From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :
Prelims level : Not much
Mains level : Costs of cleaner energy alternatives
It Matters How the Electricity Is Made
- Among the many drivers of global warming, electricity generation/consumption and transportation of people and goods have been identified as two important drivers which contribute almost 50% to the emissions load.
- Against this backdrop, two non-food or agriculture technologies that have been projected and implemented as ‘clean alternatives’ to mitigate the global warming phenomenon are:
- Solar photovoltaics for electricity generation
- Electrification of transport
Cleanliness of these alternatives
- There is a general propensity to push these two alternatives in terms of energy and financial return on investments but very little is being said upfront about environmental cost and effect.
- Both these technologies indeed lead to significantly reduced emissions after they are implemented.
- The catchphrase here, however, is after!
- There is little information or discussion in the public domain about upfront environmental cost as it is an inconvenient truth that cannot be wished away.
Why aren’t they clean
- Prior to their implementation, a lot of different human-made materials have to be synthesized from naturally occurring raw materials.
- Then, these have to be put together as a functioning unit or a device for a specific purpose.
- These processes, unfortunately, are both energy- and emissions-intensive and to realise the extent of these intensities, one needs to go behind the scene.
 Solar energy
- The dominant market player in the field of solar energy conversion to electricity is silicon-based modules occupying more than 90 per cent of the installed capacity.
- These modules are made of elements as well as inorganic and organic compounds such as silicon, aluminum, copper, silver, glass, epoxy, plastics and are generally installed using steel and concrete.
- All these materials are human-made and hence need to be synthesized utilizing naturally occurring raw materials.
- These synthesis processes are energy- and water-consuming and emit greenhouse gasses and pollutants into the atmosphere — dark horses in the chain of realization of solar energy conversion to electricity.
- Information regarding the environmental costs of these processes is not extensively mentioned in the public domain except for a few occasional studies.
- These studies indicate that the CO2(e) gasses emission due to solar panel manufacturing alone is about 2,560 kg per kilowatt of installed capacity, which is quite significant.
 Electrification of transportation
- This involves the substitution of current petrol, diesel and gas combustion-powered engines in automobiles with electric engines.
- The two main components of such an automobile, therefore, are: the engine which converts electrical energy to propulsion and a battery.
- The electric engine or motor has been known for a long time but for the above application, it needs to have high energy density along with being compact and lightweight.
- This can be accomplished by using what is known as ‘rare earth’ magnets which require extensive mining and processing which are environmentally intensive activities.
- A closer look at the Li-ion battery shows that it requires a 40-kilowatt-hour battery and putting together such a battery results in releasing about 3,000 Kg of CO2(e) gasses into the
The Indian scenario
After looking at the behind-the-scenes emissions scenario of the two technologies, let us put Indian goals into perspective with respect to these two technologies.
- It was recently announced that India will have an installed capacity of 100 gigawatt (GW) for electricity generation by solar photovoltaics by the year 2022.
- This will mean gaseous emissions to the tune of 0.256 GTons of CO2(e) for manufacturing of solar panels, which is a staggering amount from this activity alone.
- It should be noted here that installation of 100 GW electrical power generation plants will actually result in only 25 GW of usable electricity at best, assuming an efficiency of 25 per cent, which itself is quite high.
- If, on the other hand, we would like to have 100 GW of usable electrical power being generated by solar photovoltaics, it will result in emissions to the tune of 1.024 GTons of CO2(e), which is enormous.
- This is an upfront loading of the environment with greenhouse gasses gases and excludes the embodied carbon in batteries, inverters, junction boxes, wiring and so on.
- The Union transportation minister has recently announced that India will become the largest manufacturer of electric vehicles and Li-ion batteries will be manufactured in India within the next six months.
- To replace about a million conventional fuel-based vehicles (a fraction of the existing vehicles), it will result in upfront loading to the tune of 3 MTons of CO2(e) greenhouse gasses, just due to the battery assembly process alone.
- The environmental costs due to electric motor manufacturing, mining of raw materials required for the battery and generation of electricity to run these million electric automobiles will be additional.
- In both cases, the water requirement and particulate emissions have not been included, both of which are strongly linked to ecology and the environment.
- It is very clear from the two technologies and the related national goals that huge environmental, human, as well as economic costs, need to be paid upfront to realise these goals.
- The task becomes even more daunting as the infrastructure required to make either solar grade Si or for that matter put together a million Li-ion batteries is non-existent at present.
- In light of these facts, it becomes imperative to realign goals and prioritize steps to be taken to alleviate the problem of emissions and the associated global warming.
- It is important to try various less harmful alternatives.
- On another note, it is time to legislate so that businesses will also include the costs of atmospheric pollution together with their profit and loss statements.