July 14, 2008
Natural Gas Solution, N-Power Overhyped
By Shankar Raghuraman
NEW DELHI: Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari said on Wednesday that India could ill afford to opt out of the
race for nuclear power at a time when 24 of the 35 nuclear power plants under construction in the world are in
Asia. He also suggested that the Indo-US deal was a must for guaranteeing India's energy security.
These statements might convey the impression that India is currently nowhere in the picture when it comes to building nuclear power plants and also that nuclear power is the key to India's future energy security. Both are far from the truth.
Far from missing out in the race for nuclear power, India has six such plants under construction and only Russia has more with seven being built in that country.
As an article in the bulletin of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) put it: "India gets less than 3% of its electricity from nuclear, but it is, along with China and Russia, one of the leaders in current new construction, boasting six of the world's 35 reactors under construction."
As for the imputation that nuclear energy holds the key to India's future energy security, neither the country's own official projections nor those done by its partner in the deal, the US, bear this out.
The Energy Information Agency (EIA) of the US Department of Energy on June 25 put out the highlights of its latest International Energy Outlook, which contains projections by region/country for the use of different types of fuels up to 2030. The projections for India suggest that total installed power capacity will reach 398,000 MW by 2030, up from 138,000 MW in 2005.
How much of this will be from nuclear plants? The EIA projection says 20,000 MW will be from nuclear power. What that means is that nuclear power will contribute barely 5% of India's total installed capacity in 2030 under this scenario. That doesn't quite sound like the the key to energy security does it?
However, Indian estimates suggest a somewhat bigger role for atomic energy and sooner than the EIA projections. The Planning Commission's Working Group on Power for the 11th Plan, in its report, took note of the Indo-US civil nuclear cooperation agreement as well as the likely opening up of atomic energy to the private sector and concluded that "the effect of this is likely to be visible in the 12th Plan period" (2012-2017).
Based on that assumption, it estimated that about 15,960 MW of nuclear power capacity could be added over the 11th and 12th Plan periods. That would take the total installed capacity of such plants to a little over 20,000 MW by 2017, a lot earlier than the EIA feels India will reach that level.
However, even by the Working Group's estimates, the 20,000 MW would constitute only 6.7% of the country's total installed capacity, which makes it hard to see it as the determinant of India's energy security.
Even globally, India, China, Russia and Japan are exceptions to the projected trend of nuclear power accounting for a lower portion of energy needs. Its contribution to global installed capacity is projected by the EIA to come down from 9.6% in 2005 to 7.1% by 2030.
Even in Russia and Japan, its contribution is expected to rise just a wee bit from 10.6% to 11.6% in the former and from 19% to 21.2% in the latter. In China too, the increase in share of nuclear power is slated to rise from 1.6% in 2005 to 3.2% in 2030.
If nuclear power isn't the key, what is? The EIA estimates suggest that coal will still remain the primary fuel for power in India accounting for 173,000 MW or over 43% in 2030. But the fastest growth will be in natural gas-based plants, which will account for 133,000 MW or over one-third of the total capacity.
The Working Group's report does not give a break-up of thermal capacity, so one does not know how much of the planned capacity addition is coal-based and how much gas-based. However, it does say, "natural gas is the fastest growing primary energy source amongst fossil fuels".
It also acknowledges that India is likely to have only about 49 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas production by the end of the 11th Plan against an estimated demand of about 114 BCM.
"Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that sizable quantity of natural gas would need to be imported to meet the demand in future, either as LNG or through trans-national pipelines," the Working Group report says.
That would indicate that it is deals like the India-Iran gas pipeline that could really hold the key to India's energy security. Whether such a deal will be possible in the event of India getting into a strategic embrace with the US, which has indicated its disapproval of the pipeline project, is another matter.
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