Why India Doesn't Need World Bank Energy Funding

Matilda Lee, The Ecologist
Friday, June 3, 2011

Ahead of the release of the World Bank's revised energy strategy, the Ecologist speaks to sustainable development advocate Srinivas Krishnaswamy about why despite huge gigawatt power projects, 45 per cent of India's households still lack electricity

Does India need the World Bank?
Not really, if you are looking at funding from the World Bank for energy projects. The World Bank does not directly fund both of the energy projects coming up in India. Some of it is coming from the IFC but then you have the private sector also investing heavily into energy infrastructure.

When it comes to other infrastructure like rail networks and so on I guess to a certain extent World Bank funding would help, but it is not absolutely essential. If tomorrow the World Bank decided to stop lending to India I don't think it would affect us in a big way, unlike it possibly would with smaller economies.

The main focus of the World Bank should be energy access. In the last 10 years, close to about 23,000 megawatts of conventional power generation was added to the country. But if you look at how much went to energy access to poor people, it would add up to 500 or a maximum of 700 megawatts. Where have the rest gone?

The focus should be on renewable energy systems, and the size should go down from large-scale gigawatt sized to scaling up kilowatts, small systems that actually work. It needs to be framed in the language of energy access and poverty alleviation.

There needs to be a distinction between electricity and energy. Energy access is not just a lightbulb, but providing access to lighting and heating requirements. In terms of renewable sources, for example, biogas has huge potential to take care of cooking and heating requirements. Thermal applications work well for space heating, particularly in areas Himalayan based, which can get cold.

What is the right energy mix for India?
Currently it is largely coal dominated, close to about 67 per cent of our energy comes from coal, hydro is about 25 per cent, renewables about 10 per cent and nuclear accounts for 4 per cent.
What would be an ideal mix would be to have 60 per cent renewables and in this I don't include large hydro. Large hydro would be out of the renewable energy mix. I would say about 25 per cent large hydro because they plants already exist. I would reduce coal from 67 per cent down to 15-20 per cent. Technically, today we have 4 per cent of installed capacity for nuclear, but in terms of generation is it hardly anything - most of the plants are much below the optimal generation.

How strong is the opposition to nuclear power in India?
The opposition is now pretty strong especially after what happened in Japan. From the beginning there was quite a lot of opposition from civil society groups. It so happens that some of the new nuclear power plants are coming up in areas that are in high seismic zones. In India the entire country is demarcated into various zones based on the seismic disturbance levels. Zone 5 is the highest and some of the new nuclear power plants are coming up in zone 5.

With the exception of most of the other nuclear power plants are coming up in coastal areas. For example, near in the south east of India, near Chennai in the south east of the country - one of the nuclear power plants - I was then working for Greenpeace and we went there when to see what impacts it had had. The whole thing is so hush-hush in India and shrouded in secrecy - very little actually came out. There were some reports saying that a few people died but that that it wasn't because of radiation.

Nevertheless, the nuclear industry in India, because it's largely government controlled is very much shrouded in secrecy. There is very little information coming out, one has to do a lot of snooping for information.

How can we scale up and deliver a local energy grid when so many people live so remotely?
That's the reason why there needs to be a greater focus for a decentralised, renewable energy grid system rather than large gigawatt-scale conventional grid power system.

Just as a brief background of the energy situation in India we are close to about 100,000 villages that need to be electrified, close to about 45 per cent of all households in India do not have access to electricity. Most of these 100,000 villages are in remote areas. The options that would be best suited for them would be decentralised, renewable energy mini grid system. In rural areas that would be easier potentially to connect to the grid, what is actually happening is that the electricity being generated is prioritised for urban supply and for industrial supply. Access is already an issue.

In fact in today's rural areas, the power supply in the so-called electrified villages the power supply ranges anywhere from 2 hours a day, to a best-case scenario of 12-14 hours a day. There is absolutely no 24-hour power supply in almost 90-95 per cent of India's villages. Even in cities, in peak summer, with peak demand, there are on average power cuts of about 2 to 4 hours, on a daily basis.

If you are looking at the supply - the quality and quantity - makes fails to actually have decentralised, renewable energy systems. You do have good examples and some projects on the ground, which prove that renewable energy systems actually do work. Unfortunately you have a project here and a project there. We need to look at more scaled-up and at more replication. That is not really happening.

Does the environment play second fiddle to development?
I see them going hand in hand. I really don't' think that development should comes at the cost of the environment. Unfortunately, in a lot of developing countries, the main aim is they go by the GDP. For instance, India wants to go by a GDP growth of 8 per cent per annum for the next 20 odd years. China is our role model; China is already at 10 per cent.

The government's mindset is that if you add up on energy and infrastructure then 8 or 9 per cent growth is possible. But it is infrastructure come what may. We need to shift the current development paradigm to something that is more sustainable.

Is it safe to be an environmental activist in India?
[Laughs]. Yes, there are instances, for example two weeks back there was firing at environmental activists for protesting against coal-fired power plants in Arhrana Prasesh, in the south of India. You also have instances of activists being jailed on phony charges and imprisoned for days, months, even years.

But having said that, I was working at Greenpeace for many years and I've seen how other countries work in Europe. Probably not easy in other countries.

More than that we have opposition from certain groups such as the coal mafia - if you were going to do a campaign against coal mining in some states in the East, the coal bed - you are more to be put down by the coal mafia than the government. But then there are cases where both of them work hand in hand.

The coal lobby is very powerful. But we have great examples of activism - the anti-dam movement, huge in India, a lot of activists there.

Srinivas Krishnaswamy is the founder of the Vasudha Foundation, which campaigns on renewable energy and energy efficiency and alternative technologies on a grassroots level. He was Greenpeace India's first head of the Climate and Energy Campaign and in 2009 later with Greenpeace International as a Climate Policy Advisor

Srinivas' organisation Visudha has set up an eco village in Jharkand, in the north east of the country, which supplies 50 households with bio fuel. This change of power is more sustainable, creating fuel out of dung and vegetable cuttings and has transformed their homes, as they are no longer polluted by smoky stoves. Srinivas believes these types of eco village require involvement from the Indian government rather than being funded by foreign aid.