Key Challenges of Energy & The Future
We talk to Dr Vibha Dhawan, Director General at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) about the key energy challenges businesses are facing today and gain her views on what the future could hold in terms of energy.
Giles: Well, here we are today doing another Future Business interview looking at the sustainability issues for businesses and energy. And I’m here with Dr. Dhawan. I wonder if you’d like to introduce yourself to us, Dr. Dhawan, and explain who you work for and what your work involves, and then we can look at some questions.
Dr. Dhawan: Okay. Well, I’m Dr. Vibha Dhawan, working with TERI for over 35 years now. And I’m basically a plant biotechnologist and also work in the area of biofuels. So for all these years, I am basically a researcher working starting with plant tissue culture, plant molecular biology, then got into biofuels and also now managing the Energy and Resources Institute. Some of you might be knowing, TERI, because we are going to be completing years, two years from now. So it’s an old Institute which was set up by the Tata Group of companies as a nonprofit research organization. And the objective of TERI was to work on problems that mankind is going to face in the future. So therefore, we were early voices or rather an Institute which started working on renewable energy way back in or early s, so we are working in that domain. And perhaps we were the early voices for climate change. And one of the things that I would like to bring to notice that much before the world started talking about climate change, when India completed years of its independence in, TERI brought out a book, or rather, we looked into that if you continue business as usual, what is going to be the scenario in when we complete years of our independence? So that’s not something that we wanted to create a scare in the minds of people. It was that we look at development cannot stop, but there are better options for everyone to follow and cleaner options. So much before the world started talking about use of renewable energy and net zero and so on, we actually started talking about it in India. Okay. As an Institute and as I said, we are not for profit. So in a way, we don’t make money into whatever we develop. And at the same time, I should say that we lead the world in terms of what research is to be done because we have to generate every penny that we spend on research. So therefore, our research is in the areas which the society demands.
Giles: Fantastic. Well, I wonder if I can dive into some specific questions. And thanks for the introduction. That’s very helpful for our business readers. I wonder if you can tell us what you consider to be the key energy challenges facing business today, and perhaps we really probably should link that into the situation which is happening in Ukraine as well in terms of oil and gas and perhaps the geopolitics that’s involved there as well to be in with.
Dr. Dhawan: Yeah. See, when we talk of energy challenges, I’ll say that perhaps India has faced much more than the rest of the world. The energy prices, like in terms of our affordability, it’s very high in India compared to many countries in the west. It’s also that not every village in India, of course, our Prime Minister had taken that initiative. But there were villages and still many where energy exists from conventional sources is a problem. And therefore, you can also say that if we want to develop India, the development also has to come from the rural India and their energy security is essential for their development. The other unfortunate part with our country is we don’t have fossil fuels with us and therefore, our dependence on conventional fuels, getting it from outside, it is very expensive. And to some extent, it’s that we are spending so much for an exchange in getting that energy, that becomes a challenge. It’s not just the price, it’s also that you have to ensure that it’s available every day kind of. So energy security becomes a major issue. But I’m very glad and the way the things are coming up, renewables are becoming extremely important. And more than important, I’ll say they are becoming affordable. Okay. When we talk of solar, it’s not something new. But then there was always a price issue. And all the time we were calculating what’s going to be the payback period. So if you invest on photovoltaics, you are trying to put something in, how many years will you recover that cost? India is also the best country in terms of solar energy, solar energy radiation, that’s very high. And number of sunny days we have in the year that can actually take care of, I should say, major energy needs. And it’s everything. It’s not just solar. Somewhere we can put wind, somewhere we can put geothermal hydro power. So there are so many options with the renewables available.
Giles: Fantastic. This is interesting because I was going to ask you whether you think renewables, my next question was about whether you think renewables can scale up quickly enough to hit net zero targets for, let’s say around those kind of time scales. It’s a big transition to make. I wonder what do you think this is realistic with the scale up and the renewables in India?
Dr. Dhawan: You may say I’m a very optimistic person and therefore, my answer will be that perhaps we will achieve it much before . Okay. And because, see, it is that I always say it’s like a car. So it takes little more ignition when you get started. And we have overcome that phase. We are at the phase of expansion now. Let’s look at like, okay, there was teething problems photovoltaics to begin with, that was quite expensive. But now the cost of even setting up a solar had come down. We also know how to use it. We are also talking about a sort of moveable so that you can move from one form to the other to meet your energy needs. And also once you have generated that energy, transmission was a problem. So if you can transmit it to far off places, you have overcome most of the hurdles. So therefore, making investments as well as applying that, we know now what to do. So therefore, it’s going to be much faster. Fantastic. Are there any particular new energy technologies that you feel are likely to be a major part of that? Are we really looking at what we consider to be fairly standard renewables, whether that’s solar resource or wind resources? I don’t know whether India has much tidal resource or wave resource, actually. At some places, we do have At some places, we do have. Also, we can utilize that as well at some places. And that’s what I said. It’s going to vary from region to region. If you look at some mix of technologies, we have many, and we are also looking at hydrogen in a big way, because not all industries can use solar. So therefore, depending on the end use application, there has to be a basket of various technologies and we are moving in that direction. So I’m very confident because there are two things. One is that the industry or different stakeholders should be interested in that, and the other is political bills, because whatever announcements were made by our Prime Minister at Glasgow, indirectly it was that what you are doing today as voluntary, perhaps will become mandatory tomorrow. So you require the entire ecosystem, starting from what the government wants or in which direction they would like to move, then is the industry. And also like all stakeholders, because the climate change impact of higher CO2, all those things in late s or early of this, earlier in this century, we were taking it, it is a threat. Today, it is no more a threat, It’s a reality. And therefore, even if you ask a small child, what kind of energy would you like to use, the one which emits CO2, or would you like to go for a cleaner energy option? The answer would be cleaner energy option, and therefore, there is a market and there is a will. So therefore, you have all the ingredients, right. From availability of the technology to the usage of technology. So we are moving in the right direction, and I should say pretty fast.
Giles: Fantastic. It’s just a question which does interest me. Is there much of a nuclear role in the picture for future energy in India, and is that something which is considered to be a low carbon solution where you guys are?
Dr Dhawan: Yeah, it’s my personal experience. I’m not speaking on behalf of the government or anyone. I personally feel nuclear has a very important role for energy security for a country like India. And we should have actually adopted it about a decade ago. We should really go for it. Even today, it makes a lot of sense because if I look at my country, I’ll say there is so much of potential. We talk of young population and all of us we have to work towards, we need to work and therefore energy security at an affordable price is key to our success. And nuclear will play an important role.
Giles: Okay, fantastic. That’s interesting to me as well purely because I think one of the things we see with nuclear in the UK has to do with just the fact that once it’s on and it’s powered up, you have that baseline supply which the renewables are not necessarily always going to provide, depending on how much the wind is blowing or the sun shining. And so obviously then that leads into questions to do with the flexibility of the grid and trying to balance the energy we use and the energy we store and all those kind of elements. So I can see that nuclear makes sense in that picture. I wonder if just to begin to close up my questions, I suspect you’re going to say yes, given you’re an optimistic person. But I wonder whether you think a zero emissions energy world is a realistic future possibility, or I suppose what people might tend to frame a carbon neutral world and perhaps round up the conversation by telling me a bit about how you see that set up in India as well.
Dr Dhawan: Sure. See, when we are talking of net zero or carbon neutral, it is that a country like India, we still haven’t peaked The development has to take place. Even in terms of total energy usage, it’s not even % off the developed part of the world, the energy usage by our population. If we look at industrialization, even that has to go up. So therefore, in terms of carbon emissions, perhaps in years to come, we are going to go up a bit and then the decline or stabilization and thereafter the decline is going to happen. To me, it is not that every industry we can say it is going to be net zero. On industrial, each industry basis there are going to be some part, some production units where you can never, ever achieve net zero. Sure. It is that on an industry basis it will not, for every industry to achieve that goal may not be feasible unless we really change the technologies completely and we shift to hydrogen and all those things. But maybe not in next, years or in my lifetime. But what is also required is what do you do with whatever CO2 is being generated? Can we utilize it gainfully and over there and when I say gainfully, it is that even if you go for carbon credits, why can’t we make similar investments in increasing biomass production in the forest? So if you can double your biomass or that it is a win-win situation, it’s absorbing CO is giving oxygen. So therefore we also have to look into how do you take care of whatever emissions are there? And that is the way you can go to net zero. You are saying to you, okay, whatever I have generated, I have taken care of that. It is fixed as well.
Giles: Fantastic. Thanks so much. That makes a really good sense. And I think it’s fascinating for our business readers to get a good understanding of the energy situation in India and how that specifically relates to business as well and the corporate side of things. I wonder if there’d be anything you’d like to mention just to close our interview, perhaps looking at any changes you might like to see coming in India in the next decade or so in terms of energy or perhaps just close by telling us a little bit about how you see India looking as country in terms of its energy in ten years time.
Dr Dhawan: As I mentioned to you, unfortunately we don’t have any fossil fuels. So anyway, I’ll just look into one is necessity. So as a country there is so much of necessity. We don’t have fossil fuels. Even warning Ukraine, I should say that it is. The only thing is we are just coming out of COVID and while there are already pressures on top of it, the energy, if it becomes more expensive, each one of us is going to suffer. So therefore it definitely calls for that as a country we have to move towards energy security. The other part which I’ll say that we are missing at the global level that this recognition of that we only have one planet to live is still not there. What I mean by that is that technologies are available. Many technologies are available which also calls for investment to be made and those investments, one is not saying for any of the developing countries, including India, we are not saying that give grant, but at the same time whatever promises are made in COP, those funds should be made available at least as soft loans rather the big companies who have technology, rather than charging high license fee or giving it to few select ones, why can’t it be that we all have to beat the same year that let’s look into and share that technology. Another component which I feel is extremely important is that technologies, it is not something like not involved. Even if you bring a new car to another country, you require mechanics who will fix it up because there are going to be problems. So with new technologies also there are going to be problems. So capacity building to adopt new technologies becomes extremely important. And to some extent it’s also fine tuning of the technology to meet local needs. So over there also I personally feel that rather than reinventing the broken wheels, what we need to do is we need to complete that wheel and make it move in different parts of the globe. So this way, if we want it’s not saved the planet, if we want to save the human beings because planet will do very well without us. We have seen it in COVID time how clean the sky was and bright the stars were looking and the Rivers were so clean. So the planet will do very well without us but we can’t do without taking care of those things so that is to be recognized by all the inhabitants of this planet. Learn to share to make it a place where all of us can live with peace and happiness because see money can’t buy here. So it is only that when you are on ventilator you can buy that with money but otherwise to breathe every day you want cleaner and therefore whatever technologies have been developed, it is responsibility of each one of us to ensure that those technologies are available to all at an affordable price so that for our next generation we leave a better planet.
Giles: Brilliant, thank you so much Dr. Dhawan, I think that’s a very pleasant poignant note to finish on actually. It’s always good to remember the key bottom line of what these things are about. It’s all about looking after one another and bequeathing a reasonable planet to our children I think, isn’t it? So that’s a really positive way to end our interview. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you and I hope we can talk again soon. Thank you. Brilliant. Thank you.
Dr Dhawan: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed discussing with you. Thank you.
Giles: Brilliant. That’s a pleasure. Thank you.
Dr Dhawan: Bye bye.
Giles: Bye now.