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Sam Tranum, Author of Powerless – India’s Energy Shortage and Its Impact in an interview with Mark Ulyseas. Published by Sage Publications
“When I moved to Kolkata in 2011, I was covering the energy business as a journalist. I looked around for a book that would introduce me to the major issues of the Indian energy scenario and couldn’t find one. So my wife suggested that I write one, which seemed like a good idea. So I decided to go ahead with it. I had two goals: to learn about India’s energy scenario and to help others do the same. The issues involved are so critical to India’s economy, foreign policy and environment, as well as to the health and well-being of its citizens, that it seems important that as many people as possible understand what’s at stake and what can be done better – so they can pressure their leaders to do the right things.
As I say in the introduction to the book: “This book aims to provide a clear picture of India’s energy needs and resources, explaining where the supply-demand gaps are, and a few of the impacts of those gaps. Hopefully, this will help to inform debate about the difficult choices India is going to have to make about its energy economy. And make no mistake, they are difficult choices. For example, moving forward aggressively on land acquisition for new coal mines, dams, and power plants can mean wrenching change, impoverishment, and destitution for the inhabitants of that land. Breaking anti-nuclear movements can mean sedition charges and jail time for often well-meaning, patriotic protesters. Not doing these things, though, can mean a growing shortage of power that will empty corporates’ pockets, ruin entrepreneurs’ businesses, prompt more farmer suicides, and cause shortages of goods and higher prices.”
“I think my book is particularly relevant with Narendra Modi and the BJP poised to take over control of the central government. Modi has built a reputation for getting things done and, as prime minister, has pledged to clear bureaucratic hurdles and push development projects forward. Many of the things he sees as obstacles, though, are actually useful checks on environmental destruction or abuse of people whose homes and farms stand in the way of the construction of coal mines, power plants, or other development projects.
I hope that this book serves to remind supporters of this approach to take a long view, balance the needs of large-scale development against the rights of small-scale communities, and move forward with restraint and compassion.” – Sam Tranum
Could you give us an overall view of the power generation in the country in terms of percentage generated using coal, gas, uranium (nuclear) and hydro power?
In 2010-11 India’s electrical generating capacity consisted of: 56% coal-fired power plants; 22% large and small hydro projects; 10% natural gas-fired power plants; 8% wind turbines; 3% nuclear reactors; 1% biomass projects; and 0.1% solar projects.
Actual generation, though, is always different from generating capacity, because power plants do not generate power all the time and do not always work at full capacity. Actual generation is usually higher for coal, gas and nuclear, and lower for renewables that depend on weather and seasons. In India, gas-fired plants also have been performing poorly in recent years, due to shortages of fuel.
In 2010-11, the electricity actually generated was: 68% from coal-fired plants; 15% from large and small hydro projects; 12% from natural gas-fired plants; 2% from wind turbines; 3% from nuclear; 1% from biomass projects; and less than 0.1% from solar projects.
It is claimed that India possesses enough coal, oil and gas to meet the country’s energy needs and that shortages occur due to mismanagement, theft and corruption. Please comment.
Yes, there is theft and corruption and mismanagement. These things will always be challenges. Still, though, the known conventional reserves of oil and gas in India are not enough to meet its current or future needs – no matter how well they are managed. The same goes for India’s uranium reserves. It is possible, but unlikely, that huge new conventional reserves or oil and/or gas could be found in India. It is possible that India will be able to define and exploit unconventional oil and gas resources it is thought to have: large amounts of shale gas on shore and methane hydrate offshore. For now, though, the oil, gas and uranium resources that India knows it has, and is able to access, are not enough to meet its needs. Coal is a slightly different story. India has very large reserves of coal. Corruption and theft and coal mafias are definitely issues in its exploitation, but I’d say there are bigger issues: particularly land acquisition. The coal is underground and, in many cases, people live above it.
After writing Powerless, I worked with a small team of journalists put together a book called Lat Does Not Exist: Oral Histories of Development-Induced Displacement in India, which is going to be published next month by Earthcare Books in Kolkata. It offers a portrait – in interview transcripts and photographs – of one of the many villages being torn down to make way for one of the many coal mines that India is digging to fuel its economy. Resistance from people who don’t want to be displaced has certainly slowed down coal production and distribution. This is sometimes closely linked to ‘law-and-order’ problems – sometimes Naxal-related – that can shut down coal production at some mines. Aside from the displacement issue, other factors that slow the production and distribution of coal are: efforts to balance environmental and health issues against the need for energy (environment and forest clearances); and the inability of the country’s overloaded transport network (particularly the railways), to carry coal quickly and efficiently from pit-heads to power-plants.
It’s not just about corruption and mismanagement.
India has a mammoth oil import bill. How can she reduce this burden? Does the country have enough natural oil reserves? Or will India have to depend on imports?
India has about 17 per cent of the world’s population, but only about 0.3 per cent of the world’s proved reserves of oil. Not surprisingly then, India imports upwards of 75% of the oil it uses in any given year. There are two aspects to India’s oil imports: the amount it keeps and uses at home; the amount it refines and then exports as petroleum products (diesel, petrol) to other countries.
Overall, India’s crude oil imports, paid for in foreign exchange, put pressure on the country’s current account. As oil (and gas, coal and uranium) cannot, for the most part, be paid for in rupees, it is paid for in foreign exchange (mostly US dollars). Since India is sending more money abroad – prominently to buy energy and gold – than it is bringing in through revenue from exports, remittances, foreign investment and other sources, it is running a current account deficit (CAD).
In 2012, the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council explained why this is a concern: “The unprecedented enlargement of the CAD in the past few years … is casting a shadow on the strength of the macro-economic fundamentals of the economy. It is combining with other negative elements to make investors hesitate to take more exposure to India and has caused weakness in the currency, which while on the one hand reflects the higher rate of domestic inflation, on the other, is also feeding into the inflationary process. The weakness in the currency also impacts corporate balance sheets adversely to the extent that they have foreign currency liabilities.”
If India continues to have too big a current account deficit for too long, it could fall into another balance of payments crisis like the one it faced in 1991 – nearly running out of foreign exchange, which it needs to pay for imports and for its debts to international lenders.
The current account deficit and the balance of payments issue are for the oil imports overall. For the oil that India refines and then uses domestically, there’s also the issue of subsidies. Subsidising diesel, petrol and other petroleum products is a huge strain on finances of the central government, as well as the oil marketing companies and the oil exploration and production companies. I think this aspect is well-known.
There isn’t much India can do to reduce its imports. It could make better use of its current oil reserves, which would help a little. Once the companies squeeze this oil out of the ground, people could use it more efficiently, getting more from less. Beyond that, there are two other options:
• India could replace oil with biofuels – ethanol (made from sugarcane) and biodiesel (made from jatropha); it has programmes to do this but, even in a best-case scenario, they’d only make a relatively small impact and they’re not going well, so this is not a best-case scenario.
• India could fuel vehicles with electricity rather than liquid fuels like diesel, petrol, ethanol or biodiesel. Most of India’s oil goes to transport, so moving away from vehicles powered by diesel, petrol and LPG could help reduce demand. Electric vehicles could be a replacement, but then there would be the problem of generating enough electricity to charge them. Conceivably this could be done with domestic coal and renewables, though, reducing energy imports. It could also be done with nuclear power. For now, though, electric vehicles from companies like Hero, YoBykes, and Mahindra are only a tiny part of the Indian market.
Does India have enough uranium to power its present nuclear plants including those that are yet to be constructed? And if not, then from which countries does she import uranium and under what terms and conditions? And does this in anyway impact her international relations?
No, I estimated in Powerless that India in 2011-12 was producing about 373 tU of uranium to meet demand of about 849 tU (a 56% gap). I forecast 2016-17 production of about 575 tU, to meet demand of about 1,415 tU (a 59% gap). Top officials from the Uranium Corporation of India have written publicly that India does not have very large amounts of uranium and that what it has is relatively low-grade and therefore relatively difficult and costly to dig out of the ground and refine.
India mostly imports uranium from Russia and Kazakhstan. In 2011-12, India imported 296 tons of uranium from Russia’s TVEL, and 350 tons from Kazakhstan’s Kazatomprom. These imports were based on agreements India had signed with those two countries in 2009, after the grand Indo-US nuclear bargain was struck. The deal with Russian company TVEL was for 2,000 tons of natural uranium oxide pellets, for delivery over five to six years beginning in 2009, probably in batches of 300 to 400 tons annually. The deal with Kazakhstan was for 2,100 tons of natural uranium ore concentrate, spread over six years starting in 2009, with 300 to 400 tons delivered annually.
In 2010-11, India spent $126 million on importing uranium.
It’s important to keep in mind that India cannot use imported uranium in half of its reactors. It can only use imported uranium in reactors that are under IAEA safeguards, and only half of its reactors are under such safeguards. Still, importing uranium to use in these reactors frees up the domestic uranium for use in the other half of the reactors.
India doesn’t import uranium from the US, despite the Indo-US nuclear deal, because the US barely produces any uranium (its needs are vastly larger than its production). The biggest producers of uranium in recent years have been Kazakhstan, Canada, Australia, Niger, Namibia and Russia. When I wrote Powerless, India was unable, for legal reasons, to import from Australia, Niger and Namibia. The legal hurdles for imports from Canada had seemingly been cleared, but there was no commercial deal yet with a Canadian company for NPCIL to buy Canadian uranium.
There continues to be a battle between environmentalists, the power industry and the government on issues such as the construction of dams, location of nuclear plants and the impact on the environment/health hazards, including displacement of people. Will there ever be a way out of this quagmire? And is this the reason why it is difficult for India to attract foreign investment in the power sector?
There is no way out of this. It’s a natural tension that needs to be negotiated. I worry that Modi and his new government, seeking to do a better job of ‘clearing bureaucratic hurdles’ and implementing major development projects, will try to bypass or eliminate environmental and health checks, and more brutally displace people. Yes environmental clearances and land acquisition slows development and energy projects, but there’s a reason for this.
In Powerless, I wrote that “At the moment, India’s relationship with those who must be pushed out of the way to make room for the country’s development seems disturbingly similar to the relationship diners have with the chickens killed for their meals. In both cases, the beneficiaries try not to think too much about the costs involved in what they are enjoying.
The difference, of course, is that in the latter case, the creature being abused is just a chicken (sorry Maneka Gandhi) and in the former, they are human citizens of India with the same rights under the law as the energy consumers who benefit from their displacement. There are laws to protect the displaced … However, these apparently good intentions do not seem to have translated into real protections yet – at least not the kinds you and I would want for our families. Even if they did, though, however nice the government is to the people who are ‘in the way’ as it is displacing them, it would not changed the fact that they are being displaced. Despite compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation, even in the best of cases this will mean emotional, cultural and social dislocation.”
Next month, Earthcare Books in Kolkata is due to publish Lat Does Not Exist: Oral Histories of Development-Induced Displacement in India, which I helped to produce. It deals with this issue of displacement. It’s a portrait – in oral histories and photographs – of Lat, in Chhattisgarh, one of the many villages torn down to make way for one of the many coal mines being dug to fuel India’s economy.
To put this book together I went to live in Lat with a small team of journalists to try to understand the impacts – good, bad and ugly – of this kind of displacement. It was eye-opening. I think we’ve put together a great book that will help people who don’t have the time to go do the same thing understand the complexity of the issue. And this book is different because it’s not us (the journalists) telling the story – it’s the people affected, the residents of the village, who are telling it, in their own way, in their own words, at length; the book consists almost entirely of interview transcripts.
In a country where there is enough sunshine why has solar energy not become popular?
I think solar energy is popular. I’ve seen distributed solar energy put to good use in many rural areas that don’t have good grid access. I’d say it’s not more popular for two reasons: 1) the large up-front cost of installing it; 2) the storage problem (generating power is only half the problem with solar – it also has to be stored for use during the hours when the sun’s not out, and storage technologies are pricey and inefficient at the moment). It’s important to remember, though, that solar and other renewables are not a panacea for India’s energy problems.
Current renewable technologies and resources cannot bridge this gap: To meet its electricity needs, India plans to add about 208 GW generating capacity in the next 10 years, according to the Central Electricity Authority.
But it has “only” about 347 GW of renewable potential, including: 149 GW of large hydro, 100 GW of solar, 49 GW of wind , 17 GW of biomass, 15 GW of small hydro, 8 GW of tidal, 5 GW of bagasse, 4 GW of waste-to-energy. Of this 347 GW, India is already using 62 GW. A thought experiment on how far the remaining renewable potential could go to meet India’s thirst for electricity: If the country stopped building coal-fired, gas-fired, and nuclear power plants and built only renewables it would end up using 73 per cent of its renewable potential in about 10 years. And then what?
Perhaps technology will advance, and these estimates of India’s renewable potential will increase dramatically, but I don’t think we can count on that.
Could you give us a glimpse of your life and works?
I’m from the United States, originally — from a small town in the state of Massachusetts called North Falmouth, not too far from Boston. I have a BA in social and global studies from Antioch College and an MA in international relations from the University of Chicago. I served in the US Peace Corps in Turkmenistan.
I am a journalist, writer, and editor. I worked as a reporter for daily newspapers in the United States for about six years, as reporter in India for a year, as an editor at The Statesman in Kolkata for a year, and as a journalism professor at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan for two years. I’m now an editor at a publishing house in Dublin, Ireland, where I live with my wife.
For two of those years as a journalist in the United States, I wrote for Energy Intelligence, a global energy business news agency. I covered uranium markets, nuclear energy and proliferation issues around the world from Washington DC. I then moved to Kolkata and covered a broader spectrum of energy issues in India and Pakistan for Energy Intelligence newsletters Nuclear Intelligence, World Gas Intelligence, and Energy Compass, and for NewsBase newsletters Asia Electric, Unconventional Oil & Gas Monitor, as well as for World Politics Review and the Russian International Affairs Council.
Sam Tranum is from North Falmouth, in the United States. He has a BA in social and global studies from Antioch College and an MA in international relations from the University of Chicago. He served in the US Peace Corps in Turkmenistan.
He worked as a reporter for daily newspapers in the United States for about six years, as reporter in India for a year, as an editor at The Statesman in Kolkata for a year, and as a journalism professor at the American University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan for two years. He is now an editor at a publishing house in Dublin, Ireland, where he lives with his wife.
For two of those years as a journalist in the United States, Tranum wrote for Energy Intelligence, a global energy business news agency. He covered uranium markets, nuclear energy and proliferation issues around the world from Washington DC. He then moved to Kolkata and covered a broader spectrum of energy issues in India and Pakistan for Energy Intelligence newsletters Nuclear Intelligence, World Gas Intelligence, and Energy Compass, and for NewsBase newsletters Asia Electric, Unconventional Oil & Gas Monitor, as well as for World Politics Review and the Russian International Affairs Council.
Tranum is the author of Daily Life in Turkmenbashy’s Golden Age, editor of Life at the Edge of the Empire: Oral Histories of Soviet Kyrgyzstan, author of Powerless: India’s Energy Shortage and Its Impact, and co-editor of Lat Does Not Exist: Oral Histories of Development-Induced Displacement in India.
- The book, from Sage India: http://www.sagepub.in/books/Book242081
- The book, from Sage UK: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/books/Book242081
- The book, from Sage USA: http://www.sagepub.com/books/Book242081
- The book, from Flipkart: http://www.flipkart.com/powerless-indias-energy-shortage-its-impact-1st/p/itmdqvz8jm5hzhzm?pid=9788132113140&srno=b_2&ref=05842c7e-e77a-4b13-8ce4-871b5f010aba
- The book, from Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Powerless-Indias-Energy-Shortage-Impact/dp/8132113144
- My personal website: http://samtranum.com
- @samtranum on Twitter: https://twitter.com/samtranum