For India’s energy transition, will stimulus equal growth?

Newsletter - May 13, 2020

Time to pick priorities: India can maximise benefits of any stimulus intervention aimed at aiding a transition to clean energy if it is accompanied by widespread structural reforms | Photo: International Growth Centre

For India’s energy sector, a long road divides stimulation from transformation

The economic argument for increasing investments in clean energy and sustainable technologies received a massive fillip this past week. A group of renowned economists put out an extensive survey, spanning 53 countries, that highlighted the economic benefits of policies aimed at maximising investments in such technologies.

While analysing responses pertaining to the 2008 global financial crash and the stimulus packages introduced thereafter, experts found that green stimulus policies often have an advantage over traditional fiscal stimulus, both in the short and long term. While investments in renewables have lower labour requirements in the long run, investments in clean energy infrastructure, including infrastructure aimed at increasing energy efficiency, were found to generate three times as much employment as fossil fuel infrastructure projects.

The working paper prepared for the Oxford Review of Economic Policy serves as a timely cue for new fiscal stimulus packages as governments around the world scramble to push through economic recovery plans. While the calls for stimulus packages to be built around climate action have been resounding, initial evidence suggests that governments are yet to be fully convinced of moving away from conventional fiscal stimuli, which rests heavily on the fossil fuels sector. The survey also identified 300 policy measures that had been implemented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 4% of which led to a long-term reduction in GHG levels, while 92% were found to maintain a status quo in terms of emissions.

The findings of the survey are especially significant for a country like India to plan for the expected doubling of energy demand over the next 20 years. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced a massive ₹20 lakh crore package to revive the economy post the COVID-19 lockdown, a part of which is expected to go towards energy companies. But specific details are yet to be made public. 

While India has been lauded for increasing its renewable energy capacity more than three-fold over the past six years, a slowdown in capacity addition over recent months, even before the disruptions brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic, sheds light on a need to rethink critical policies and fiscal interventions. A recent analysis by IISD and CEEW on subsidy volumes shows that while subsidies for fossil fuels and renewables have both fallen in recent years, the former still commands the lion’s share of India’s subsidies. Interestingly, the current depressed oil prices provide an opening for the country to divert some of the savings on oil imports and a part of the existing fossil fuel subsidies towards renewables.

The area most ripe for transition seemingly is the impending shift from coal. Coal and thermal power have continued to look less and less lucrative for investors with every passing day. While renewable energy has reached prices that beat thermal power, investors have seen holdings in Indian coal mining and thermal power significantly below par since 2013. A recent Carbon Tracker analysis revealed that 23% of the 66GW of thermal power in the pipeline will enter the market with negative cash-flow, making them high-risk projects that will potentially add to the stress in the country’s financial and banking sectors.

While the lockdown saw plant load factors in India’s thermal power units fall to just above 50% as energy demand crashed during the lockdown, renewables proved to be a reliable source with steady generation that met a significant chunk of the demand. This experience raises the question of whether it is worth pursuing any additions to India’s coal capacity at all. Nevertheless, recent doubling down of coal production targets, opening up of the coal sector to foreign investments and the doing away of certain environmental norms in mining indicate that the Indian government is still moving forward with plans of thermal power expansion into the coming decade.

The move towards renewables, though, is also hampered by roadblocks of its own. For one, manufacturing capacity, especially with regards to solar energy, has failed to catch up to demand. The government has attempted to kickstart local manufacturing by imposing safeguard duties on imported solar cells and modules and mandating domestic content requirements. These attempts have, however, failed to spur production as investors remain spooked by frequent policy changes and rapid progress in technology. India currently imports about 80% of its solar cell and module requirements with domestic manufacturing just accounting for 3GW and 10GW for solar cells and modules respectively. According to projections, scaling up domestic projection to keep up with ambitious capacity addition targets could see the country save US$ 50-60 billion over the next 15-20 years in import bills.

Ramping up production capability is also crucial for the success of energy decentralisation schemes such as the PM KUSUM and the rooftop solar programme, which are likely to heavily influence the success of any energy transition in the country.

One daunting prospect that must be addressed is the issue of modernising the grid so that it is better prepared to absorb the intermittency of renewable power. The reliable handling of India’s recent power demand fluctuations during the lockdown has effectively demonstrated the readiness of the grid for a swift, but steady transition towards renewables. According to industry experts, the expansion of microgrids backed by renewable energy, especially in rural India, will further aid national grid performance while improving energy access.

Equally daunting is restoring the financial health of India’s power sector. While Finance Minister’s announcement of ₹90,000 crore liquidity infusion does not even cover DISCOMs’ debts towards power generating companies, troubles in generating funds for implementing agencies Power Finance Corporation Ltd and Rural Electrification Corporation Ltd is not likely to get any less messy as they eye funds from LIC and EPFO. To make matters worse, PFC and its subsidiary REC have extensively and continually lent to coal power plants that have in turn resulted in close to ₹50,000 crore in non-performing assets and impairment losses amounting ₹15,751 crore between 2014 and 2019, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Another key component of the clean transition project, which will also help bridge the uncertainties of renewable energy, is the expansion of battery storage. India must take advantage of falling battery prices and increase domestic production. This would not only help achieve the target of reaching 175 GW by 2022, but also incentivise individuals and state governments to electrify mobility as prices are driven down.

While the government is yet to divulge details of the economic stimulus package pertaining to the energy sector, the stress on domestic manufacturing and production has been unmissable. But in order for a steady transition to take form, the Indian government must pick a lane. Avoiding the fickleness that has marked India’s energy policies in recent years, and focusing on accelerating the clean energy transition remain the country’s best chance to maximise economic benefits and long-term environmental sustainability.

Climate Science

No respite: Heavy rainfall across Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Somalia has led to massive floods and several deaths | Photo: Al Jazeera

Incessant rain, massive flooding kill hundreds in East Africa

Heavy rainfall across eastern Africa – Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Somalia – has caused massive flooding and resulted in hundreds of deaths. At least 8,000 acres of crops have also been destroyed as a result of incessant rainfall since April. Landslides have also caused major damage.

The UN has already warned that a massive locust invasion coupled by the coronavirus outbreak could cause a famine of ‘biblical proportions’. More than 2,000 people have already died of the virus, while a second wave of locusts threatens the country’s food security.

A third of human population will be forced to live beyond ‘climate niche’ by 2070: Study

Climatic conditions in which human life has thrived have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years – a majority live in places where the mean annual temperature (MAT) is about 11-15°C, while a smaller population lives in areas where the average temperature is between 20-25°C. This comfort zone is called the ‘climate niche’. A new study, however, warns that global warming could change this status quo in the next 50 years.

Research by scientists from China, USA and Europe published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that if global greenhouse gas emissions are not kept in check, parts of the planet, home to one-thirds of the human population, will become as hot as the hottest parts of the Sahara by 2070.

Another study concluded that such potentially fatal combinations of heat and humidity are already appearing in parts of the world – including Asia, Africa, Australia, South America and North America. The study says while the outbreaks have been largely localised and lasted just for a few hours, there has been an increase in frequency and intensity.  

Cold air rises in tropical climate, decreases climate warming impact: Study

Warm air rises and cold air sinks – this is what conventional knowledge tells us. But a new study conducted by the University of California, Davis, found that in the tropics, cold air, in fact, rises. This is primarily because of an overlooked effect, which is the lightness of water vapour.

According to the researchers, water vapour has a buoyancy effect, which helps release the heat in the atmosphere into space, thereby decreasing the levels of warming. They believe without water vapour, warming would be much worse in the tropics. This stabilizing role that water vapour plays should be studied further to improve climate models, the researchers concluded.

Harmful algae blooms in Arabian Sea fuelled by melting Himalayan snowcaps: Study

Loss of snow in the Himalayan-Tibetan plateau region is warming the surface of the Arabian Sea and leading to the spread of green algae blooms that are so big, they can be seen from space, a new study found. Published in the journal Nature, the study made the conclusion based on images released by NASA, which show blooms of Noctiluca scintillans, also known as ‘sea sparkle’, line the coastlines around India and Pakistan, among other nations surrounding the Arabian Sea.

While these blooms are non-toxic, they can kill fish by exacerbating oxygen deficiency and by ammonification of seawater, according to the study. This could threaten regional fisheries and the well-being of coastal populations, which depend on the Arabian Sea for sustenance, the study stated.    

Indian Ocean El Nino likely to reawaken with climate change

Global warming could reawaken an old climate pattern in the Indian Ocean similar to the El Nino, a new study found. If this happens, expect floods, storms and droughts to not only become worse, but also more frequent, the study led by scientists from the University of Texas stated. If current trends continue, the Indian Ocean El Nino could emerge by 2050, according to the researchers.     

Frozen carbon over Tibetan Plateau at risk due to permafrost thawing: Study

The loss of carbon because of global-warming induced permafrost thawing over the Tibetan Plateau could turn the region from a net carbon sink to a net source, according to a new study published in the journal Science Advances. If warming continues at the current rate, the region would see a 1.86 billion tonnes or 3.80 billion tonnes of permafrost thaw by 2100, under the RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 emissions scenarios. The researchers stated their aim is to highlight the importance of deep permafrost thawing – a factor that is largely ignored in current Earth system models.

Earth losing its forest area at a slower pace, but it’s still not slow enough: UN

The rate at which earth has lost forest area has slowed down in recent years, according to new United Nations (UN) data. Numbers for the past three decades show that Earth lost 7.8 million hectares of forest area per year between 1990 and 2000. This number dropped to 5.2 million per year from 2000 to 2010 and 4.7 million from 2010 to 2020.

This drop could be attributed to slower deforestation, forest planting and natural forest expansion. But the UN warned these numbers still fall severely short of set environmental goals. For example, under the UN sustainable development goals, deforestation was to have halted by 2020. But, instead, while deforestation has been declining, the rate of the decline has been slowing down, according to the UN.     

Climate Policy

Clean and clear: Environmentalists and global investors are pushing governments to announce green stimulus measures as part of their COVID-19 recovery packages | Photo: Reuters

Govt’s energy efficiency schemes saved India ₹90,000 crore in FY19: Report

The Indian government’s energy efficiency schemes have led to savings worth almost ₹90,000 crore in FY19 – much higher than the previous year’s ₹53,627 crore, according to a report by PWC Limited, which was engaged by the Bureau of Energy efficiency (BEE). The schemes have also helped reduce 151.74 million tonnes (MT) of CO2 emissions, much more than the previous year’s emissions of 108 MT, the report stated.

DISCOMs to get Rs.90,000 crore in liquidity infusion by Indian government

Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced a liquidity infusion of ₹90,000 crore to power distribution companies (DISCOMs) to tide over financial stress which has been compounded by the demand crunch due to the ongoing lockdown. The move is expected to provide relief to DISCOMs which currently owe power generating companies around ₹94,000 crore. The infusion will be implemented through Power Finance Corporation Ltd (PFC) and Rural Electrification Corporation Ltd (REC) and will be linked to specific reforms such as digital payments facility by DISCOMs for consumers, liquidation of outstanding dues of state governments, plans to reduce financial and operational losses according to a presentation shared by the Finance Minister.

WII’s report on Dibang Valley project biased: Peer review

The Wildlife Institute of India’s (WII) report on the 3097MW Etalin Hydropower Project in Arunachal Pradesh is biased and doesn’t reflect a true picture of the biodiversity of the Dibang Valley – this was the conclusion of a peer review of the report.

The review states that the WII report fails to reveal crucial information of the area and the project’s impact on locals and the ecology. The project, which involves clearing at least 2.7 lakh trees and a vital tiger area, was to be given an approval by the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of India’s environment ministry based on the WII report. But the FAC has deferred its decision for now and has sought comments from the power ministry on whether the project, which has been delayed by six years, is still viable

At the same time, wildlife biologists and conservationists, this past fortnight, sent a memorandum with 4,305 signatures to the environment ministry, asking it to deny clearance for the project.

India’s electricity demand to drop by 1% in 2020-21: ICRA

Credit rating agency ICRA believes India’s electricity sector is likely to register a 1% decline in power demand – the first time in 36 years — and a drop in plant load factor (PLF) to 54% in the 2020-21 financial year. This calculation has been made considering the full lockdown until May 3, 2020 and a complete resumption of operations by industrial and commercial establishments by July 2020 as a base case scenario.  

EU’s 2050 climate goals non-negotiable despite Covid-19 pandemic, say European lawmakers

A majority of European lawmakers spoke out in favour of keeping the EU’s 2050 climate goal despite a push for a delay by some because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Some lawmakers, however, did call for a ‘beefed up’ fund to help coal-depended regions transition towards a greener economy.

Momentum for green stimulus to combat COVID-19 grows

Global investor groups have urged richer nations to make sure their pandemic recovery plans are in accordance with the Paris accord and are sustainable. Even mayors across the world’s largest cities published a ‘statement of principles’ that warned of a ‘catastrophic climate breakdown’ if countries return to a ‘business as usual’ scenario.

Even the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is gearing up to lend $1 trillion to governments hit by the virus, said it would be a mistake to hit ‘pause’ on climate change action as a response to the pandemic.Australia, meanwhile, seems to be taking at least one step in the right direction. The country’s energy minister said they have set aside A$300 million ($191 million) to jumpstart hydrogen projects with the help of low-cost financing in a bid to build the industry by 2030. This is a welcome change from the conservative government’s controversial pro-coal stance.

Brazil to send troops into Amazon to curb deforestation

After a surge in destruction of the Amazon jungle since last year, Brazil plans to deploy its armed forces to tackle deforestation and fires. Brazil’s vice-president Hamilton Mourão said the government will set up permanent bases in the rainforest that will house military personnel, federal and state police and environmental agencies. 

Air Pollution

Criminal Negligence: Locals gathered at the LG Polymers premises in Vishakapatnam to demand justice for victims of the deadly gas leak | Photo: Deccan Herald

India files homicide case against S Korean firm LG Polymers in gas leak case, green court slaps Rs50-crore fine for environmental damage

India filed a complaint of culpable homicide and negligence against South Korean firm LG Polymers after a styrene gas leak case in the facility killed 12 people and hospitalised 800 more. Residents living within a 5-km radius of the factory in the busy area of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, were forced to evacuate in the middle of the night. The levels of styrene (C8H8) were 2,500 parts per billion (ppb) on the day of the leak, 500 times higher than the limits prescribed by regulators, DTE reported.

The state government is set to send back the remaining stock of 13,000 tonnes of styrene to LG Chemicals, which owns LG Polymers. The villages have been sanitised and declared safe to return to. The state has already paid Rs1 crore ex-gratia to the families of eight victims. The remaining four will be paid once documents proving they are legal heirs are provided. India’s green court, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) slapped a Rs50-crore fine on LG Polymers India towards damages caused to the environment and life prime-facie. NGT also issued notices to Andhra Pradesh State Pollution Control Board (SPCB), the district magistrate of Visakhapatnam, Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change and LG Polymers India Pvt Ltd to respond. The court also appointed a five-member panel to find the causes of failure, extent of damage and remedial measures initiated in 10 days. The Andhra Pradesh high court, meanwhile, ordered the state government to submit a report within a week and also appointed a team of experts to study the environmental impact of chemical leakage.

In the light of the “serious incidents”, meanwhile, the CPCB has directed all the SPCBs to ensure immediate compliance of safety norms by all units that manufacture, store or import hazardous chemicals. Overheating and corrosion were responsible for the three tonnes of styrene gas leak. The plant had a defunct volatile organic compound (VOC) detection system. There is no monitoring mechanism installed to specifically detect styrene, DTE reported. The factory had submitted a Rs168-crore proposal in 2018 to the Centre to expand its production capacity by an extra 250 tonnes per day (TPD) from the current 415 TPD. Regulators evaluated several aspects concerning pollution, but no guidelines were set over the leakage of raw materials or hazardous chemicals.

Cleaner air could bring down pollution deaths by 6.5 lakh in India: Study

India can save 650,000 lives a year if the low levels of air pollution during the lockdown are maintained after restrictions end, said the study by IIT-Delhi and Chinese universities, Fudan University in Shanghai and Shenzhen Polytechnic.

The first 30 days of the lockdown, which began on March 23, banning most of the economic activities, saw a 52% average decline in health risk due to air pollution exposure, for particulate matter (PM) across India, says the study. The study titled ‘Effect of restricted emissions during Covid-19 on air quality in India’ also estimated a four-time reduction in health risks associated with other pollutants. Researchers studied concentrations of six pollutants, PM10 and PM2.5, carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), and sulphur dioxide (SO2) between March 16 and April 14 from 2017 to 2020, in 22 cities across India. The study was published in the peer-reviewed science journal Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection.

Covid-19 will cause biggest ever fall in CO2 emissions: IEA

Coronavirus induced economic and social lockdown would cut global energy demand by 6%, as a result of which carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would fall by a massive 8%, reported the International Energy Agency (IEA) over a week ago. The 6% decline in world energy demand in 2020 due to the restrictions placed to contain the pandemic would be the largest contraction in absolute terms on record, said Paris-based IEA. The 8% fall in CO2 emissions would be six times larger than the biggest fall of 400 million tonnes recorded in 2009 following the global financial crisis, the IEA said in a “conservative” estimate. The IEA advises industrialised countries on energy policy. The agency’s chief Faith Birol said the historic decline “was nothing to cheer”, given the deaths and the economic trauma around the world, adding that governments should instead use the events to build greener energy infrastructure.

Coronavirus triggers bicycle boom? France offers money for repairs, Britons shift to bikes from buses and metro

The Covid19 outbreak seems to have triggered a love for bikes in the UK and in Europe.  France is offering cyclists 50 euros for bike repairs to encourage people to cycle and keep pollution levels low once lockdown restrictions are lifted. The €20 million ($21.7m) scheme will also pay for cycle training and temporary parking spaces. French Minister for Ecological Transition Elisabeth Borne said in normal times, 60% of journeys made in France are less than 5 kilometres [3 miles] – making bicycles “a real transport solution”.

Meanwhile, in the UK, people are cycling to work over fears of catching an infection on buses and the metro. The cycle-to-work schemes saw a 200% increase in bicycle orders from people working for emergency services. The lockdown has also boosted bike sales across the UK.  Broadribb Cycles in Bicester said they normally sold 20-30 bikes a week, but now they are selling 50 bikes daily. AA, the UK motoring organization conducted a poll of nearly 20,000 drivers that revealed that 22% of them planned to cut down on driving after lockdown was over and 36% wished to walk and cycle more.

California drone experiment links large methane emissions with composting

According to a US study that used remote sensing in California, methane emissions from landfill and organic composting sites could be higher than previously estimated. The California Methane Survey used a drone equipped with infrared imaging technology over 270 landfills and 166 organic waste facilities periodically during 2016–2018 to quantify their contribution to the statewide methane budget. The researchers were surprised to find large emissions from two organic waste management methods (composting and digesting), which were originally intended to decrease solid waste emissions.


Resilient Renewables: Coronavirus lockdown and economic slump has tipped the scales in India in favour of Renewables, analysts expect dirty coal to peak as early as 2025 | Photo: NS Energy

ReNew bags India’s first round-the-clock solar power supply tender, vows power cost will be lower than $0.038/kWh

India’s first tender for round-the-clock solar power supply, with storage, was bagged by Goldman Sachs-backed ReNew Power at a supply price of Rs3.6 ($0.038) per unit. The Haryana-based company won the 400MW capacity project to supply solar power round-the-clock, with an option to run it with a hybrid wind/hydro plant, or have storage.

ReNew quoted the lowest price of Rs 2.9/unit. The tariff would rise by 3% annually for 15 years, taking the levellised (average) tariff to Rs 3.6/unit, which is closer to the average rate of power from thermal units in India, currently.  The round-the-clock tender floated by  Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI) will have 80% plant load factor (operational capacity)..

India’s CO2 emissions fell for the first time in 40 years, renewables gain on coal: Analysis

An analysis by Carbon Brief has revealed that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in India have fallen for the first time since 1982, not just as a result of a lockdown in the country to contain the spread of coronavirus. The study said that a slump in the demand for power and competition from renewables had hit the use of fossil fuels badly even before coronavirus struck. The study found that Indian carbon dioxide emissions declined 15% in March, and approximately fell by 30% in April. Most of the fall in power demand has been borne by coal-fired generators, which explains the massive fall in emission reductions, the study said.

Pandemic tips scale in favour of solar power, polluting coal to go earlier: IEEFA

Coronavirus has hastened the switch from polluting coal power to renewable energy in India, concludes the latest IEEFA study. Renewable energy has proven resilient over coal amid 30% fall in energy demand over a month-long lockdown. The trend towards cheaper renewables was visible before the pandemic, but analysts say it became clearer since the lockdown began, when the scales tipped in favour of renewables against coal. Run on solar and wind energy, developers do not face the same supply chain disruptions as power plants running on fossil fuels.

IEEFA reports says renewable energy delivered over two-thirds or 9.39GW of India’s new generating capacity additions in the FY 2019/20. Compared to RE, new thermal power plants delivered 4.3GW during 2019/20. Experts say India’s coal capacity is heading for a peak as early as 2025-27.

Still, experts do not rule out an uptick in coal generation and new capacity once the lockdown lifts, saying coal will continue to meet base-load demand. None of the new coal plants in the pipeline have so far been cancelled thus far despite recent setbacks to coal power.

India’s solar, gas-fired power spikes at coal’s expense: Reuters study

Reuters’ analysis of state data shows India’s solar and gas-fired power generation increased in April even as the rate of overall power demand witnessed the maximum fall in 13 years. Data analysis of daily load despatch from state-run power operator POSOCO showed that solar-powered electricity generation rose 16.9%, accounting for a record 5.6% of the country’s total output, while gas-fired power output was 13.7% higher. However, wind-powered electricity generation fell 11.4%. In comparison, coal fell 32.3% to 1.91 billion units per day, the data showed. Coal’s contribution to overall electricity generation fell to 65.5%, compared with an average of over 73.7% last year.

Draft norms for states to set tariffs for RE projects released

To get some tariff uniformity across the states, India’s power sector regulator Central Electricity Regulatory Commission (CERC) has released a draft policy for determination of tariff from RE sources, the last date to submit comments is May 28. Regulations will apply from July 2020  upto March 2023. The draft says the tariff will include factors such as return on equity, interest on loan and working capital, depreciation and operation and maintenance costs. The regulations will apply to cases where tariffs are determined by the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions (SERCs), not to projects bid out by the Centre’s Solar Energy Corporation of India (SECI).

Tariffs will be determined on a case-to-case basis for solar, wind, and renewable hybrid energy projects and renewable energy storage projects. A tariff order will be released a month before the start of the year for each year of the control period.

Regulations, market approach stopping wind and solar expansion in Australia?

A study by Australian Energy Market Operator (Aemo) says that the country already has the technical capability to safely operate an electricity grid where 75% of energy comes from wind and solar generation, but the market framework and regulations were not allowing that to happen.

Exploring the possibilities to incorporate more renewable energy into the system while maintaining grid security, the study found that the country’s wind and solar capacities were increasing rapidly, but unless the country made changes in market and regulation norms, the operator was forced to limit the contribution of the renewable resources to 50% or 60% of electricity supply at any point in time, even if they are the cheapest option for providing electricity.

The overall share of renewable energy in Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) reached 26% in April, at times rising to over 50% during sunny and windy periods when demand for heating and air-conditioning was low. The study calls for policy changes much ahead of 2025 to allow expansion of clean energy, including adopting new standards to maximise the potential of rooftop solar panels and construction of new transmission lines.

India rises two spots, ranked 74 on WEF’s global energy transition index

India climbed two spots to number 74 in this year’s Global Energy Transition Index released by the World Economic Forum (WEF). India improved on all energy counts, including economic development and growth, energy access and security, and environmental sustainability. The study measured readiness for clean energy transition in 115 economies. The study says 94 have made progress since 2015, but environmental sustainability continues to lag.

Sweden grabbed the top spot on the Energy Transition Index (ETI) for the third consecutive year, followed by Switzerland and Finland. The WEF said the “emerging centres of demand” such as India (74th) and China (78th) have consistently improved the enabling environment. The study says India improved its ranking owing to the government-mandated renewable energy expansion programme, now extended to 275 GW by 2027. Energy efficient initiatives such as subsidising EVs, bulk procurement of LED bulbs, smart meters, and programmes for labelling of appliances have also been praised in the report.

Electric Vehicles

Got to be careful: World Bank says production for precious metals will have to grow by 500% through 2050 to fuel the global expansion in clean energy -- but not at the cost of destroying ecologies | Photo:

World Bank says precious metal production will have to rise by 500% by 2050

A new report by the World Bank predicts that production for lithium, graphite and other precious metals will have to shoot up by 500% by 2050 to keep up with the expected rise in clean energy capacity and e-mobility solutions. Titled “Minerals for Climate Action”, the report goes on to say that mining the three billion tonnes of the metals needed is one of the only ways to meet the Paris Agreement’s target on global warming, and that the CO2 emissions of the process will only be about 6% of the emissions from fossil fuels, if they were used to power the world instead.

However, the World Bank has cautioned that since most of the metals’ deposits are in poor countries, extraction must not come at the cost of wanton ecological damage.

Stanford announces breakthrough in wireless EV charging

The University of Stanford has announced a significant breakthrough in wireless charging technology for EVs with its latest iteration that uses a more efficient amplifier, which is able to transmit up to 10W of power across a span of two to three feet — within milliseconds. While currently this is only good enough to charge small electronic devices, when scaled up for real world applications it could recharge EVs without the need for conducting cables.

Reliable wireless charging would also lower the size of onboard batteries and allow for greater driving range per charge. The technology is also being tested in a different avatar in Sweden, which began testing its “electric road” in 2018 — that would charge EVs running along its length.

BMW continues with hydrogen fuel cells, VW to invest €450 million in battery factory

The BMW group has announced plans to invest EUR 30 billion into its new product lineup by 2025, and apart from EVs, it will also invest in hydrogen fuel-cells — whose prototypes the automaker has been developing since 2015. However, given the economics of the technology, it has been panned by Tesla, and BMW’s rival VW says they make “no sense”.

VW will instead invest €450 million into making EV batteries at its new “Northvolt Zwei” plant in Germany. The 16 GWh facility will commence production from 2024 and will produce battery cells for the group’s global products. Germany’s Daimler AG has also reaffirmed its commitment to EVs, with its CEO stating that despite market disruptions due to COVID-19, the automaker’s investments were “non-negotiable”. 

ABB to supply electric train tech to Stadler for multiple European locations

Swedish heavy industry major ABB has been awarded an order of $180 million by Germany’s Stadler Group to supply electric train technology for operations across multiple European nations. A major chunk of the order will be to electrify trains in Wales, where locomotives will be fitted with batteries to operate in the absence of overhead power lines or without diesel, and to convert intra-city tram rails from diesel to electric.

A hundred new regional trains will also be supplied with ABB’s technology and will operate across Hungary, Germany, Slovenia, USA and Canada.

Fossil Fuels

Apparently useless: India's top two ministries now concur that washing coal doesn't lower its ash content and therefore does nothing to fight air pollution | Photo: Financial Tribune

India backtracks on washing coal, now says it doesn’t lower pollution

India’s government has backtracked on its 2014 directive to wash freshly-mined coal for power producers over the environment ministry’s (MoEFCC) note that says the process does not reduce the fuel’s ash content, and so ‘does not’ lower pollution. Instead, the note says that ‘rejects’ from coal washeries find their way to power producers through the open market, which therefore spreads pollution over a wider area rather than localising it at the washery.

The government’s new directive for Coal India to supply coal as is, has also been backed by the power ministry, and the new consensus is that washing coal is expensive. The average ash content in Indian coal ranges from 40-45%, but industry figures report that washing brought it down to 33%. The 2014 directive was part of the Centre’s efforts to reduce emissions by using ‘cleaner’ fuel, and was to be complemented by around 50GW of thermal power plants fitting flue gas desulphurisers (FGDs) to lower their emissions — the December 2021 deadline for which may again be overshot.

Australia approves coal mining under water reservoir ‘under cover of coronavirus’

The New South Wales government has reportedly approved a controversial project to let American Peabody Energy mine coal from under the Woronora water reservoir, apparently while the nation was focussed on COVID-19. The reservoir is part of the dam that supplies drinking water to Sydney and strong protests have already been filed to contest the decision’s possible health repercussions of the water coming into contact with metals and other contaminants from subterranean coal seams. Curiously, the Greater Sydney Area is the only part of the world that allows for “long wall” coal mining under publicly-owned water reservoirs.

However, an equally grave concern is that of the water being lost to the mines that would open up underneath — similar to the effect of cracking the bottom of a jug. Also, NSW has battled drought for 12 of the past 20 years, and the decision is very likely to be contested in court.  

US power sector CO2 intensity dropped 33% in 2019

New data shows that the US’ power sector CO2 intensity has dropped by 33% in 2019 (over 2005) and by 11% over 2018 over shrinking coal-power capacity. The data is compiled by Carnegie-Mellon University and also says that in absolute terms, the intensity is now down to below 400g of CO2/kWh, while the share of wind and solar power has risen by 20% and 18%, respectively.

The US is the second-largest CO2 emitter and with its coal power plants having shrunk by 22% in 2019 — despite the White House’s best efforts — the void is fast being filled by renewables, but also by the inexpensive but no less deadly natural gas. 

Big Oil may receive gigantic bailout by US govt despite renewables scoring on job creation

Some of the largest and worst hit oil and gas firms in the US could be handed a gigantic bailout package by the US government under ongoing discussions to revive the sector. The bailout deal, estimated at around $750 billion, may also dilute its rules for who qualifies for the package — for example, despite not meeting the minimum BBB-BAA3 credit ratings on March 22, Occidental Petroleum may make the cut because it met the grade up until March 5.

However, new research by Oxford University shows yet again that renewables are creating much more job opportunities and would give better returns on investment.

Plasma air thrusters: Major possible breakthrough in zero-emissions flying

Researchers at China’s Wuhan University have designed a prototype jet engine that could offer zero-emissions flight around the world by using only compressed air and electricity. The engine would compress air to very high pressures mid-flight, which would then be heated to plasma state (a high energy state where electrons are dislodged from their atoms) by microwaves. The thrust generated by expelling this superheated air could match what is developed by modern, fossil fuel-powered jet engines.

However, the materials needed to house plasma jets of air would have to be much more heat resistant than what’s currently in use.

The plasma thruster engine has already been used by NASA for its space missions, but the friction resistance of lower atmospheric flight calls for much higher thrust. Electric aircraft, on the other hand, are only able to fly relatively short distances of ~500km because of their batteries’ poor energy density.