Reduce demand of electricity

Dr Bharat Jhunjhunwala
The recent collapse of the national electricity grid was due to underdrawal on the first day and overdrawal on the second day. The underdrawal was due to less consumption in the night. It led to tripping. The overdrawal was due to higher consumption during peak hours. This too led to tripping. The problem of underdrawal can be possibly managed by timely shut down of few turbines. The problem of overdrawal is more intractable. The Government is making an all-out effort to increase generation to meet this demand. Yet, the gap between supply and demand continues to increase because increase in demand is outstripping the increase in supply. The shortage of electricity has remained in the range of 8-12 percent for last many years.
There are two ways to manage this mismatch between supply and demand: Increase supply or reduce demand. The supply-side solution of increasing generation has been adopted by the Government. It is doomed to failure though, because of ever-increasing demand. It is like the Government is trying to catch the shadow. The demand increases as much as, or even more, than the increase in supply. A more circumspect approach of simultaneously limiting demand is urgently required.
The demand-side approach is pooh-phooed on grounds that new technologies will enable unabated increases in electricity generation. It is indeed true that nuclear, solar and shale gas inventions have enabled much greater increases in electricity generation than thought possible previously. However, human history teaches that there have been limits set by nature that mankind has not been able to transgress. Grand ancient civilizations such as that of the Indus Valley have collapsed as a result of excessive exploitation of natural resources. It would be better, therefore, to err on the side of caution. We should focus on demand side approach till the expected technological solutions are not fructified. Let demand follow increase in supply; not the other way round. Thermal, nuclear and hydropower each have their negative environmental impacts that cannot be wished away. Even wind and solar may have negative impacts that will become clear as time progresses.
Paul R. Ehrlich, author of the 1968 trend-setting book The Population Bomb said the impact of any population can be expressed as a product of three characteristics: the population’s size, its affluence or per-capita consumption, and the environmental damage inflicted by the technologies used to supply each unit of consumption. The impact can be reduced by reducing size of population, reducing per-capita consumption, or by using environment-friendly technologies of production. The environment-friendly technologies are typically more expensive. That leads to higher cost of production and thereby lower level of consumption. The two solutions of reducing per-capita consumption and using environment-friendly technologies, therefore, coalesce into one-that of reduced consumption. Control of population is a long term solution. The short term solution has to necessarily be driven by a reduction in consumption. Since most consumption is made by the rich, it is they who have to reduce consumption.
There is increasing awareness of this problem in global forums. The Preliminary Draft of 2009 report of UNSCO-sponsored Ethics of Climate Change in Asia Pacific project, 2009 on Energy Equity and Human Security stated: “While making energy accessible and affordable to all to fulfill their basic needs, energy use for luxurious purposes can be reduced without infringing basic human rights. Thus, the ethical demands to meet concerns of equity can also mean restrictions for those who make excessive use of energy… those who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are often not those who have contributed to global warming the most. Poor and marginalized, as well as future generations have to endure the consequences of the actions of wealthy in the present and the past.”
The Washington-based World Resources Institute says in a paper Equity, Poverty, and the Environment: “Too often, public policies favor affluent people and regions, enriching a few powerful political and economic elites while passing disproportionately large social and environmental costs on to poor and disenfranchised populations. Poverty reduction-especially for the poorest-can be greatly enhanced through policies that promote fair distribution of natural resource benefits. In high-inequity, high-poverty countries, equitable access and fair distribution can be more effective than economic growth alone in reducing poverty.”
Yet, the Government of India is single-mindedly trying to increase generation of electricity to meet the demand. This is happening because the Government is committed to establishing equality in the right to consume electricity. This equality is like the equal right of a wrestler and a challenged person to reach the railway booking counter; or the equal right of an athlete and a 5 year old girl to receive food from a langar. Obviously, the stronger person gets there first and captures the goodies. The same is happening in the electricity sector. The rich consume the electricity before it can reach the poor. It is profitable for the distribution companies to supply bulk power to the rich rather than manage thousands of small connection. The cost of distribution as well as collection of the dues is lesser in large connections.
This unending increase in consumption of electricity by the rich is unsustainable both from the ecological and social standpoint. Increased generation will lead to ecosystem stress; while inequality in consumption will lead to social stress. I have calculated that diversion of mere two percent of present generation of electricity is sufficient to meet the lifeline consumption of the 30 kWh per month per household of the 30 crore-odd unelectrified households in the country. The reduction in welfare of the rich by cutting their consumption by two, or even four, percent would be minimal while the increase in welfare of 30 crore households would be phenomenal.
Before closing I would like to briefly deal with the question of economic growth. The way to go is to push the services sector which consumes about one-tenth of the electricity in comparison to manufacturing. This is often countered by arguing that services such as transport are predicated on manufacturing. This is not wholly correct. The services sector should be separated between the stand-alone services such as education, movies and music; and supportive services such as transport. Focus on stand-alone services would enable us to increase our overall standard of living without requiring much increase in consumption of electricity.
The Central Electricity Authority is currently engaged in the exercise of making National Electricity Plan as mandated under the Electricity Act, 2003. The Authority feels constrained to take this aspect into account because it is required to make the Plan in accordance with the National Electricity Policy which follows the one-sided supply-side approach of increasing generation. However, the Act requires the Government to make the Electricity Policy in consultation with the Central Electricity Authority. A two-exchange between the Government and Authority is envisaged. The Authority will do a great service to the nation by bringing demand-side solution into focus.


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