Economic growth data often hides as much as it reveals. For instance, there's no doubt that India is the world's 7th largest economy in nominal GDP terms and also the fastest-growing large economy. However, from an environmental point of view, has this growth been sustainable?
According to the Global Green Economy Index (GGEI) 2016, it has not. India ranks 68th out of 80 surveyed countries on its movement towards a 'green economy model'. It lags well behind a host of smaller and lesser-developed nations. To be specific, the GGEI report says that India ranks poorly in terms of environment protection and leadership commitment to climate change, while doing relatively better in private sector investment in clean and renewable technologies.
While the data may seem gloomy for India, it also indicates a great opportunity. The time is ripe for policy-makers to view growth through the prism of cleaner energy technologies. Economic growth does not have to come at the expense of a polluted India. The solution lies at the intersection of energy needs and green thinking—in hybrid technologies.
A hybrid mindset is, today, the key to achieving responsible growth. For a country like India which is seeking to achieve the goal of 'affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy' for all—one of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals for member nations by 2030—hybrid technologies will play a key role in getting us there.
In the recent past, we have seen successful examples of 'green' and conventional systems being fused together with some success. Let's take a look.
Cars are probably the most famous example of hybrid technologies right now. Hybrid cars use two powertrains—one, running on a conventional fuel like petrol or diesel, and the other on electricity (stored via a battery). These two systems can either work simultaneously or in parallel to optimise fuel usage and performance. Hybrid cars are becoming extremely popular because they pollute significantly less than their internal-combustion counterparts, and also provide better mileage, thus reducing consumption and wastage of fossil fuels. This makes hybrid cars ideal for India, which adds over 50,000 vehicles to its streets every day. For its part, the government is encouraging the sale of hybrid cars through subsidies.
A trend that once seemed a speck on the horizon is rapidly zooming towards reality. Hybrid airplanes are all set to transform flying as we know it. Global aviation majors like Boeing and Airbus, agencies like NASA, as well as startups like Zunum Aero (founded by US-based entrepreneur Ashish Kumar) are investing heavily in developing hybrid planes that run on a mixture of jet fuel and electricity, liquefied natural gas or biofuels. Zunum plans to have commercial production of hybrid planes in the early 2020s, and Kumar claims these hybrid planes will have 80% lower emissions than regular ones. Clean tech-based aircraft are not only better for the environment, but could also help improve operating costs for airlines, which could then be passed on to consumers in the form of cheaper tickets. For India, whose aviation sector is set to be the world's third largest by 2026, this is definitely a trend to watch.
Household gadgets and appliances
At roughly 1000 kWh (kilowatt-hours), India's per-capita electricity consumption is one-fifteenth that of developed nations. However, with a robustly growing GDP, this figure is bound to see a sharp rise in the years to come, especially given that large areas of the country are yet to be connected to the grid. Fortunately, rising electricity tariffs and lack of consistent power supply is driving product research into hybrid gadgets that use less power, or switch to alternate sources like solar when required. Many such appliances and gadgets have entered the market recently—from air-conditioners to refrigerators, inverters, water purifiers, heaters, power banks, etc. Reducing reliance on grid power has cost benefits for the consumer, and also reduces indirect pollution (by reducing reliance on electricity from coal-based power plants).
Transporting over 22 million passengers daily, the Indian Railways is the country's biggest consumer of electricity. In 2014-15, it consumed over 18.25 billion units of electrical energy, at a cost of Rs. 12,635 crore. The cost of diesel traction (i.e. running diesel trains) was even higher, at Rs. 18,586 crore. Hence, electrification is a key priority for the Railways, since it is likely to contribute to faster expansion of the Indian rail network owing to significant cost savings as a result of this changing behaviour and adoption of newer technologies. Simultaneously, the Railways is also focusing on electricity produced via solar power. While completely solar-powered trains might still be some way off, the Railways aims to start by using solar energy to power appliances like fans and lights in trains. It has reportedly begun installing solar panels on the rooftops of coaches, guard vans, rail workshops and production units across the country. There are also plans to install solar panels at railway stations across India. According to a report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW), by 2025, Indian Railways may source a quarter of its power needs from renewable sources. Given the above figures, the savings could run into several millions of dollars, which could go a long way in bring down the Railways' operational costs, improving profitability and reducing pollution.
It's no secret that India faces a huge sanitation challenge. This has also been articulated in the Swachh Bharat mission, which targets building 110 million toilets across rural India by 2019. And while building enough restrooms is the first step; ensuring adequate water supply is equally important. Given the frequent water problems across the country, hybrid toilets, which drastically minimise water usage, could be a solution. In late 2015, the Indian Railways announced that it had built a prototype hybrid vacuum toilet, which is similar to the ones found in aircraft. The Odisha government also announced that it would build a number of hybrid toilet complexes across the state by 2017. Given that nearly half of the population still doesn't have access to basic sanitation facilities, taking smarter toilets pan-India remains key to the success of Swachh Bharat.
Around two-thirds of India's approximate 315 GW installed power capacity comes from thermal power plants. However, things look set to change here too. The National Capital Power Station (NTPC Dadri), recently announced the setting up of a solar-thermal hybrid power plant. The plant will use solar power to heat up water, thus enhancing the efficiency of the thermal plant. Such hybrid technologies make sound sense for India, which still relies largely on fossil fuel-based power. Last year, the government announced a draft policy on wind-solar hybrid projects, with an eye on the target of achieving 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. In the longer term, India's goal is to achieve 40% of its electricity generation capacity from non-fossil fuel based sources by 2030. Hybrid power generation could go a long way in making power cleaner, cheaper and more accessible for millions of people.
Reducing reliance on conventional energy systems is a challenge for a massive and fast-growing economy like India. However, hybrid technologies could provide the answer. Cultivating a 'hybrid mindset' that accommodates both, energy acquisition needs and green considerations, is the first step towards a sustainable future for India.