Shaping the Sustainable Energy Future

By Amit Kumar

At WEF 2018, climate change was talked about as one of the three global threats. Climate change concerns are also closely linked to the SDGs. Energy – its production and consumption – becomes the central aspect of any strategy to effectively address these concerns. However, any future scenario for energy must satisfy two very critical criteria. First, its ability to afford inclusiveness, of populace in general but of gender in particular. Second, the energy sources must be climate- friendly. This energy transition necessitates intensive collaborative spirit among all the stakeholders.


Last week, the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos deliberated upon “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”. Discussing the fractures and fault-lines at the international level, the Indian Prime Minister Mr. Modi stated that, “The second global challenge is the problem of climate change”. Indeed, 14 system initiatives of WEF include “Shaping the Future of Energy”. Whether to address climate change concerns or to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), any such deliberation has to have energy as one of its central tenets especially since the future of our world is so closely entwined with the way we produce and consume energy. Besides, any picture of a united world is inconsistent with billions of people remaining outside the ambit of clean energy access. The goals of poverty eradication, improved living standards and increased economic output imply increasing energy requirements. However, any future scenario for energy must satisfy two very critical criteria. The first one being its ability to afford inclusiveness, of populace in general but of gender in particular. The second lens pertains to energy sources being climate-benignant.

The First Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) helped develop understanding of close linkages between energy and climate change. As per the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of IPCC, “Total anthropogenic GHG emissions have continued to increase over 1970 to 2010. Annual GHG emissions grew on average by 2.2% per year from 2000 to 2010 compared to 1.3% per year from 1970 to 2000.” It further states that “CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes contributed about 78% of the total GHG emission increase”. Given that the production and use of energy account for two third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the role of energy – its production as well as utilisation – becomes central to any climate change mitigation strategy. Energy conservation and renewable energy on the demand and supply sides respectively, therefore, become intrinsic to any future energy strategies.

In this context, the criticality of choices that we make today cannot be overemphasised. Take for example India, where a large portion of its energy infrastructure has yet not been built. Taking development in general, this is true for any developing nation. Thus, rather than locking up in soon-to-be-redundant setup, renewables based energy system can help them leapfrog. In order to hasten the process of achieving these goals, it is imperative that they are entrenched in all policies and strategies of the governments. In fact it is not about trade-offs but about maximising collaborations and opportunities. There is a need, therefore, to decouple economic growth from resource use. Resource use efficiency and waste to product strategies become crucial.

It is reported that the combination of renewables and digitalisation would accelerate the decline of traditional market models with customers buying energy services rather than energy.
 Here technological choices also become very important if we were to avoid the “lock-in” risks of wrong kind of energy systems considering long lifespans of such assets. Technology, nonetheless, is only one dimension of this rubicon. The other ones that are going to play a decisive role include sectoral practices, delivery models, policy and regulatory frameworks as well as societal benefits. And then there are developments that are taking place in seemingly unrelated areas – for instance digital economy and Internet of Things – which would have large bearing on the way we generate and consume energy in time to come. It is reported that the combination of renewables and digitalisation would accelerate the decline of traditional market models with customers buying energy services rather than energy. But while these changes occur at their own pace, any lasting solution to the climate change concerns has to be grounded in behavioural changes or the social norms linked with lifestyles. Therefore, sustained campaigns making consumers aware of pros and cons of lifestyle choices also become a powerful tool for promoting efficient use of energy. But an underlying thread among all these is the right energy pricing because that has direct implication on consumer choices, whether that of a technology or that of behaviour.

In a recent report launched by TERI on “Transition in Indian Electricity Sector 2017 – 2030”, it is envisaged that if the costs of renewable electricity and energy storage systems continue to follow the expected trajectory, it is quite possible that the price of “firm” electricity from intermittent renewables like wind and solar, would become competitive with coal-based electricity after 2027. And in that scenario, investments for the new capacities could move to renewable energy. Looking at recent bids for solar and wind power in India, such an eventuality does not seem far-fetched although one must consider specific enabling conditions in such cases. The successful transition to this intended outcome would also be dependent on technological innovations and ease of transfer of such innovative – and disruptive – solutions to the developing countries. Already the rapid influx of renewables in the energy systems, especially distributed systems like solar rooftop, is making existing business models outdated, forcing utilities and countries to look beyond business-as-usual where renewables so far played a peripheral role. As opposed to the currently practiced central model of energy generation and distribution, with the advent of renewables – that by nature are geographically dispersed and distributed – in the energy mix; future is likely to be more of smaller decentralised energy generation systems embedded in larger grids. These decentralised energy systems would be based on locally available renewable energy sources, designed to meet local energy needs in more viable manner as they would obviate transmission of electricity over large distances thereby reducing transmission losses significantly. And couple with that electric vehicles, one could have very flexible and autonomous energy architecture!

However, in this whole discourse, let us not lose our focus on one of the most commonly used fuel in developing countries, i.e. biomass. But traditionally this resource is used in very inefficient and environment-unfriendly manner. The other challenge pertains to ensuring sustainable supply of biomass on account of it being dispersed. Therefore, if bioenergy is to reach the promising potential worked out generally on aggregate level, it is essential to put equal emphasis on the complete value chain of biomass. This in turns implies a range of local and decentralised bioenergy solutions.

The energy transition to better climate, therefore, calls for intensive collaborative spirit among all stakeholders.

One thing that is pretty obvious by now is the fact that this sort of transformative change in the global energy scenario is possible through collective efforts only. The tasks that need to be accomplished to reach the destination are simply too arduous for a country to undertake individually, that too within such tight timelines. The energy transition to better climate, therefore, calls for intensive collaborative spirit among all stakeholders. This is particularly evident insofar as technology innovation, knowledge transfer, capacity building, risk-sharing and financing is concerned. An approach that is based on developing understanding of countries’ needs and constraints may be a greater enabler than a confrontationist one. COP 23 initiative at Bonn – the 2018 facilitative dialogue also known as the “Talanoa dialogue” – in a sense endorsement of the same. As per COP 23 document, “Talanoa is a traditional approach used in Fiji and the Pacific to engage in an inclusive, participatory and transparent dialogue.”

Summing it up, it is worth quoting the former President of India, Mr Pranab Mukherjee, who during World Sustainable Development Summit 2016 organised by TERI, said that “Global action built on partnerships is required to achieve sustainable economic and social progress, inclusive growth and protection of the Earth’s ecosystem. This collaboration between governments, private sector, academia and civil society will be a vital source of knowledge, innovation, expertise and solution in tackling the twin and inter-linked challenges of development and environment.”

Featured Image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the World Economic Form meet.

About the Author

Amit Kumar is Senior Director at The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), Social Transformation Division, with a focus on energy access & rural development. He has been working on the development & diffusion of cleaner technologies for 35 years. He is a gold medalist mechanical engineer with specialisation in thermal engineering from IIT – Roorke

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.