INDIA’S ENERGY FAMINE 2: TOWARDS A SOLAR WORLD
Exploitation of solar can transform India from an energy starved to an energy abundant country. It will mean new ways of generating power as well as changes in lifestyle in homes and workplaces. More than money, it will need visionary leadership and strong management.
This is second of two articles by Navaratna Rajaram
Energy famine: greater threat than terrorism?
Thanks to the Green Revolution and the White Revolution (or Milk Revolution) the present generation of Indians has no idea of a food famine. Educated people may read about the Bengal Famine that killed millions, but most Indians living today have never known a food famine. It was different fifty years ago. In 1961, the grain shortage was so severe that the United States shipped huge quantities of grain in return for payments in rupees under a program called Public Law 480 (or PL 480). More importantly India took steps to modernize its archaic agricultural practices leading to the Green Revolution.
Unfortunately, the present generation may not be able to escape the impact of an energy famine that stares the country in the face. In fact it is already there especially in the villages. But it has not yet assumed the virulence which it has in Pakistan where it is disrupting both the economy and the social structure. There are energy riots (like food riots) and businesses are closing due to lack of power. There are ‘energy refugees’ from the villages that are roaming the streets of cities like Peshawar and Lahore adding to their already overburdened infrastructure.
The Indian media, living in the comfort of cities like Delhi, with diesel generators running full blast have failed to report on these developments. One is forced to look to foreign media to get a picture of the energy famine plaguing Pakistan. The Washington Post recently reported:
“In the militant-infested northwestern city of Peshawar, hundreds of businessmen recently marched in a mock funeral procession — but not to protest bombings or kidnappings. The ‘corpse’ they carried was an electric meter… In other areas of the country, shopkeepers have threatened mass suicide to protest 18 to 20 hours of power blackouts every day. Mobs are descending on utility offices to destroy records and meters, and they have attacked political parties’ headquarters during riots that sometimes turn deadly.”
Such 18 to 20 hour power shutdowns are not unknown in rural India either, but in Pakistan this is compounded by mismanagement which has made it assume virulent proportions. In May this year, the Pakistan Government defaulted on its payments for failing to reimburse millions to independent power providers— more proof that, after years of mismanagement and neglect, the nation’s energy sector is in extremis. These independent providers mainly use highly expensive diesel sets for generation which the Government cannot afford to pay for.
As a result of all this, some experts are now suggesting that the power crisis is more of a threat to Pakistan’s stability than is terrorism. Whether this is true or not, there is no denying that power shortages are taking a heavy toll on the economy. Load shedding averages 5 to 10 hours a day in some urban areas and more than double that in rural areas. The shutdowns paralyze commerce, stoke inflation and unemployment, and further enrage a restive populace. According to the Washington Post report:
“ …‘We have been shattered by these problems, and the government is responsible,’ said Muhammad Naeem, sitting in the darkened office of the marble and granite company he runs in Islamabad. Persistent outages have forced him to cut shifts by half and reduce his payroll from 35 people to eight as production has fallen off, he said.”
As in India, businesses and factories use backup generators if they have them, but businessmen say the rising cost of fuel to run the machines hurts their bottom line. Also like India, Pakistan has to import the diesel to run its generators. But soon a point will be reached when the extra money to pay for the increasing cost of fuel will simply not be there. India must see the situation in Pakistan as a warning of what can happen in the not too distant future if nothing is done.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. With proper political vision and leadership an energy revolution exploiting solar can make India an energy abundant country just as the Green Revolution and the White Revolution made India food abundant and milk abundant. But this will call for vision beginning with the recognition that while India is poor in fossil fuels, it is extremely rich in solar.
Need of the hour is science, not rhetoric
Any planning for energy future must start with the realization— that while India is fossil poor it is solar rich. This is not a new revelation; it is something that has been known for over half a century. It should have been the centerpiece of India’s planning for the energy sector but political leaders went after glamorous gigantic project along with Soviet style centralized planning instead of encouraging business development at the grassroots level. India still has a planning commission that does little more than provide employment for high priced bureaucrats who love spending public money.
India has a huge domestic market. This should have been the focus of development fifty years ago, with support for businesses in the semiconductor industry, but the planners went after big ticket public sector projects. The mistake was repeated in the much more vital solar energy field; a combination of financial incentives and research support would have made India a leader in the field of solar. China, placed in a similar situation took the decision to promote the solar industry with the result it is now the world’s largest supplier of cheap solar panels. This has resulted in a drop of nearly 75 percent in the cost of solar panels since 2008. India can at least take advantage of this as Gujarat has shown. What it needs is public leadership.
A fundamental problem in India is that the public space is dominated by politicians and self-styled ‘intellectuals’ rather than by scientists and problem solvers. It is fashionable for these to claim that they and their ideas can solve the nation’s problems, but it has never worked out that way. They gave the country the Planning Commission and a socialist economy. The former gave India extravagant bureaucrats (like Montek Singh Ahluwalia) squandering public funds, and the latter left India saddled with an inefficient public sector and a stagnant economy for over fifty years. They brought no improvements in life to India’s suffering population. On the other hand it created a vast bureaucracy with an obstructionist mentality that led to an exodus of India’s talent. This obstructionist nature of the entrenched bureaucracy (and politicians) will prove to the greatest obstacle when India tries to go solar.
On the other hand, major advances in life quality in India (as elsewhere) have come from the vision and work based on scientific thinking. Agricultural scientists like M.S. Swaminathan and S.K. De Dutta made India food abundant. More or less at the same time, Tribhuvandas Patel conceived the idea of a national grid of milk cooperatives and went on to make India the world’s largest producer of milk and milk products. His idea and approach may prove helpful as India embarks on a solar power grid as it now has to.
Tribhuvandas’s insight was that milk is not storable over long periods and at the same time it is consumed almost immediately. He saw it as a challenge at both the supply- and the demand side of milk production and distribution. He saw early that what the situation demanded was a network of cooperatives or a grid to balance supply and demand of a perishable product. This insight and experience can prove valuable when a solar power grid ever becomes reality.
While Verghese Kurien is justly renowned for his contribution to the White Revolution, Tribhuvandas Patel is not as well known as he should be. He was from Anand in Gujarat, a village that he was destined to make internationally famous by founding Anand Milk Union Limited or AMUL. Founded in 1946 as a rural cooperative it has now grown into a $2.5 billion giant. While it lists only about 750 people in its marketing division as employees, it has a pool of more than 3 million independent milk producers as members.
During the Freedom Struggle, Tribhuvandas had served under Sardar Patel who helped him found the first rural cooperative in 1946. He was greatly influenced by Sardar Patel’s capacity to get things done by people under him. When the network of milk cooperative began to grow large he realized that it needed a person of professional management skills that he did not possess. In 1950, he brought in a brilliant young manager called Verghese Kurien (born 1921) to run AMUL. The rest is history.
Tribhuvandas’s contribution was recognized with the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1963. The Indian Government belatedly gave him a Padmabhushan the following year, only because the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation recognized him. The award seems inadequate given the magnitude of his contribution when people who have done far less like Brajesh Mishra and Amartya Sen have received higher awards. Also, his highly successful grassroots approach has not been studied in business schools while the bogus claims of a charlatan like Laloo Prasad Yadav (Railway Minister) have been celebrated even at the Harvard Business School.
Untypically for an Indian leader, Tribhuvandas was not ambitious for position or personal glory. When he voluntarily retired from the chairmanship of AMUL, the people—not the Government—rewarded him with six lakh rupees representing one rupee contribution each from six lakh grateful members of the cooperatives he had helped to start. He used this fund to start a charitable trust, named the Tribhuvandas Foundation— an NGO to work on women and child health in his native Kheda district. He was its first Chairman. Characteristically, he handed over the chairmanship to Verghese Kurien when the organization started to grow rapidly, with funds increasingly coming from foreign sources.
Solar domes as public space
Tribuvandas Patel’s concept of a network of local cooperatives may serve as a useful model when solar plants begin to be set up, especially if done in conjunction with the proposed river network. This however addresses the supply side. On the demand side, the way solar is consumed will lead to changes in the way we live and work. Houses and workplaces will have to take advantage of cheap electricity produced from abundant solar while simultaneously shielding living areas from radiation. This was realized by the visionary designer Buckminster Fuller as far back as 1969.
Fuller was a multifaceted personality— scientist, engineer, architect and philosopher. But above all he was a visionary humanist. Fuller believed human societies would soon rely mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar- and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of “omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity.” Fuller referred to himself as “the property of universe” and during one radio interview he gave later in life, declared himself and his work “the property of all humanity”. For his lifetime of work, the American Humanist Association named him the 1969 Humanist of the Year. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
While Fuller held many patents he is best known as the developer of the Geodesic Dome— a self-supporting structure that can be extended to any size without limit. In the Montreal Expo he demonstrated how it could be used to heat the interior with sunlight and thereby reduce energy consumption. Being a tropical country, the problem in India is cooling. Now that inexpensive silicon-based photovoltaic panels are readily available, domes can be built using solar panels. These serve to reduce heat in the interior by absorbing solar radiation while simultaneously producing electricity that can be used for other purposes.
We may call these ‘solar domes’. Malls and other public places can be built as a network of such solar domes. In conventional buildings today, Sun’s radiation heats the structure which has to be cooled by fans and air conditioners that consume electricity. A solar dome on the other hand shields the structure by absorbing solar radiation and converts it into electricity. So there is a double benefit. This is only the beginning: many more advantages will be discovered as we gain experience.
Conclusion: the human challenge
It is remarkable that Tribhuvandas recognized the management challenge quite early in his venture. Implementation of solar power network will prove to be as great a management challenge. It must be recognized by governments as well as responsible individuals outside the government that management is not the same as administration. India has an oversupply of administrators, but short of management talent, especially in the government. Talented managers are in great demand worldwide and Indian managers are found in many multinationals.
The administrative (IAS) cadre in India is so bloated that jobs formerly done by clerks and librarians are now handled by IAS officers carrying huge salaries and perks. Their main career goal is to expand their power and influence by expanding their turf. They engage mainly in obstructionist activities and cannot deliver results. Getting results calls for managers of talent and commitment. Talented managers are an asset while administrators are best a necessary evil and at worst, as in India today, a major liability and a drain on resources. (Tribhuvandas Patel recognized this and engaged Kurien and did not allow IAS officers to take control.)
Education will also have to play a major role. School and college curricula today have little to say on solar. This is unfortunate. Schools can teach and excite students by having them do projects using inexpensive solar kits now on the market. Youth organizations can hold ‘solar camps’ helping children create things like ‘solar domes’ and learn about solar and what it can do. Minds that go on to solve India’s (and world’s) energy problems will come from their ranks, not windbag politicians and ‘intellectuals’.
Dr. Navaratna Rajaram began his career with Tata Power Company and went on to spend over twenty years in the U.S. academia and high technology industry including NASA. He is now an independent researcher based in Bangalore, India and Boston, U.S.A.