A new burst of budgetary energy
The announcements made in the Union budget to boost bottom lines in the energy economy, improve urban air quality, and rev up climateaction need to be fast-tracked.
Faster implementation is warranted given, say, the worsening finances of power distribution companies (discoms). Almost three decades after putative power sector reforms, the stodgy state power utilities, the vertically integrated state electricity boards (SEBs), may have been gainfully broken up into separate entities for generation, supply and distribution to shore up muchneeded transparency.
The move, though necessary across states, is not sufficient. The rising outstanding dues of discoms to power producers are currently reportedly over Rs 80,000 crore, and rising.
The rampant revenue leakage nationally needs to be urgently tackled.
To step up collections of reasonable user charges across the board, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman has rightly called for replacing conventional energy meters with prepaid smart meters in the ‘next three years’. But surely, we can do better. The way forward is to garner the necessary political will to speedily instal and universalise tamperproof digital meters with focused policy action.
Clamping down on routine revenue loss and non-payment at discoms would have welcome fiscal implications for the country. It would shore up realisations for power producers, improve power quality in general, and augment the growth momentum. Hence the requirement to set a firmer timeline of no more than a year or two to instal prepaid digital meters pan-India. We can seek funding from multilateral agencies for the purpose. Also, the objective to instal some 35 lakh solar-powered agricultural pumpsets can substantially reduce power policy distortions.
The budget has allocated over Rs 4,000 crore to address air quality in large urban centres with a population of over a million. There should be multiple initiatives to stamp out the burning of paddy stubble in areas of intensive agriculture in the northwest region. It would improve air quality across northern India.
A sound business model to step up demand and supply of paddy stubble needs to be set up, the annual output of which is put at over 30 million tonnes for Punjab and Haryana alone. And to make gainful use of paddy stubble, the construction of bio-refineries needs to be expedited.
Plant and agricultural wastes can provide feedstock for ethanol and bio-compressed natural gas (CNG) plants on a sustainable basis. This would obviate stubble-firing.
Along with this, the use of harvesting machines that ‘plant’ paddy stubble deeper — which, in turn, would improve soil quality — also needs to be provided for. The purpose ought to be to make paddy stubble-burning totally redundant, and much sooner rather than later.
It would also make perfect sense to blend CNG — the fuel for public transport fleets in the national capital territory (NCT) and beyond — with hydrogen, innovatively produced.
Hydrogen-CNG would, reportedly, reduce carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions by as much as 70%, and also step up fuel efficiency by at least 3-4%.
Further, the move by Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) to supply hydrogen-blended CNG as transport fuel for 50-60 buses in NCT, for starters, should improve air quality. IOC has, reportedly, developed a compact steam reforming process to produce hydrogen, in the presence of catalysts, for blending with CNG, and thus bypassing far costlier methods like electrolysis.
The steps taken by IOC to herald the hydrogen economy need to be encouraged by way of policy. Hydrogen has much potential to bring down carbon emissions considerably.
Additionally, IOC is said to be moving into the domain of metal-air batteries, so as to forestall dependence on lithium imports for charging electric vehicles (EVs).
Expert opinion has it that metalair batteries will generate energy by oxidising metals like iron, zinc and aluminium, which are all domestically available in plenty. Such batteries are charged by replacing plates, which take only a few minutes. Metal-air batteries also have high energy density, which makes it possible to traverse vehicular distances of up to 500 km, which is a far longer range than for lithium-ion batteries, which also tend to be extra heavy.
It is estimated that we need to import lithium metal on a massive scale for EVs. Hence, it is imperative to policy-induce economies of scale and scope in the production of metal-air batteries for EVs, to bring down costs, and shore up supply demand dynamics.
The budgetary call to dismantle dated thermal plants also holds much promise. By inculcating knowhow, like advanced, ultra super-critical boiler technology that is now indigenously available, it should be eminently possible to substantially boost thermal efficiency and concurrently reduce our carbon-emissions intensity of overall output.