Navigating the Energy Transition: India’s Path to Net Zero Emissions

Introduction:

In recent years, the global community has witnessed the dire consequences of climate change, with extreme weather events like cyclone Biparjoy leaving their mark on coastal regions of India and Pakistan. Fortunately, these events haven’t resulted in major loss of life. However, it’s crucial to recognize that last year’s devastating floods in Pakistan were far more severe, underscoring the urgency of addressing climate-related challenges. Central to this urgency is the imperative for countries to transition to net zero emissions (NZE), a goal that has gained prominence due to the escalating global temperatures and the resulting pressure on the carbon budget.

Key datapoints

1)Carbon Budget and Emissions:
Roughly 80% of the global carbon budget has already been utilized by developed countries and China.
China contributed 30% of the world’s emissions in 2021, with India’s contribution at 7.27%.

Electrification and Growth:
India’s individual electricity consumption is at 1100 units, just a third of the international average.
On a global scale, electricity constitutes 20% of energy consumption, whereas in India, it’s 14%.

Estimating Future Energy Demand:
Projections for India’s forthcoming energy demand vary greatly, spanning from 3,500 to 30,000 TWhr.
In 2020, India’s energy consumption was 6292 TWhr, making a substantial reduction challenging.

The Global Carbon Budget and Emissions:

The concept of the carbon budget is simple yet pivotal: there is only a finite amount of carbon dioxide that can be emitted into the atmosphere while maintaining a safe climate. Developed countries and China have been major contributors to carbon emissions, having already consumed a staggering 80 percent of the available carbon space. Furthermore, their per capita emissions remain significantly higher than those of many other nations. China, as the largest emitter, accounted for 30 percent of global emissions in 2021, while India’s share stood at 7.27 percent. It’s important to note that China’s share is projected to increase by 2030 as the EU and the US have committed to emissions capping.

Moving Towards Net Zero Emissions:

Transitioning to a low-carbon economy entails a shift toward electrification using emission-free energy sources. However, this shift necessitates a substantial increase in electricity demand beyond historical trends. India’s per capita electricity consumption, at 1100 units, is one-third of the international average, underscoring the need for growth to bridge the development gap. Currently, electricity comprises only 20 percent of global energy consumption, a figure that dips to 14 percent in India.

Estimating Future Energy Demand:

One of the challenges in India’s energy transition is accurately estimating future energy demand. Various estimates place India’s future energy demand anywhere from 3,500 to 30,000 TWhr. This discrepancy in projections raises questions about the feasibility of drastically reducing energy consumption. NITI Aayog data indicates that India’s energy consumption in 2020 was 6292 TWhr, making it hard to envision a scenario where energy demand could be halved over two decades.

The Path to Net Zero Emissions:

The road to net zero emissions is constrained by the limited options available, primarily renewables and nuclear power. Achieving net zero emissions requires the decarbonization of multiple sectors, with the energy sector being a significant contributor. While there is room for intermediate options like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), the final energy mix will hinge on cost-effectiveness.

Renewables vs. Nuclear Power: Cost and Viability:

Renewables have long been touted as the more cost-effective option, but the actual cost often surpasses the headline tariff. Renewables, such as solar power, require Balancing power1 to account for periods of low sun or wind. These costs, absorbed by Discoms or thermal plants, push up the actual cost of renewables. In comparison, the actual cost of solar power can be higher than both thermal and nuclear options.

The Role of Nuclear Power in Achieving Net Zero:

Interestingly, the VIF-IIT Bombay study underscores that nuclear power may be the more cost-effective option to achieve NZE. Moreover, nuclear power is less land-intensive than renewables, a significant consideration in land-scarce countries like India. Reliance on renewables for NZE might require a land area twice the size of India’s current surplus land.

Challenges and Considerations Beyond 2030:

India’s target of 500 GW of renewable capacity by 2030 is a commendable step, yet the challenges extend beyond this milestone. Balancing cost, land constraints, and the need for sustainable development is critical. It’s also imperative to address the health of Discoms (distribution companies) and provide substantial support to the nuclear sector to ensure a well-rounded and effective transition strategy.

Conclusion:

In navigating India’s energy transition, it’s clear that a careful balance between renewables and nuclear power is essential. Accurate estimations, cost considerations, and thoughtful policy decisions will shape the trajectory toward net zero emissions. As we stand at the crossroads of climate change, informed choices and collaborative efforts are pivotal to securing a sustainable and prosperous future for India and the world.

Footnotes

1-Balancing power refers to the capability of a power system to adjust electricity supply and demand in real-time to maintain a stable and reliable grid. It is necessary to compensate for the variability and intermittency of certain renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power. 

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