In the Dark – India’s Energy Crisis

12 September, 2014

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By Rachita Mehrotra

Repeated failures by India’s energy sector have proven that the world’s second largest country needs to make changes to meet growing demand. Take the consecutive power cuts in July 2012, for example, which resulted in over 650 million people across 20 of India’s then 28 states experiencing power failures when 3 of the country’s 5 electricity grids failed. In West Bengal hundreds of miners were trapped underground when their elevators stopped running, in a hospital outside New Delhi nurses had to manually perform life saving medical procedures when their backup generators failed and across the country passengers were trapped on thousands of miles of railway track. And more recently on September 2, 2014, Mumbai, the country’s financial capital, and surrounding suburbs were hit by large-scale unprecedented power outages.

For a country that has been able to develop nuclear weapon technology and design the Mars Orbiter for USD69 million – less than the budget of Hollywood film Gravity – unreliable energy has proven to be India’s Achilles heel. With India poised to be the most populous country in the world and an economic superpower, an unstable energy sector has raised concerns about the country’s infrastructure and the government’s ability to meet the rising demand for electricity.

India is the 4th largest energy consumer in the world and as of 2013, the 4th largest consumer of crude oil and petroleum products. According to the Ministry of Commerce, crude oil accounts for over 30% of India’s total imports and the country spent USD143 billion on its import in 2013.

As an example of how dire the situation is, companies like Tata Motors, Reliance Industries Ltd and others cumulatively spent roughly 1.6 trillion rupees (USD29 billion) to shield their plants from the national grid and against the electricity disruptions that plague the rest of the country.

India has repeatedly struggled to tackle the issues of unreliable electricity but the new government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has pledged to provide stability to the sector. Alternative forms of energy are being explored to provide sustainability while balancing the disproportion between the supply and demand of natural resources in the county. While wind, solar, hydro and natural gas are being explored as possible energy sources, the technology is still far from being able to meet the demand of a country the size of India. However, there is a higher energy-generating alternative – nuclear energy.

After having sanctions against it lifted, India’s nuclear program has finally lost its pariah status and the country is keen to explore and develop its nuclear energy initiatives. The landmark project, the prototype of the world’s first thorium fueled nuclear reactor, is set to be built in 2016. The 300-megawatt reactor is in the second stage of India’s three-stage nuclear program and by 2050; over 25% of the country’s renewable energy is to be supplied using this technology.

India has one of the world’s largest thorium reserves and effectively generating power using this safer and more abundant material would be a breakthrough for the energy sector. Advocates of this fuel say that it more environmentally friendly than coal and oil since it does not release carbon dioxide and unlike uranium the nuclear reaction does not produce weapons grade plutonium. Using a thorium fuel cycle also dramatically reduces the quantity of nuclear waste produced as compared with uranium. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, “Thorium fuel has better thermal and physical properties as well as irradiation performance than uranium fuel”.

The prototype is to be constructed along the southeast coast of India in Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu where thorium can found in the form of monazite, a mineral containing rare earth metals, on the beaches. While using thorium to generate nuclear energy is by no means a new idea – the United States has in the past produced promising research on thorium reactors but abandoned this in favor of uranium – this would be the first successful implementation of the technology.

The success of the thorium reactor could potentially reduce the financial burden that India currently faces as a result of its heavy reliance on imported materials such as crude oil and petroleum while at the same time offering much needed energy security by developing its domestic energy capacity. In addition to this, a stable energy supply could offer a more attractive environment for investors as they would not be at the mercy of an unreliable electricity grid and overall quality of life across the country could improve dramatically.

It is however important to note that the successful production of power does not by itself mean that India will be able to effectively deliver this across the country and offer it at an affordable price – additional infrastructure such as power lines and substations, would also have to be put in place.

While India is still a ways off from making nuclear energy a reality, the overall benefit for the country as well as the energy sector would be monumental, offering an alternative form of low carbon energy which India is much in need of.

Could this high energy, environmentally friendly technology provide the answer that India is looking for?