The President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (who is, quite literally, a rocket scientist), made a major speech this week on the future of energy in India. The presentation (available in full here) covers the current status of India's energy production and consumption, and looks at what needs to be done to make India energy independent by 2030. It's a sometimes surprising mix of ambitious high-tech green endeavors and an almost stubborn continuation of traditional fossil energy sources. It provides an interesting comparison to the 2005 Energy Act just passed in the United States -- similar in some regards, dramatically different in others, but still clinging tightly to the old models of centralized production and control over energy.
Those who have been following India's back room reluctance to participate in post-Kyoto restrictions on greenhouse gases won't be surprised that the closest Dr. Kalam gets to discussing global warming is a vague mention that "the climate of the globe as a whole is changing." He has good reason not to want to touch the carbon issue -- he sees the bulk of electricity production coming from coal, albeit largely from coal gasification. As a result, there's a pretty robust scenario painting India -- not China or the US -- as the main greenhouse gas emitter of the first quarter of the century, and Kalam's proposals do nothing to dispel that fear. It's interesting that China's government seems more ready to address the environmental dangers of coal use than the Indian government; the silver lining to this acid raincloud is that, as a democratic polity, India is in a better position to vote in a government willing to grapple with the problem than China would be if its leadership was more intransigent.
But the Indian energy plan isn't just coal and self-delusion about carbon.
Kalam pushes solar as a key part of the 2030 energy independence plan, with an interesting twist: he links it to the agricultural sector, both for powering farms and for desalination plants to bring in fresh water. He ties in nanotechnology research -- something that India has already embraced -- to a drive to improve solar efficiencies. (Interestingly, while the chart accompanying the section on solar suggests that it would be used to produce hydrogen for fuel cells, Kalam only mentions it in passing in his speech.) Other less traditional sources of electricity include power from burning municipal waste and the introduction of thorium-based nuclear power plants. India has a greater supply of thorium than uranium, but what makes this proposal interesting is that thorium can't be used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material (I've been talking with a NASA researcher looking at thorium reactors, and will have a post on the subject soon). If India was to develop expertise in the development of thorium reactors (which also can have, depending upon use, more easily contained and handled wastes), it would be an interesting new twist in the question of nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the developing world.
Finally, the most interesting part of the speech has to bee Dr. Kalam's lengthy discussion of an aggressive move to Jatropha-based biofuels for transportation.
India has a potential to produce nearly 60 million tones of bio-fuel annually, thus making a significant and important contribution to the goal of Energy Independence. Indian Railways has already taken a significant step of running two passenger locomotives (Thanjavur to Nagore section) and six trains of diesel multiple units (Tiruchirapalli to Lalgudi, Dindigul and Karur sections) with a 5% blend of bio-fuel sourced from its in-house esterification plants.[...] What is needed is a full economic chain from farming, harvesting, extraction to esterification, blending and marketing. Apart from employment generation, bio-fuel has a significant potential to lead our country towards energy independence.
Jatropha appears to be the go-to plant for biofuel production, and while India is already making small amounts of biodiesel with it, other producers in Africa and the Middle East are adopting it as well.
Dr. Kalam's energy independence speech is by no means an indicator that India is on the path to a bright green future; in many ways, it foreshadows India going through a particularly difficult transition in the years to come. But in light of the recent debates in the United States over energy policy, it's interesting to see how a rapidly developing country deals with similar problems. Dr. Kamal's speech is a useful gauge of where India sees its energy future -- and where the Indian government still has blind spots.