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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Sustainable Energy for Sustainable Human Development : An Overview

Wednesday 2 April 2014, by V Mathew Kurian


I. Introduction

Sustainable energy may be perceived as the engine of sustainable human development. Though the idea of ‘development’ in the immediate post-World War era, was conceived as ‘economic development’, in due course of time it has evolved as ‘human development’. Of late, sustainability is blended with human development for its ecological significance. Development also has to be just; so it needs to be inclusive. Sustainable energy is critically important in the realisation of all these dimensions of development.

In this paper, we first examine the need for alternative sustainable energy, followed by a taxonomic presentation of the sustainable energy sources. Then, we will critically examine the impact of neo-liberal policies in the promotion of sustainable energy and inclusive human development. Finally, we suggest a decentralised political economy, particularly in India, for achieving energy security and sustainable human development.

II. The Need for Sustainable Energy

Energy is a universal input in all human activities, whether economic or non-economic. Hence, we can consider the right to access sufficient energy as a fundamental human right. However, ‘energy poverty’ is a reality as conventional energy resources are distributed unequally internationally as well as intranatio-nally. The USA, the richest country in the world with about five per cent of the world population, today consumes more than twentyfive per cent of the global energy production. The poor countries have only minimum access to global energy sources. With the present skewed distribution of energy resources, the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGS) are not going to be achieved within the set time-horizon.

Another burning issue with regard to energy is that the conventional energy sources are exponentially dwindling with the present pattern of modern economic growth and population expansion. The metaphor of ‘space-ship earth’ is quite relevant in discussing this issue. Growth requires increased energy which also necessitates the use of more other resources. As the planetary economy has only a given resource endowment, it may lead to depletion of the resource base. There are two dimensions to it. One we have already explained in con-nection with the unequal distribution of conventional energy sources. The other is the problem of inter-generational injustice. If the present generations devour most of the resources, the coming generations will be denied of it. So we are actually indebted to all future generations for depriving their rights for energy.

Further, conventional energy also contributes toxic wastes which are harmful not only for the present generations, but generations to come. As carbon dioxide and other glass house gases (GHGs) are emitted, the earth’s atmosphere gets hotter and hotter leading to adverse climatic changes.

Nuclear energy is placed as an option for energy security. But the accidents which occu-rred in countries like Russia and Japan frighten the prospects of resorting to this source of energy. Besides it could pose severe threats to the livelihood security of vulnerable sections like the fisherfolk. The resistance to the Kudankulam project by the ordinary people was mainly on this ground.

But unfortunately, more than eightyfive per cent of energy resources now used in the world are non-renewable and impart all these hazards. However humanity cannot meaningfully exist and get developed without the use of energy. In this predicament, we are forced to seek out and access alternative energy sources whch are renewable and thereby sustainable.

III. Sustainable Energy Sources: A Taxonomic View 

Already we have shown the dangers of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and gas) and other conventional sources of energy which press for the promotion of ‘sustainable energy’. Sustai-nable energy may be defined as energy which has a dynamic harmony between the equitable availability of energy-intensive goods and services to all people and the preservation of the earth for future generations.

The above definion is quite in conformity with the definition of ‘sustainable development’ of the Brundtland Commission (1987) of the UNO. The Report of the Commission states sustainable development as development which meets the needs of the present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

In this context, it is worth to recall the dictum of Mahatma Gandhi that we have suffi-cient resources to meet the needs of all; but not to cater to the greed of anyone. But unfortunately, the prevailing capitalist system sanctifies ‘greed’ in the form of ‘global marketisation’.

As sustainable energy has minimum threats to environment, it may be qualified as ‘green energy’. As its potential is infinite, it may also be viewed as the energy of the future.

The sustainable energy sources include sun, wind, sea and bio-energy. Most of these sources may be considered ‘global commons’. So all the members of human society have a natural right over their use. Most of them also have unlimited energy supply potential.

The Ministry of Non-Renewable Energy Sources (MNES) of the Government of India has estimated that 126 Gigawatts of power generation capacity is available in the country from sustainable energy sources in the long-run. The following table gives the break-up of each source.

Table 1: Technical Potential for Sustainable Energy 

Technologies Potential

Biogas plants 12 million Nos

Biomas 17,000 MW

Improved wood stoves 120 x 106nos

Solar energy 20 MW/km2

Small hydro 10 GW

Wind 20 GW

Ocean energy 50 GW

Wave power 20 GW

Tidal power 9 GW

Source: Compiled from MNES Reports.

1. Bio-matter and Bio-gas energy

Bio-matter or biomass in the form of bio-wastes is an ideal source for generating bio-gas. India as a country tops in the world in bowaine population. So the potential for gobar gas production is very high. The estimated potential for baggage conversion in India is approximately 3500 MW.

Gas production from biomass is also a blessing in disguise, as it facilitates waste disposal which is a burning issue in modern times. In Kerala, there is a potential source of biogas in the form of wastes emanating when latex is processed into rubber sheets. Most of the latex processing units in the State, especially the rubber producing societies, are only partially utilising it just for drying sheets.

2. Wind Energy

Wind turbines have been used for household electricity generation in conjunction with battery storage over many decades in remote areas. Generator units of more than 1 MW are now functioning in several countries. The power output is a function of the cube of the wind speed; so such turbines require a wind in the range three to 25 metres/second (11-90 km/hr). Wind power is the most used renewable source of power in India with an installed capacity of 1736 MW.

3. Solar Energy

India being a tropical country, enormous potential is there for solar energy. Three types of solar systems exist: (a) residential/ commercial solar heating, b) solar process heat and thermal electric generation, and c) photo volatics. Solar energy can be used for lighting, heating, cooking and the like. It could substitute the consumption of kerosene, electricity etc.

4. Tidal Energy

Harnessing the tides in a bay or estuary has been achieved in France and Russia. In India this potential is meagre.

5. Wave Energy

Harnessing power form wave motion is a possibility which might yield much more energy than tides in India.

6. Small Hydro Energy

The best developed form of hydropower is electricity generation from falling water. Rainfall-furnished waste-supply and pull of gravity provide the basic driving force. Higher the drop of water at a site (head) and larger the quantum of falls, greater will be the potential energy.

In India there has been stiff opposition to mega hydel projects as these displace a large number of people from their original habitat and destroy the flora and fauna. As small hydro projects do only minimum harm, these are preferred to big projects.

The usual features of small hydropower projects are a water diversion structure and a powerhouse. The dam or diversion structure is used to channel some or all of the river or stream flow though the power house turbines which run dynamos to generate electricity. Small hydropower units are generally of two categories; a) storage scheme, in which a dam creates a pond upstream either for water storage or to increase the head immediately available at the site by rising the water level on the upstream; and b) the run-of-river scheme with a small diversion structure whose potential relies on steepness of the site or the velocity of water flow.

In India small hydropower projects have an estimated potential of 10,000 MW. The Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources have examined 2679 sites that have potential capacities of up to three MW each. It estimates that such small power projects could represent one per cent of the likely installed capacity of India by the year 2015. Since India is bestowed with abundant water potential of which nearly 75 per cent remains untapped and since major hydroelectric projects face so much criticism and protests on environmental grounds, small hydro projects have a significant role to play in tapping the unutilised water potential of the nation.

The North-Eastern region, the Southern Indian States, particularly Kerala and Karnataka, are treasures of small hydro projects. Such projects are again classified as small, mini and micro schemes: schemes upto one MW capacity are considered as micro hydel projects, schemes with installed capacities ranging between one to two MW are regarded as mini hydel projects and schemes with capacity less than 25 MW are considered small schemes. The mini and micro hydel schemes can be constructed on streams in hilly areas and canals in plains. Schemes in hilly areas serve the function of meeting local needs of isolated areas while the schemes in plains can serve the irrigation or water supply purposes. Storage schemes in plains can serve the irrigation or water supply purposes. Storage schemes and run-of-the-river schemes have their own wide spectrum of purposes

IV. Neo-liberalism and Sustainable Energy 

Though India has enormous prospects for the promotion of sustainable energy, neo-liberal energy policies are blocking these. Neo-liberal policies are formulated by a triple alliance that is alliance by foreign capital, national private capital and State capital. The main stake holders of these policies are foreign corporations and national corporations like the Reliance. In the neo-liberal era, they have even succeeded in displacing the administered pricing mechanism of such energy sources like petroleum. With monopoly marketing mechanism these fuel inflation and heap miseries on the life of the ordinary people. Under neo-liberalism corrup-tion is mounting in India. The Indian state has become so soft that it is unable to overcome this riddle. In recent times we hear a lot of cases of corruption that are largely related to conven-tional energy sources like coal, oil and gas. The nascent Delhi Government fell on this ground.

V. Decentralised Political Economy for Sustainable Energy and Inclusive Human Development

A decentralised political economic approach is quite inevitable in the promotion of sustainable energy as well as inclusive human development. The 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Indian Constitution facilitated it through the establish-ment of local governments. Political decentra-lisation along with decentralised economic planning can bring about these goals. The Gandhian idea of relative self-reliance can be a valuable guide on this score. The drive towards self-reliance has to start from house-holds (grassroots) upwards. Appropriate technologies are now available to tap such sustainable energy sources like bio-wastes and solar at different levels of human society. In Kerala we have a number of such success cases. But the ‘political will’ of our government at all levels is extremely significant for its universalisation.

VI. Conclusion

In this paper, we tried to underline the great need to harvest sustainable energy sources which are renewable and non-polluting. The future energy of India as well as the world has to be sought in these sources. If we have a balanced use of renewable and non-renewable energy resources, then we can conserve energy for the future. But the political will of our great democracy is critically important in its reali-sation. Let us think and hope positively.

Prof (Dr) V. Mathew Kurian is the Joint Director, K.N. Raj Centre, M.G. University, Kottayam (Kerala).

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