Last week, Farooq Abdullah, India’s new and renewable energy minister, gave a forthright defense of India’s pursuit of peaceful nuclear energy in the face of local protests against nuclear power plants in several Indian states.
Abdullah spoke at the Sustainable Development Summit in Delhi, where he struck an apologetic tone over India’s energy development:
“India is moving forward and it needs energy. We have 1.2 billion people and 40 per cent of our people don't have access to energy. Therefore, please forgive us. We have to use nuclear energy till renewable energy comes up to such a level that we are able to dispense with fossil fuels and nuclear energy.”
This quote is quite reflective of a dilemma facing not only India, but many developing world nations when it comes to its energy mix.
India has to balance three important factors: first, finding enough energy to fuel its economy and bring as many of its citizens onto the grid as possible (India only has a 75 percent electrification rate, and the numbers are lower for rural areas); second, doing so in an inexpensive way, since the country struggles with fiscal deficits and a weakened currency, while at the same time coming to terms with the lethal levels of pollution the country is currently experiencing (as told in an excellent New York Times op-ed by Michael Greenstone and Rohini Pande).
India’s current energy mix is weighted heavily to take advantage of its domestic abundance of coal. Fifty-seven percent of electricity in India is generated by coal, the most heavily polluting source of generation, according to statistics provided by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
By contrast, hydroelectric makes up 19 percent, renewables 12 percent (though much of this is biomass), and nuclear power 2 percent.
India is trying to make strides in renewable energy, particularly solar and wind. Its Nehru National Solar Mission is ambitious, including plans to build the world’s largest solar power plant.
Yet, in contrast to investment in renewables, the Indian government believes nuclear still offers an impressive bang for its buck, despite protests over plants being built on the homesites of evicted villagers.
Nuclear plants, despite their high capital costs, can produce electricity continuously, whereas renewables such as wind and solar have intermittency problems and their output cannot be easily adjusted to meet demand. Neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and China, are also adding new nuclear capacity, leading India to keep up with its geopolitical rivals.
Aside from a landmark nuclear deal with the United States, India has also reached out to Australia to secure a steady supply of uranium, and to South Korea for technical expertise and partnerships for the construction of new plants.
In order to make the country more attractive for foreign investment, Indian government officials have hinted that its strict liability law, which has kept out a lot of foreign companies, is flawed, and might be subject to future revision.
These developments all underscore the danger behind Abdullah’s remarks. While economic necessity may dictate an acceleration of nuclear power, nations doing business in India must ensure its investments are going to the responsible spread of nuclear power. Too often in India, regulatory priority loses out to economic need.
Nations such as the United States could use their good offices to ensure India’s embrace of nuclear is indeed meant as a glide path to the wider adoption of renewables.
Otherwise, India risks putting itself into a position where its energy mix is locked into nuclear, a situation that may only be politically sustainable until the next Fukushima Daiichi.
Making energy a regular topic of the U.S.-India bilateral strategic dialogues could ensure that discussion remains on the agenda.