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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : A new energy paradigm

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Sunday, December 24, 2000


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A new energy paradigm

A powerfully symbolic trophy graces the home of Prof. A.K.N. Reddy in Bangalore. It is a clear glass ball covered by four protective, translucent petals. The ball is mounted on a wooden block cut in the shape of a book. This is the Volvo Environment Prize sculpture awarded to Prof. Reddy and his colleagues in October this year, for their work on "environmentally sound solutions to global energy needs".

Here is a holistic view of how to provide for the energy needs of all without destroying the ecological balance or borrowing millions of dollars for power projects. Yet, the news about this Prize and its significance has got surprisingly little attention in India. This is inspite of the fact that India's impending "energy crisis" is frequently in the news.

It is clear that meeting the energy needs of everyone is essential for prosperity. This need is usually seen in terms of lakhs of megawatts of electricity required in the years to come. There is then a sense of panic about how to raise the money and material means to meet this projected deficit. There follows a scramble to raise direct foreign investment for power projects and disregard environmental and social considerations.

This is known as the old supply-sided paradigm. With this approach, the magnitude of energy consumed per capita is seen as an indicator of the country's "progress". Thus, as Prof. Reddy has often pointed out, "the world continues to seek energy to satisfy its needs without giving due consideration to the social, environmental, economic and security impacts of its use.... Present trends in energy pose serious barriers to the goals of sustainable development and poverty eradication." The conventional paradigm has also left over two billion people in the world without access to modern energy systems.

The new paradigm aims to change all this. The energy "crisis" could be turned into an engine of growth that truly enhances livelihood levels of people at the lowest end of the economic ladder. The "how" of this has been the creative quest of four scientists, from different corners of the world, who have together led the International Energy Initiative (IEI) for the last 20 years.

The IEI was founded as a research network by Prof. Jose Goldemberg of Brazil, Prof. Thomas B. Johansson of Sweden, Dr. Robert H. Williams of the U.S. and Prof. Reddy. This team, sometimes jokingly referred to as the "Gang of Four", has been collectively conferred the Volvo Prize this year. This Prize, instituted in 1988 by the Volvo company in Sweden, honours the holistic approach to development and environmental work. The glass ball trophy symbolises our common responsibility to treasure our fragile planet.

The driving concern of this team has been that the human dimensions of energy are as important as the technological. Speaking on behalf of the whole team, Prof. Reddy said in his acceptance speech that: "We were acutely sensitive to the environmental impacts of energy production and use....This unity of perspective and values was enriched by the diversity arising from differences in our backgrounds, culture, experience and expertise. As a result, we produced together what none of us could have produced alone."

Their approach is rooted in the conviction that energy needs cannot be met in isolation from other human problems. Instead, energy itself can be "an instrument for advancing economically viable, need-oriented self-reliant and environmentally sound development" says Prof. Reddy.

The paradigm promoted by this team emphasises energy services as opposed to total energy consumption. This means looking distinctly at all the varied forms in which energy is needed - for cooking, for heat, for industrial production, for transport and so on. These needs are then sought to be met through a combination of means using renewable resources, efficiency improvements and new technologies that can enable developing countries to "leapfrog" by avoiding the mistakes of the developed world. This vision was incorporated in the influential "Brundtland Report" which lead to the landmark Earth Summit at Rio de Janerio in 1992.

The new paradigm demands, one, that energy consumption is not equated with growth. This means that energy consumption would no longer be a criteria for judging the size and worth of an economy. Two, it means acknowledging that the world's energy problems cannot be solved without changes in the life-styles in the industrialised countries.

Three, it emphasises that information technology and decentralised energy systems can enhance people's participation and thus ensure universal access to affordable modern energy services. Introduction of such energy systems in rural areas would lead to a dramatic improvement in the quality of life.

Four, it demands the establishment and maintenance of a level playing field for different forms of energy generation. This would mean eliminating subsidies by accounting for the, so far hidden, social and environmental costs in energy pricing. In the absence of this, fossil fuels and nuclear energy will continue to seem economically more attractive.

Thus the new paradigm also requires the promotion and safeguarding of genuine competition. It therefore visualises a key role not only for the private sector but also for all stake- holders - that is, environmentalists as well as current and potential consumers. This is to be supported by regulatory processes which are low-cost or no-cost to the government.

Today all this is technologically possible. As Prof. Reddy wrote in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in December 1999: " The exciting developments are the availability of 100 kilowatt micro-turbines and 10 megawatt biomass integrated gasifier combined cycle turbines. Biomass-based generation of fuels to run fuel cells is an attractive long-term option particularly because there are possibilities of generating surplus base-load power that can be exported from rural areas to urban metropolises."

In India, Prof. Reddy is best known for his pioneering work as convener of ASTRA - the Centre for Application of Science and Technology to Rural Areas - at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He also taught at this Institute for 21 years, till 1991. He has also applied this paradigm to offer alternative scenarios for major Indian projects, like the Kaiga nuclear power plant, the Sardar Sarvor Project on the Narmada River and the Enron power project in Maharashtra. This work has given him a leadership role among the small community of scientist-activists who are working for a paradigm shift in India. Recently a group of such colleagues honoured Prof. Reddy at a workshop held in Mumbai.

"Twenty years ago what we said seemed like counter-culture but it is now taken as common wisdom," says Prof. Reddy. But this is more true of the West and the Volvo Prize is a further indication of this. Within India many of the energy efficiency devices and renewable energy systems, that he has campaigned for over the last two decades, are already in use in certain areas. Yet the mindset of the decision makers remains unchanged and the new paradigm has not made a significant impact on macro-policy.

According to Prof. Reddy the "the absence of debate in energy is a reflection of the general lack of debate and dissent." A holistic debate is also hampered by the fact that energy is organisationally compartmentalised and spread over various ministries - power, petroleum, coal, railways and so on.

Yet Prof. Reddy cautions against despair because there is often a long gestation period between the articulation of a paradigm and its full acceptance. Today he is looking for new people who have the capability, values and courage to carry the alternative paradigm forward. He acknowledges that the future is difficult but stresses that the present is unsustainable. But then he adds: "Fortunately ideas are powerful and when they become visionary messages capturing the hearts and minds of the people, mighty empires crumble and powerful structures collapse."

RAJNI BAKSHI

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