“Decarbonisation” has entered the vocabulary of most governments and large corporates. Other than a few naysayers who are for the present holding their voice, they have all committed to a time bound, “net zero” carbon emissions target. They are also in agreement over what needs to be done to reach that target. Fossil fuels must be steadily but inexorably replaced by clean energy; electricity should be increasingly generated from solar and wind; transport should switch from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles; energy demand should be conserved and more efficiently consumed; and technology and innovation must remain the centrepiece of all activities.
Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply set a time deadline and agree on the steps to be taken. Governments and corporates have also to agree on removing the legacy obstacles that lie on the pathway. Three, in particular, could significantly slow the pace of progress. These are poorly designed planning systems; siloed and fragmented physical and regulatory oversight mechanisms for the energy ecosystem and the lack of investment in energy infrastructure.
Two events last month will explain better the reasons for this concern.
On February 7, a chunk of the Nanda Devi broke off and triggered flash floods downstream that then washed away or damaged several hydroelectric dams and led to the loss of hundreds of lives. A few days later, on February 13, a severe cold snap crashed the electricity grid system in Texas, plunging a wide swathe of the state into darkness. These two events were unrelated, other than possibly by the link of climate change, but on examination of the reasons for the consequential material and human misery, they offer common insight.
First, in both cases, the authorities were caught unprepared. This is despite the fact that there had been precedents. The comparably severe cold waves of 1989 and 2011 in the US; the Kedarnath floods in 2013. The planners had incorporated emergency response procedures for cold waves and floods, but they had not anticipated such extremes of weather conditions. For instance, the Texan authorities had a worst case planning scenario built around the assumption of a 15GW drop in generating capacity (out of a total night time capacity of 70GW). But what they eventually lost was 30GW.
One reason for this lack of preparedness could be the presumption, based on historical data, that such sharp shifts in natural conditions are infrequent — once in several decades — and that therefore, the creation of safeguards against them is not required and may in fact invite the charge of gold plating. Whatever the reason, the lesson is that whilst the past is a useful guidepost, it is an imperfect one especially in view of the spate of natural disasters across the world in recent times, and that planners should be cautious about linear extrapolations. Certainly, for those contemplating the journey of decarbonisation, there is little of the distant past for them to hang onto.
Second, the events highlighted the costs of managing the energy value chain through a fragmented institutional and regulatory structure. The drop in temperatures in Texas froze the gas wells and the pipelines upstream that then cascaded to knock out the water system and power generation capacity downstream. There was no umbrella authority with responsibility for the entire system. Further, to compound matters, the Texas electricity system was standalone and unconnected to the other states. It could not therefore draw on the surplus power available elsewhere to mitigate the shortfall. The tragedy in Uttarakhand also reflected the costs of institutional fragmentation and lack of coordination in decision making. The suggestions made in the aftermath of the Kedarnath flooding regarding land use and watershed management and the best means of securing an optimal balance between construction and the Himalayan ecology had not, for instance, been implemented in large part because energy is a concurrent subject and there is no one ministerial or regulatory body responsible for this domain. Further, these recommendations required the coming together of various non-energy ministries which, given the current vertically siloed structures of responsibility and accountability in our system, did not happen. The glacial burst may have been beyond anyone’s control; the consequential downstream damage was avoidable.
Third, the two events have raised questions about the reliability of renewables as a source of electricity in times of emergency. The questions do not doubt the robustness of “clean energy” technology; nor about the competitiveness of solar or wind power. But they do reflect a weakening of consumer confidence in non-fossil fuels. After all, whilst the gas delivery system collapsed, the wind did not stop blowing; nor did the sun stop shining. The questions focus attention on the energy infrastructure. One reason why solar and wind did not pick up the power slack in Texas was because the grid was not resilient enough to absorb the surge in the flow of intermittent renewable electrons. A similar problem faces India. Its transmission system is also not capable of managing the energy transition. This problem will clearly have to be addressed if decarbonisation is to proceed smoothly. But to do so, many issues will have to be resolved. Not least, how much will it cost to upgrade the infrastructure? How will it be financed? Who will take the lead on driving this change etc etc. Questions that are easier to set out than answer.
Decarbonisation has become a buzzword. To ensure it does not remain just that but translates into effective action on the ground, policy makers will have to build structures that reflect the woven, multidimensional, interdependent and interconnected nature of the energy ecosystem. This means creating mechanisms that facilitate inter-ministerial and inter-state collaboration within the country and multilateral cooperation internationally. Perhaps our Prime Minister should contemplate the appointment of a “decarbonisation Czar” and given that he was the progenitor of the International Solar Alliance, suggest the establishment of a multilateral forum of governments, corporates, financial institutions and civil society under the umbrella — “Alliance for a Carbon Net Zero world”.
The writer is chairman, Centre for Social and Economic Progress