Prepare for disruptions

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    Feb. 10 — The evolution of renewable energy technologies – battery storage, solar panels, and wind, among others – will potentially disrupt the existing energy systems around the world. Will we learn early enough and re-imagine our energy future? Or will we be stuck in mega-hydro dreams?

    Steven Chu is the Obama administration’s outgoing secretary of the United States Department of Energy. During his four years in office, he put in place one of the most ambitious but low-profile energy innovation programmes. The purpose of these programmes has been, to borrow from the Department of Energy website, “to support high-risk, high reward technology…. to swing for game-changing home runs that can fundamentally transforms energy technologies.” On February 7, during his address to the winter meeting of America’s National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, he provided hints of some of the profound – and disruptive – changes coming the way of energy systems; some of those changes as direct results of projects his agency funded. The utility companies, he said, need to be prepared for distributed production of energy.

    Battery storage technology has remained one of the major areas of focus of the US DOE’s flagship Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy. Chu predicted that the cost of battery will be around US $125/kWh – one fourth of the current US $500 – within a few years. With the cost of solar panels coming down fast over the last years, this means, according to him, energy customers in the US can be off-grid 80 percent of the time while recovering their cost of solar installation in less than three years. We know that the US is not the only player in these energy technology fields. China has invested immensely in this field. Implications of this are huge.

    For both wind and solar energy and storage has remained a very important bottleneck for years. Wind does not blow all the time, and the sun shines only during the day. This creates what energy experts call intermittency problems. The only way these energy systems could be reliable is if their intermittently-generated energy is reliably stored so that smooth flow of energy is ensured. Until not long ago, reliable battery technologies did not exist. Steven Chu has hinted at breakthrough possibilities in that regard. The key to this is battery. Changes in battery technologies will disrupt the energy systems in some profound ways.

    In the existing electricity systems, households are mere consumers. Nepal Electricity Authority, for instance, either produces most of the electricity it distributes or buys in bulk from other producers and distributes to the consumers. The role of citizens is to make demands on NEA to provide reliable electricity. With long hours of load-shedding becoming an almost permanent feature of life, there is an across the board consensus that Nepal’s rivers need to be dammed as fast as possible. Chairperson of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) Prachanda has spelled out the details of his party’s stance on electricity policy. His emphasis is on fast-paced development of energy. His deputy and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai not long ago tweeted that employment for hundreds of thousands of youth could be generated if we implemented Budhi Gandaki, West Seti and several other projects. They are not the only ones.

    For the last six decades we have sold our status as one of the world’s hydro-superpowers. However, the way renewable energy technologies are evolving, hydroelectricity might be too costly a proposition.

    The solar system creates producers out of households, with their rooftops being the production site. By its very nature, solar electricity obviates the need for labyrinthine bureaucracy that is NEA. In fact, the role of like NEA would be in creating decentralised distribution systems and not centralised grids. With the kind of battery systems being developed, very soon each household in Nepal can potentially produce its own energy.

    We must also keep in mind that generating hydroelectricity requires very large investment over a long period of time. A major hydroelectric dam – either run-of-the-river or reservoir-based – requires huge capital investment over at least a decade, with cost overruns being regular features of big projects. We often do not calculate the cost in terms of the loss of fish, or displacement of people living in villages surrounding the project areas. If we go by the experience of India, major hydroelectric projects also involve increased societal conflicts. Tens of thousands of people will be displaced from West Seti alone. What do we do if people refuse to leave their villages? Add to that the question of water availability from glacier melts when glaciers are receding fast due to increased global warming.

    Instead of banking on mega-projects, we will be far better off if we focus on decentralised possibilities generated by rapid emergence of renewable technology systems. The energy model based on centralised production is going to be obsolete very soon. We are witnessing profound changes all around us. We will be losers if we don’t see these coming changes and act with foresight.

    By : Anil Bhattari – anilbhattarai@gmail.com 

    Source :  Kantipur Publications Pvt. Ltd.