other nation, will continue to take “meaningful and effective action to limit global warming” (G20 statement, October 31, 2021). Significant progress is being made in India on contributing to stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that will prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate. This is being done primarily by building grid-connected PV and wind power plants. However, the equally important task of reducing poverty has still got a long way to go. Reducing poverty requires reliable, on-time availability of adequate amounts of power and energy services which India has not yet been able to provide adequately to all its citizens. How the two processes can be dovetailed and accelerated is a very big problem for Indian policymakers. Fortunately, a “climate and poverty-reduction plan” can do both: reduce the use of coal to zero by 2070, using some very well-established existing technologies as well as many new ones, and accelerate the reduction of poverty.
It is highly likely that electricity from renewable sources will become the major source of energy, replacing fossil fuels for transport, clean cooking, domestic and commercial heating and cooling, and hot and cold industrial processes. No doubt new chemical processes will also emerge to use bioenergy for some of these applications but the time frame for their commercialisation may not match the time limit for limiting a rise in global temperature. To achieve climate goals optimally, power and energy systems will need to be designed for very high energy efficiency. On top of this it will no longer be good enough to invest in them primarily on the basis of the lowest direct cost of generating power. Unlike current practice, decisions will have to be based on the direct and indirect total cost of generation over their entire life cycle, including the cost of their social and ecological impacts.
Power and energy systems will undoubtedly require more intensive planning to optimise systems, designs and costs. Conditions at the local level will play a much bigger role in selecting technologies, ratings, control systems and linkages. In fact, linking the last-mile electricity supply systems of centralised power grids to local decentralised microgrids will help to minimise storage system costs, maximise reliability and the security of supply.
Linking the last-mile electricity supply systems of centralised power grids to local decentralised microgrids will help to minimise storage system costs, maximise reliability and the security of supply.
The role of renewable energy in a “just Transition”
Renewable energy technologies needed to design and build economic and reliable systems are available now and they can be rolled out within time limits dictated by climate change considerations. To meet the goals of a “just transition”, “a climate and poverty-reduction plan” will be needed with two types of renewable energy plants.
A restructured centralised power sector will remain the major component of “a climate and poverty-reduction plan”. Large power plants are needed to supply the organised sector (industry and infrastructure) and the urban population through a centralised transmission and distribution (T&D) network. The market for renewable energy will expand and the share of large solar PV and wind power in the centralised grid will continue to grow as coal is phased down. As discussed earlier, the customer base of the centralised sector would also expand to include the transportation sector with significantly increased demand for electricity and a different demand profile. The hybridisation of power plants with other renewable energy sources and technologies will become essential to meet the demand profile reliably and at minimum costs under regional climatic conditions. PV and wind will, therefore, have to be supplemented very substantially by biomass, municipal waste and solar thermal energy.
Depending on the centralised sector to reliably provide the required amounts of electricity to help reduce poverty has not worked until now and will also not be the optimum solution for “a climate and poverty-reduction plan”. Setting up a decentralised energy sector will be essential to provide the required amounts of electricity to rural areas to reduce poverty and meet the commitment of a “just transition”.
Renewable energy-based decentralised systems will necessarily have to be linked to the agricultural, farming and plantation sectors, which supply an important energy resource, namely, food and forest products for human labour as well as residues for power and energy services. At the same time they also consume electricity and process energy. Microgrids will therefore have to be optimised not only for daily and monthly variations of loads of a large number of small consumers but also for the variability of solar and wind systems, and for seasonal changes in bioenergy supply from agro residues and forest fuel products. Moreover, the configurations of microgrids at the village level will be different from those at the block or tehsil level, where some of the productive enterprises will be located.
A decentralised sector for a “just transition” will optimise the design and operating strategy of its plants with local data and the real requirements of villagers, and meet their demand at any time of the day or night. Apart from battery storage, microgrids can incorporate low-head water storage systems as well as air storage systems for small applications. Thanks to hybridisation, the internal storage requirements of microgrids will be reduced. Intelligent links to last-mile distribution networks of the centralised grid can ensure reliable supplies to all power consumers in a given area. Last but not least, generating and storing green hydrogen to run fuel cells can be incorporated in a microgrid as soon as reliable and cost-effective technologies become available.
The integrative approach outlined above will not succeed unless policies and regulatory frameworks at all decision-making levels ensure that projects for access to power and energy services happen in conjunction with local social and economic projects. Businesses for lighting, clean cooking, drinking water, education, health and hygiene, agro and food processing, charging stations, as well as IT, communications and other commercial activities will create jobs and increase the income of farmers with net zero CO2 emissions.
Planning, design and optimisation
The future mix of centralised and decentralised power systems will be more complex than current solutions based on fossil fuels and centralised T&D. It will require more detailed planning and optimisation than we are currently used to, especially the use of data for local resources and consumer demand. It will also require more linkages with central grids and better, more responsive control systems in decentralised plants to reliably maintain the demand-supply balance.
Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, as promised in the Glasgow Climate Pact, allows government funds to be redirected to reducing poverty using decentralised renewable energy.
The emergence and affordability of digital systems is a boon to plan and manage the complex transformation process of the power and energy sectors. Dynamic simulation technology is being increasingly used today to model complex systems to show the impacts and consequences of the interaction of large numbers of parameters. Such techniques are used to:
- Design and optimise very large or very small complex systems. The results enable decision-makers to weigh options and risks, and to select the most promising solution.
- Design and optimise hybrid power plants using various renewable energy sources. The models enable managers to select the optimum ratings of generators and the storage system to meet the demand reliably at any time.
- Manage a hybrid power plant with a smart power control system which ensures that the demand is always met by the unit with the least generating cost for that load.
The use of dynamic planning tools will be essential for optimising “a climate and poverty-reduction plan”. Phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, as promised in the Glasgow Climate Pact, allows government funds to be redirected to reducing poverty using decentralised renewable energy. It will have a much higher chance of success when policy and regulatory frameworks ensure reliable power supply to consumers and provide incentives and long-term security to promoters and villagers. Decentralised institutional facilities to develop skills in villages will be equally important.