Shreya Jai is a Delhi-based reporter who covers the energy sector for the Business Standard newspaper. In this episode, she talks about India’s energy challenges, including electricity demand that’s growing by about 6% per year, why “coal is here to stay,” solar, microgrids, and why, for many Indians, “energy security is missing.”
Robert Bryce 0:04
Everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I'm Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I'm pleased to welcome my guest Shreya Jai, she is a journalist based in Delhi, India. She is an assistant editor at Business Standard Shreya. Welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Shreya Jai 0:23
Thank you so much, Robert. I'm very delighted to come here. I do listen to your podcast, and I love it. I love the content that is there. You have amazing lineup of guests. So thank you so much for having me here.
Robert Bryce 0:35
No, it's my pleasure. So I did warn you Shreya that the guest says, you know, introduce themselves. So if you don't mind, imagine you've arrived somewhere you don't know anyone. And I do mean no one and you have maybe 45 or 60 seconds, please introduce yourself.
Shreya Jai 0:49
Sure. Hi, everyone, as Robert told, I am Shreya J, I am a journalist, I write on the energy sector for Business Standard newspaper in Delhi. And I've been writing on the sector for close to a decade now. It's a very interesting sector I currently my focus has been on renewable energy, India's energy transition and our climate goals, something that has been making news worldwide. And it's a very interesting area to be in. And when I'm not chasing megawatts, and million tons. I love poking around Old and New Delhi. And I love writing poetry both in love writing and reading poetry in Hindi. That is something I enjoy. So yeah, and I'm looking forward to talk to Robert.
Robert Bryce 1:31
Oh, well, that's great. So I mispronounce Shreya J, not J. Yeah. Ray, J. J. Okay. Thank you. So, broadly, you talked about the energy transition in India, and I'm no expert on India. I've been there once. So it was now four or five, six years ago, almost now. So what are the key challenges if we could just start there? Because as you know, and I do as well, India is very cold dependent for electricity. A couple of quick facts for the people who are listening, I'm not familiar with India, per capita, electricity consumption is about 800 kilowatt hours per capita per year, it's about a quarter of the global average, which is about 3100 kilowatt hours. So India still has a lot of challenges ahead, but I just wanted that one. I won't give you any more numbers. But I just wanted to throw that out. So what are the biggest challenges that you see Shreya? In in terms of just providing basic energy? And then when you come to the talking about a transition to other forms of energy?
Shreya Jai 2:28
Sure. Let's take this question in two parts. One would be a macro challenge, and excuse me, and other would be the micro challenges. So at macro level, something that you very rightly mentioned, India is a coal dependent country, close to 75% of our energy demand, electricity demand, rather, is met by coal. And that seems to be a backbone, our whole power grid infrastructure, power supply infrastructure is also built around coal. That would not seem like a big challenge, because for the past 30 decades, three decades or so we have been dependent on coal. And recently, we have electrified all our households, and we are getting a decent amount of power supply according to the government claims. But the challenge emerges in terms of what India's own set of targets are. We have set an ambitious target when it comes to our climate commitments, we have committed 500 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity addition in the coming decade. And we currently stand at around 100 gigawatts. So that that's a huge, huge target. And having said that, we have taken leaps in renewable energy capacity addition, and when I say renewable energy, I mean solar and wind where the majority of investment and policy focus has been in the past decade or so, I would say two decades, but solar has grown in the past this past decade. So that has been primarily the focus. Now, the challenge emerges that as I mentioned earlier, the infrastructure in all these years was built around coal. So renewable faces that challenge first, second, obviously, is money. Traditionally, money has always flowed into the fossil fuel based industries beat coal mining, thermal based power production. So at macro level, these this is the big challenge that though the country the policymakers do have an intention to take that leap from coal to green energy, and the growth has been impressive. In terms of target it looks small, but till yet we it is an impressive growth to see that much amount of capacity addition, in 2008, nine solar was two gigawatt currently, I think we stand at around 45 gigawatt or something so it's pretty impressive. That way, tariffs are fallen from 17 rupees we are at what two rupees it went sub two rupees as well per unit. So it is the growth It has been impressive. But when we look at this, this number of 500 gigawatt, I don't think the infrastructure is ready I can explain that later. But yeah, that is a macro challenge, then I come to the micro part, you you must have read these headlines that India is now 100% electrified, all households of this country are electrified, which again is an impressive feat, it took years in making but yes, we finally did it. But that does not translate into reliable power supply. There are still remote areas there still villages, which receive 12 hours or less than 12 hours or even lesser power supply. So that is one challenge though infrastructure wise, we are connected all households are connected to the national grid somehow, but that energy security is missing. So that is a micro challenge, which is a challenge for a country of this size, which has remote locations, which has remote villages, which to which are not even connected by roads, and we are connecting them by electricity grid. So it would be a challenge to connect them to meet them. And the biggest challenge would be to ask them to pay their bills, electricity bills in a country where free power is a political promise. So I think if I look at micro level, that is a big, big challenge. And the challenge also emerges from the fact that electricity sector in India follows a Federalist structure, where generation and transmission of electricity comes under the center, whereas distribution of electricity to the household comes under the state. And that's where a lot of clashes emerge, that's where a lot of issues emerge. a trickle down effect of losses happen is states have their own policies, center tries to push reforms or state tries to put their own reforms. But due to layers of bureaucracy, layers of federal structure reforms do get lost something that has happened time and again, in the electricity sector that reforms have been initiated, but they have not reached their last mile or reached where they should have been. So so that is a micro challenge there. And I'm happy to elaborate on any of it that you weren't
Robert Bryce 7:17
sure. So just to talk about that part about the free electricity because I was reading your piece that you published in Business Standard about the elections in Uttar Pradesh. I'm saying that correctly? I hope. Yeah,
Shreya Jai 7:30
it's at the Pradesh. Yes. Okay. Not the most state.
Robert Bryce 7:33
Okay, well, I'm in Texas, so you'll have to forgive my pronunciation on some of these things. But but it was just the I thought it was interesting that the this issue of free electricity, right, that this is something that is politically popular, but in terms of the the reliability of the grid, it's terrible. Because, you know, as I've said, if people are gonna use electricity, the only way it's going to be sustainable. And by that I mean over time, is that that people pay for the power that they use, but yet it seems like in in Uttar Pradesh that the the farm, the farmers are a big voting bloc, and they are this idea of free electricity really appeals IS THAT SO politicians are promising it but can they really deliver? Tell me explain the politics of that?
Shreya Jai 8:19
Yeah, thanks for asking that. It's a very pertinent issue. You know, it's not new for politicians to promise free electricity it has been going on since decades, since as long as I remember. Politically how much they can come it or not, is a question left based on answered because the politicians promising free electricity are not the ones deciding that, you know, there's a whole regulatory regime that decides it and once sitting MP, a sitting member of Parliament decides to offer free electricity, the electricity supply company just add one more slab into their tariffs saying that this this section of the population will get free electricity, but that has a far reaching a domino effect kind of thing on the financials of the power distribution company. And let me explain it in in this way. Let me take an example of Uttar Pradesh only. Some of the discoms distribution companies abbreviated as discoms, have more than 50 tariffs labs. Can you imagine that there are 50 types of consumers for which that particular company has to decide tariffs for and most of them would be free. So
Robert Bryce 9:31
I just said, I'm sitting here I'm cutting, my jaw is dropping and you're saying so here in the US we have we have residential we have commercial and we have industrial I mean generally speaking. You have three different
Shreya Jai 9:44
groups and agriculture. There would be one for the fishery, the fisheries. One would be for maize cropping. One would be for rice cropping in the industries there would be one for large industries, small industries, micro industries, and things like that. So
Robert Bryce 10:00
It's just incredibly difficult. Yes, it is.
Shreya Jai 10:02
It is amazing. For years have been saying if you if you search on regulators notice for years, they say that there should be a tariff slab rationalization just collect all slabs, the one tariff, you know, it's such a headache you know all these tariff submissions are run into 600 pages. So, if you have to learn that what is the tariff a particular farmer is paying in this city or for that matter, I state you have to run through 600 pages to understand, but the summary of that 600 pages is always dismal, especially for states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Haryana has still improved. And it is a same story every year that they are lost making, and they are lost making because they can not recover the subsidy that they offer. On an average, you know, thermal power costs rupees four on an average for rupees four per unit, let's let's take a thumb value of rupees four per unit, and you're supplying power for free to 20 to 30% of your consumers, how are you supposed to recover that cost and it is not a stable that for rupees during a monsoon season you have to procure hydro the season when there is low power. So you have to you know, procure costlier power on top of it, you are making losses because there is no infrastructure development that is happening because you do not have any additional revenue to invest into infrastructure development. So if so, whatever the line losses that are happening, because of bad infrastructure that also is getting accounted into your financial losses, because if you're supplying 100 units, only 70 units is reaching that 30 units, straight loss for the distribution companies. So that also gets are added into the financial losses. So, it's a whole wattics of subsidy loss that the government's repeatedly have been trying to break. You know, in 2014, there was
Robert Bryce 12:03
can I start over I love this, the the vortex of subsidy loss. This, that, but I wanted to just follow on that, because what you just said is that there's so for any business, if you're losing 30% of your revenue or your product right off the top, I mean, how can you possibly make it you know, in a and over the long term, and just to be clear on that 30% loss? Now, some of that is because it's being given away, and some of it is, in my reporting in India there. You know, in some areas, there's just a lot of theft, and I saw it myself in rural areas in in, in South 24 Parganas. And in that, you know, there's just a lot of people tapping the line, so is a 30% loss. It's not that it's that important, but how much would be theft and how much is just that they're giving it away to farmers and politically favored groups.
Shreya Jai 12:55
I think the portion of theft has come down considerably, but I will still place it around 10% or so for the states which are repeated offenders. But energy theft has come down significantly, because of infrastructure development, because of lot of metering and everything. So energy theft has does come down. But the billing efficiency is another problem. I'm sorry, I'm throwing so many acronyms at you. Billing efficiencies pretty low, you know, you are not able to recover the electricity bills, and that is a challenge that bill is generated, the customer is metered, but you're not able to recover the bills. And it is a challenge in remote areas for a state as largest up and which has remote villages, districts where there is not enough electricity staff to go and recover bills, because not everything is online. So that also in the end hurts your bottom line. I guess so. So there are multiple level of challenges. So you're right about energy theft. But the good thing is that it has significantly come down in the past many years because of infrastructure development. But that remains a key reason. Yes,
Robert Bryce 14:03
sure. But But back to the I interrupted you and I apologize for that. But I interrupt a lot, but it's just the this the 70% 30%. So as for the disc coms, as you call them, the distribution companies, is it a general rule of thumb that then at the state level, they're losing 30%? Is that is that kind of across India? Or is that then up or just to certain states? Are there? Can you even make that kind of a generalization about the the discoms and the amount of revenue that they're able to make off of the what they sell 70%? Is that a rule of thumb?
Shreya Jai 14:35
No, no, I don't think so, there are some states that are much much better. Without is a shining example, I mentioned Haryana Haryana has made a lot of improvement in past these many years. I'm just quoting citing data from the government websites where sure what to produce this form seems to be having operational losses of 32% which has actually increased rather than declining. So that is one example. So it is not a general topic. Root, there are discoms which do not have operational losses or which are financially profit making. Even inside with the Pradesh, there are two distribution companies which are in green, rest, three are in red in terms of financial losses, though their operational losses continue to be high. So it's not a thumb rule, but but if operational losses are high, it is, in most cases symptomatic that there is a larger problem there. So if you go into more details of these particular discount, you will find a lot of skeletons there.
Robert Bryce 15:33
Sure. And so talk about the farmers and why they're such a powerful voting bloc and why the I know, I again, I've been to India only once but there's very little, there's just a lot of farming a lot of agricultural activity everywhere. And even though it's a very large country with a large population, I didn't see a lot of just open unoccupied area. There's, it's a densely populated country, but it's in a sidebar. So tell me about why the farm farmers as a lobby group, as we call them here in the US why they're so powerful.
Shreya Jai 16:07
I would not call farmers as a lobby group as of yet. Okay, India, but I would call them an easy political target, rather, okay. You know, these SOPs that are being offered to them, not SOPs, rather, you
Robert Bryce 16:26
know, favors consideration,
Shreya Jai 16:29
that is just to, you know, win their votes. I don't think farmer groups or lobbies have ever gone and asked about free power, he will not refuse it. So my my colleague who was on the ground in Uttar Pradesh, he did talk with people and they said that they are happy with whatever electricity supply they're getting at their home, and they're happy to pay whatever little bills they get, because obviously, the consumption is not that much. But they want free power for the tubers, because electricity doesn't come. It's not a reliable electricity supply. So they have to spend on diesel, which is costlier. So they said he might as well supply us electricity and supply it for free. Because you know, we are producing and we are not getting enough rates for our agriculture produce. So I think farmer things from that kind of mindset, that whatever produce I'm selling, I'm not able to recover that. So why should I not get electricity for free? I think this mindset has pushed politicians to keep offering electricity and also water, something that we ignore in this discussions as free. And then it leads to a lot of wastage. That is an another discussion altogether. But but my personal opinion is that this is a very, very easy election promise that is being made. Without any thought process, I don't think that kind of maturity to treat electricity and water as economical. Or as I say, as you know, treat them as economics has not emerged as economic sectors. They are not political sectors, they are economic sectors, you have to treat them in an economical way with a financial outlook that is yet to emerge in a section of, you know, politicians, I guess
Robert Bryce 18:21
it's easy for the politicians to say, well, I'll give you a free electricity, but they're not running the discoms. Right. So they can say it's not, it's not their problem. Right. Is that Is that fair?
Shreya Jai 18:31
Yeah, yeah. And then just you know, it is it's okay, if you're promising free electricity, there's no problem in offering, but you know, one has to change the way electricity is promised as free. I will cite one example here, I think in 2018, Bihar, which also has a lot of farming population, and which was for several years in famous for offering free electricity to whoever it changed the whole slab structure of electricity bills, it removed all subsidy portions from electricity bills for all possible consumers, rural, commercial, industrial everyone, and then it made a tabulation on who all deserves free electricity and they were given direct benefit transfer DBT. Basically, if I am entitled to receive free electricity, I will get that particular amount of my electricity bill as as an as as a direct amount in my account bill. So my electricity bill will have no subsidy, my discount will have to offer me no subsidy. My discount will build me as I as I consume for whatever unit of electricity I consume, and whatever I pay, the state will reimburse it back into my account. So the discount continues to act act as a financial entity. my electricity bill continues to be a financial structure But the state which has promised me free electricity is giving me money directly into my account. And that also, you know, plugs, a whole lot of losses in the whole supply chain. I think that is a very great example on how you can offer SOPs, and also how you can, you know, make a good example out of it like a good policy out of it,
Robert Bryce 20:22
because the company is not then being taxed in an indirect way that the government is saying, Okay, well, here's a, here's a subsidy directly in cash to the individual consumer. But that doesn't, that doesn't affect the viability of the Discom or so on. Bihar is interesting. It's it's, as I recall, and I was just looking it up, it's one of the most populous states one of the biggest states in India, it's also one of the poorest, is it not is that right? Yeah,
Shreya Jai 20:49
yeah, yeah. So, I think a DBT like his structure works there. You know, because you can clearly identify the set of consumers who deserve that kind of subsidy. And I will juxtaposition it to another example of Delhi, starkly different example. It's an urban city. The you know, the if we were to tabulate rich and poor index, Delhi would be much much closer to the rich index compared to Bihar. Now, Delhi also has a power subsidy structure, Delhi follows another structure, Delhi rule is that, till 200 units of your consumption is free. If you if you are consuming whatever amount zero to 200, I will reduce your bill by 50%, free and 200 to 400 is 50%. Now, my bill is 400 units, I am much better positioned to pay my electricity bill of however, amount it comes to I'm very much in opposition, but my bill comes zero. Why? Rather than that, it should be the other way around that you need to identify the set of consumers who cannot even pay those 500 or 200 rupees, they are the ones who should be entitled for that kind of subsidy. So I think a DBT kind of model direct benefit transfer kind of model identifies consumers in terms of their chaussure economic structure, and then gives them subsidy, which I believe is is kind of a effective model, though, though a lot of experts have pointed out errors in that as well. But compared to this direct subsidy on the basis of consumption and other ways of political promises, I think this is a much more efficient way. If you were to ask me, I'll say that.
Robert Bryce 22:37
Sure. Well, as you're saying that it occurs, it occurs to me. And you know, I only went to when I was in Kolkata, I spent some time in Delhi, a little bit in Rajasthan, in Jaipur, along with my family now six years ago. But India's also is just thinking about this. And I pulled up a map because I realized, well, it's such a big country. And it's so varied that Gujarat is, as I understand it's a very prosperous state. Right. So it's very much different from Bihar. So to talk about these together, well, it's not really the same is that I mean, how do you think about that in India, in its in all the varied regions, because it's a quite a diverse and very geographically different country? And yet, it seems like it would be very difficult to manage? And you're you've already mentioned this conflict between the central government and the states, how do you how do you see that in? Or how does that affect energy policy, I guess, is the now to get to a finally to a question, how does that how does that affect how does that affect energy policy and are even able to keep up with all these different varied interest in states?
Shreya Jai 23:39
You You are absolutely right, it is actually very difficult to enforce a similar policy across the states. In 2014, there was a policy called EU there, I will not tell you the full form, okay, because it's very difficult. It's called a jewel describe assurance yojna. So, there it was launched and it was to revive the power distribution segment in all the states and all states came on board, you know, it had a characteristic approach. It basically said that if you do this much improvement and infrastructure, this much money would be given to you or this much money will not be given to you. Very interesting approach. Very interesting. The only shortfall it had was that it gave us singular target to all the discounts across all the states. And that is the reason it did not work. Like the states which were already improving, improved, got all the money and improved much more. But the states which were slow starters, or which were facing a lot of problems at their own backyard, could not you know, even be closer to the kind of target that they had set. So now they have tweaked the scheme a bit. And now they're asking states to come forward. Tell us every six months What will you do? What is your near term short term long Turn improvement targets across board infrastructure, loss reduction subsidy, changing your electricity bills, little small, big things, tell us that tell us how much money you need. And as you improve, like kids report card, I'll give you a candy. So if you improve by 5%, you get 5% money from that institution, right? If you improve by 10%, oh, you get 20%. And then you get a grant as well. So this has just been launched. This looks promising, because now the onus lies on the state. If you do not improve, no financial institution will give you money. I think the center is in talks with banks as well. If you do not improve the state of electricity in your particular area or distribution company, no one will give you loan as your working capital. No one will give you money to run your project. And and I think they would this would be a much tighter ship to run at. Coming back to your question. Yes, that makes energy policy, a lot of difficult, because now the states which are not ruled by the same political party, which is in the center, are opposing to this particular policy, right. And there is a high chance that they would not like to come on board on this. Now it is, for them, it is of no laws, but look at the laws of electricity consumer, the kind of reforms that other states would take up or the kind of infrastructure development that would happen in other states might not happen in these states, because the political mindset does not align. So that is a challenge that this federal structure creates. But at the same time, not not criticizing any of these states. This Federalist structure also keeps the center in check that the the center should not have an overarching power over this, like some of the provisions of a recently revised bill also entail This center will have a larger role in appointing regulators and appointing authority, something that the state's massively oppose that why should the state's center should have that kind of overarching powers, and the center had to revise that they dropped that plan. So so a fed a good Federalist structure keeps check and balance. But yes, it leads to a lot of challenge, you know, the center has to push a lot, all the reforms and, and and I think the states have to take up on their own these reforms. And the reason I mentioned Gujarat was that only that when Gujarat decided to reform its electricity sector, there was no scheme as such, running from the center, pushing you to reform yourself. But Gujarat did it. Because they wanted to reform the electricity sector. So this this is an example that a lot of researchers and bureaucrats always cite, that goes rotten and example that you're self motivated state and you take up your reforms, and you know, just change.
Robert Bryce 27:57
But it's a different state from everything that I know. I mean, it's much healthier, more educated, it's a coastal state. So it has these different qualities that relative to the inland states, and so on. Just a quick station break. So again, my guest is Shreya J, she is an Indian journalist, She's based in Delhi, she's an assistant editor at the Business Standard. She's on Twitter, that's the easiest way to find her Shreya underscore j is Shreya as s HREYA underscore J AI. She's also the host of the India energy hour podcast. So we talked about subsidizing agricultural use, and particularly for irrigation, because that's a big issue for farmers and the electricity costs related to that. But let's talk about coal versus renewables and nuclear because, and I've been an advocate for nuclear energy for a very long time, nuclear is moving forward in India. But you talked about the energy transition, really, in terms of renewables, I want to come back to renewables. But can you give me an update about what's going on with the nuclear sector in India? Because it seems like it's been. There have been some contracts, there's been some development, but like, everywhere else, it's moving somewhat slowly. Is that a fair assessment?
Shreya Jai 29:06
Yeah, yeah, it is pretty slow. And in past many years, I have not seen very aggressive focus on nuclear at such, I think, bounded by global treaties, and also whatever global mishaps that happen, especially after Fukushima, a lot of development in the nuclear sector was stalled, if I can use that word koodankulam has been moving, but at a very slow pace. It also faced a lot of local protests, as you might know. So there have been developments in nuclear, but very slow. And also when we talk about the government's energy policy, or energy basket per se, I have not seen any great numbers, promising growth of nuclear and in the past five, six years The focus has been so much on solar and wind, that nuclear and for that matter, even hydro, even gas are pretty sidelined.
Robert Bryce 30:13
The focus is much more on the renewable side. So tell me about that. Then what about, I know that there's been some Alaska directly. So there been much in terms of land use conflicts with the siting of wind and solar, because as I, as I noticed, I mean, there's just not a lot of open available land, there are people in pretty much every corner of India from what I saw is our land use issues a conflict when it comes to the siting of large renewable projects.
Shreya Jai 30:39
Yeah, there have been incidents, where land is a big concern, Rajasthan was identified, the state of Rajasthan was identified as a prime location for renewable energy, where there is a lot of, you know, arid land, which can be utilized for putting up large solar parks, or solar generating units, but that is also facing a lot of ecological challenges, because it happens to be a bird catchment area or, or in the Eco sensitive zone. So that kind of challenges are there in Karnataka, also, a lot of solar power project developers are facing challenges from local farmers, which claim that the the land is usable. So there are land challenges, and that, in the end leads to increase in price of solar power. So you're absolutely right. In India, where land is such scars, how do people are affording this kind of land. So it is a challenge. But for now, the government policy seems that they want to focus on grid connected large solar power plants. Personally, I feel that solar should be decentralized, but land is a major, major challenge in this country. And if we do not focus on decentralized rooftop solar program, it will become a bigger problem in the coming future. Because whatever solar parks were identified, they have come up. So going forward, if one were to set up large, solar parks, also wind farms, the land is not available in when there is another challenge, all the good windy sites are gone. Whatever are there are semi semi good, windy sites, that means additional investment into taller, stronger wind turbines that in the end increases the cost of wind power. So yeah, the challenge of land is definitely there.
Robert Bryce 32:32
So So tell me you made that one quick comment about that. You You were it more in favor of a decentralized approach and micro grids? And I've seen you've written about micro grids and some of your recent articles. Tell me why you you see that approach? And does does that include batteries? How do you how do you think of those micro grids for particularly rural areas? And I you know, as I said, I've been in India once and been in some rural areas and but didn't see many solar panels is that is that where the growth is really happening with solar in India?
Shreya Jai 33:05
See, for a country, which took 70 years to electrify all of his households, how are we planning to take solar to all these households is something that baffles me. Or
Robert Bryce 33:19
I'm sorry, I just want to make sure i What do you mean by that? I'm just curious if you don't mind
Shreya Jai 33:23
that house was electrified just two years back three years. Yeah, these many years it took for the national grid to reach the households for a power line to reach a household right. So, so, you imagine the vast expanse of network creation, it would have taken now renewable poses another challenge, renewable will not only disturb the grid structure, renewable would also entail another round of grid infrastructure creation, so that it can exist in sync with the conventional power sources, that is one major challenge. Second, the areas where solar and wind projects are coming up are not necessarily the consumption centers. I go back to the example of Gujarat which is also another prime wind and solar side. Gujarat is has surplus supply, you know, it has so much energy that it can sell to at least one more full state and there is no robust line connecting the western grid to north or the eastern part of the India. So you understand the challenge that there is a whole land here which has surplus energy, which cannot be taken to another part. And then obviously there are regulatory challenges attached to it as to how much power they can sell from their estate. So why not have solar where it is consumed? Why not? It should be on my rooftop. Why should it not be on a farm where a farmer can run his irrigation pump from solar? Why should he rely on grid electric power which is unreliable, and why should he spend money on diesel when he can like install a solar panel and, and a battery preferably and run his motor and solar by its nature is decentralized I believe when when something is so cheap, when you do not have to, you know, set up a power plant like thermal or set up a turbine or create a dam. So when something is so simple as just putting up a solar panel, why create this whole infrastructure around that, to make it costlier? To make it much more in assessable? Why should it be done? If there are sunny days in Gujarat, there are sunny days and look, the Pradesh, Maharashtra in charcoal and the sunny days, every year, everywhere. It's just the irradiation is different, but it's still of how much different would it be you you save so much of line loss, you save so much of infrastructure, investment into infrastructure that is being created, and you're taking solar where it is needed. And I think by doing that you also change the mindset, probably Germany is a great example Germany started investment into solar would be centralized. Every rooftop would have solar, when they were done with that that's when they decided to have to invest into other sources of energy. I think it is a great example. I think something similar should be done in India. You mentioned there's this crunch of land that clearly is there are so many rooftops to cover, there are so many farm lands to cover. I think it should be done. The government has initiated some programs. There have been slow success in that. But but but my personal opinion is that solar by its nature is decentralized. And it should be where it is consumed.
Robert Bryce 37:00
Sure. Well, you mentioned high voltage transmission lines, which is is another constraint right? And on on the grid network, especially here in the US, right? There's a lot of talk, oh, well, we'll just build a lot of high voltage transmission without any understanding of that it's really hard. I mean, it's really difficult because again, of land use conflicts. So we haven't we touched on the coal business a little bit. And one of the things that was interesting in the cup meeting in Glasgow was India, among other countries, fought the provision to say that there was going to be a phase out of coal and instead that they the change was made to phase down I think was the phrase that was ultimately agreed upon. So I know that India's coal sector is very also politically powerful. And it's also politically powerful, because it's one of the biggest, or the the Indian rail network is also a huge employer and India's rail moves a lot of coal. So how quickly do you think the country can move away from coal? Is there a phase out or a phase down? Or was there a target for reducing from 70% to another? And what is that
Shreya Jai 38:11
is no official target for phasing down coal, as of yet, there have been government projections about when well, coal demand in the country would start going down, and that it starts to empty 4220 45 onwards, and I'm citing very different studies. But this is the range. And this is when our coal demand is forecasted to peak at around 2030 to 2032. So we can safely say that another two decades, coal is not going anywhere. Are we in this country? Coal is here to stay? And, yes, we have planned on it, we do have a netzero plan. But me and you both know that it's a very long term plan, we have given the target year of 2070. That is too far. Government's own projections, as I mentioned, say that at least till 2040, coal will not see a decline. There are some more optimistic projections, which say that after peaking in 2013 to 2035, we might see a decline. But that is dependent on a whole lot of factors. One, one being one major being renewable energy coming to four. So we actually have to keep a track on how renewable energy development takes shape in this country, along with energy storage, and obviously grid infrastructure. But to summarize my answer again, though, coal is not going anywhere, anytime soon in this country.
Robert Bryce 39:51
We'll and I noticed from I believe it was a piece that you wrote in the last few days that in fact, the government was now requiring the generators to have a certain amount of coal On site, right that this was a new rule that was published. Can you talk about that?
Shreya Jai 40:06
issue. So this rule had a Genesis. Last year there was a coal crisis around August, around August to October 2021. A lot of factors led to that there was extended monsoon demand shot up, because the economy opened up after the COVID second wave, something that the power generating company did not emphasize, they did not have that much amount of coal stock. So they started demanding more coal, something that the coal companies cannot afford to do during monsoon season because they cannot mine or supply more coal during that season. So so that was the genesis and on the basis of that the government decided that power plants should have some stock of coal with them, so that if a rainy day literally happens, they have enough stock at their end, and rather than play a blame game, but if you take a bird's eye view on this matter, this situation emerged because of a simple reason because the demand shot up and demand here after, God forbid if there's no other another COVID or pandemic wave demand is going to increase. A very, you know, five to 6% is the estimate of annual electricity demand growth in the country, the government is expecting double digit growth, but even at five to 6% growth entails huge amount of coal demand. back of the hand calculations, which say that if if we, if we consume close to 600 million tons of coal this year, if we if our electricity consumptions increases by five to 6%, every year, every year, it increases by 100 250 million tonne. Every year, we will be touching 1 million tonne of coal demand soon then. So so cold demand electricity demand is here to increase?
Robert Bryce 41:58
Well, it's interesting say that because that was, you know, that's what I've been reading and this snapback in demand for coal globally, in the US and Europe and India and China. But at 6% growth, that's your doubling every 12 years. I mean, this is a very rapid rate of growth, but but it seems like is that just fed the main driver is that India starting from such a low base, you still Yes, people may have a little bit of electricity. But once you get a little bit then you want a washing machine or refrigerator that this is the this is the natural progression. Right? This is the way it happened in the United States as a way it's happened in every country that's electrified is the start from a slow base and then women in particular are in the home and start using more appliances is this is this that the air conditioning is the other big key so what are they I rambling here but what are the key drivers in that electric demand growth? You
Shreya Jai 42:53
know, you are absolutely right. In India, industrial demand growth is given a lot of importance that you know if there is a growth in demand of industrial demand that will pay play a huge role in pushing the demand. But heightening household demand is something that we have to factor in, we are claiming that we have connected all our households, what happens when those households start getting 18 to 24 hours power supply? Just Just imagine 18 hours power supply. And obviously there is an aspirational value that comes along with electricity, as you mentioned that once I have electricity, why should I use it just for bottled water for charging my phone, everyone has a smartphone, everyone's phones are charging everyone would want to have a TV or refrigerator might not be an AC in rural areas. But what stops them from from getting that, you know, electricity does get that kind of aspirational value in your life where you want to buy and invest electrical appliances. So household demand will definitely shoot up in India. We are India's statistics bet a lot on industrial demand. And for sure industrial demand is is a bulk demand driver in the whole basket of electricity. But I think going forward, we need to keep an eye on household demand because that is one thing that will push the demand further so so yeah, I completely agree with you what you said
Robert Bryce 44:25
well, and I'm working from memory here I think it's in my last book I'm not remembering off the top of my head but it's something very maybe single digit percentages of Indian households have air conditioning now and that air conditioning growth the growth of sales of air conditioners was growing something like 12% a year which means that doubling every six years well that's a big, big driver of electricity demand air conditioning all over the world is a big driver but is that in Well let me ask you personally, did you grow up in a house with air conditioning when you were a child? Yes. Oh, you had it but we but you were Did you grow up in Delhi?
Shreya Jai 44:57
No. It's a lot of Pradesh.
Robert Bryce 44:59
Oh, Okay, so But But was that but did where did everyone you know did they have air conditioning was this common among in the area around you when you were a child tell me tell you
Shreya Jai 45:10
about the videos they were power cuts four days a day God poor got AC I think just three or four years back
Robert Bryce 45:21
in Kanpur, this is where your your family,
Shreya Jai 45:24
and the only reason was that there was you know there was no reliable power supply what the father would say what would I do with an AC if there is no electricity supply. So once the electricity supply stabilized and realized, you know, we get 22 hours power supply, that's when they decided to get an AC. So, but but now you imagine a village. So you're talking
Robert Bryce 45:47
about your parent, you're talking about your parents, now they're still there in Uttar Pradesh. So but just to remind me, so I just want to be clear, so that you had a connection to the grid when you were a child, but the electricity wasn't wasn't reliable. No, no show. So it was how many days a week would you have power when you were growing up?
Shreya Jai 46:06
I think when I was pretty young situation was pretty worse. They were power cuts for one two days in a row. And then you know, a power cut off typically six to seven hours a day became a knob. Till till till the time I left here, that was the now but now it's pretty good. It's pretty good out there. You know, two hours barely. And you know, you get an SMS when there is a power cut. So, so consumer so it's now it's pretty much good that the electricity company in Kanpur is one of the profit making companies and they are good. So So now things have improved.
Robert Bryce 46:44
So tell me then, when when you were a child, did your mother then have a washing machine? Did she was that part of your household? Or did she wash clothes by hand? I mean, this is something that I've been thinking about a lot. And I report on in my book and film that we
Shreya Jai 46:57
Robert Bryce 46:58
You did with by hand?
Shreya Jai 47:00
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 47:02
And does your your brother have a washing machine?
Shreya Jai 47:04
We did get a washing machine. Yes. Because, you know, you can time washing machine with the time that electric supply would be there. So yeah, we did have a washing machine. We did not have AC No, you don't have those huge desert coolers. If you had seen when you visited India. So yeah, sure. So AC as a as a necessary household item. That trend has also come in the last decade if I'm not wrong in the country. It was a very, very industrial very Metro City phenomena. AC AC had G's. Tire to tire three cities in the last decade only. I guess that's my
Robert Bryce 47:49
sheet. Say that. Again, I didn't quite understand what you meant by that.
Shreya Jai 47:52
I said that, you know, AC as a necessary household item has emerged in the last decade. I see. Okay, gotcha. Yeah, it was not unnecessary items. So I'm not sure if we can directly link it to electricity supply. But as a necessary item, it has emerged only in the last decade. I would also blame climate change for it a bit. Okay. And obviously advertising agencies. But yeah, it it wasn't that much unnecessary item.
Robert Bryce 48:20
And so just I just want to make sure so when you were growing up now you You wash clothes by hand. What about when did you get your your your family get get a washing machine?
Shreya Jai 48:30
I can't recall. But it was there for quite some time. I think it was pretty young. I think we've got it in the 90s. If I'm not wrong. Yeah, we did.
Robert Bryce 48:38
So there were several years where as a child 90s Or so I think we do you can remember your mother washing clothes by hand.
Shreya Jai 48:45
Yeah, I do. I do. Yes.
Robert Bryce 48:49
I just think is interesting. Because I'm giving a presentation here pretty soon I'm talking about the Wealth of Nations and electricity in the Wealth of Nations. And one of my thoughts is, and it was one of the people who pushed for electrification here in the United States was getting women away from washing clothes by hand. And so if you don't mind, I'm just curious. How important is that? I mean, you've seen this yourself. How important is it for women to have washing machines? It's absolutely
Shreya Jai 49:14
important. I think households in India should be equipped with all modern kitchen and cleaning facilities. You know, to avoid wastage of time and everything. I think we did a very interesting episode with Shalu Agarwal of CW and sham Zarifi of University of British Columbia, for our own podcast and, and they made this very interesting observation where they said that when when electricity when there's energy access in an household, there is a significant improvement in the chaussure economic stature of the women in the family, right? More than that Women then get to have something called their own time, which they do not get. And that is so much important and that is so much directly linked to their health metrics. Something I think is such a link that is not focused much upon that how important these little necessities of life are. Because given that traditional setup of a typical middle or lower middle class, or for that matter, lower class society, families in India is that it's the women who bear the burden of kitchen cleaning and other household thing that that major societal changes is yet to come. So these kinds of appliances, energy access, actually brings a lot of improvement in their own health and life standard, which I think should be focused a lot upon.
Robert Bryce 51:00
Yeah, I agree. I do the way I put it as electricity freeze women and girls from the pump, the stove and the washtub that this is, this is this is the key, the key technology and but you have to have and this was part of the electrification push in the US was the government. Yes, they rural, they pushed for rural electrification and then they pushed for low interest loans and programs that would allow women and farm and ranch people to buy washing machines and refrigerators that this would they realized, well, electricity wasn't enough you had to have the machines that the people could afford as well. So what then let me talk about liquefied petroleum gas LPG because this is the other part of the the challenge right? I mean, we've talked about electricity but the other issue is clean cooking fuels and we saw I saw myself when we were in South 24, Parganas and areas around there and Mage leach poker and where we filmed in that area, a lot of people still using traditional biomass, wheat, dung, wood, wheat straw, rice, straw, wood, how important is LPG or propane to women and girls in the home in India?
Shreya Jai 52:15
Yeah, I think there is a government statistics which says that now 75% of the households in this country do have an LPG connection and this kind of growth was much needed in this country, because when you are you know, using biomass as a cooking fuel, that again is a pressure on the women of the family to arrange for you know, wood states or other source of biomass. So, so, yeah, that is a major challenge. The LPG penetration has been pretty good. According to government data, the government has run several governments have run several schemes to introduce LPG into the Indian kitchens. But, you know, the success rate has been challenged by a lot of researchers, where they say that though LPG penetration has happened LPG connections have taken place, you know, because of the high cost of LPG or because of subsidy not reaching to the consumers directly, a lot of consumers do not go for a rebooking. So you might get a gas stove at your end, or you might get an LPG at your end, but price barrier or lack of subsidy stops you from booking a cylinder again. And second major problem, which is not highlighted a lot is that while LPG penetration happens, there is a lack of awareness. There have been incidents where households in remote areas in villages do not know how to operate an LPG cylinder, or a gas stove and it has led to fatal mishaps. An awareness campaign is clearly missing. So if we have this very impressive number of LPG penetration into Indian households, I think there should be an awareness campaign along with it as well. But yeah, so far, the growth has been pretty impressive in terms of LPG, at least. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 54:22
Gotcha. So let me just as you're talking, I was thinking this something you're obviously passionate about energy issues, and you've been doing this a long time. So if I'm, if I could have wave a magic wand and say, well, Shreya J, I'm giving you the portfolio of improving India's energy situation, where would you put your focus? First, what would you do? If you had the money and the Cape of the political power to make things happen? What would you do first, in such a complex market complex country like India, what would you where would you put your first focus?
Shreya Jai 54:57
Like God? Well, first of all, return that portion? Would you?
Robert Bryce 55:03
First thing I would fire myself? That would be?
Shreya Jai 55:07
My God, it's a complex job. And, you know, my job does entail resizing policies, policy makers, but I do have huge respect for them, because they have to handle such a large sector. But okay, let me think
Robert Bryce 55:23
I put you on the spot here.
Shreya Jai 55:26
One thing I will do is just, I think we discussed about power distribution companies, I'll just in one bad, I'll just reform all of them, I'll just make all of them profit making I will head that create good infrastructure, stop giving free electricity, I think I'll do that I'll just change the power distribution sector. It's like an each, you know, that, you know, something, everything is so nice. There's a good policy and it gets stuck somewhere. So I think I'll just go and reform that distribution sector. And second thing that I mentioned is that I will cover all rooftops with solar.
Robert Bryce 56:07
Well, that would be I think those are good, good places to start. I do like that idea of the ending the subsidies are ending the free electricity because I think that I think that that's it's essential people, if they're going to use it, they have to pay for it. I think there's a part of the as I think about the grid, people have to have some ownership attachment to it, right? That if they're going to use they're going to depend on it, they need to have some allegiance to it and some feeling like they have some ownership or that just, it's not free. It can't be free. Because it just it I think it's a mindset issue. And that will the government's going to get known and under no is required to have some kind of system that makes people understand the utility and importance of it. And they only do that if they have to pay. That's anyway, my opinion. So listen, we've been talking we've been talking for a while just a few more questions. And again, my guest my guest is Shreya J she's talking to us from Delhi in India. She's an assistant editor at Business Standard. You can follow her on Twitter at Shreya J Shreya. Underscore JSHREY underscore J AI. Great conversation here. Tell me who you admire in your work. And you know, I was referred to you by vagina Ramachandran who's been on the podcast and I you know, we both have great admiration for her. When you look at these issues whose work do you follow? And who do you like who do you admire in their in their thinking about energy and power systems? Okay, that's a stumped you again,
Shreya Jai 57:33
I can I did not. Name and one parallel my daily reporting is that I get very less time to meet with people like Vidya. This podcast did give me an opportunity to meet with such amazing set of people is especially women. Yeah. Now that you asked me a big, big void that I feel during energy reporting is lack of women in high places where they should have been, you know, we just talked about how energy axes bring a change in the life of women. So why should not be women be the bosses out hair? So let me quickly list some women. First, yes. Regina. Yes. We mentioned one. I I have recently closed interacted with Charlene Agarwal of CW Her work has been impressive and she is always a delight to talk to. I've been lately in touch with Swati D'souza as well. I am a complete novice when it comes to gas sector and she has been so nice and explaining it to me.
Robert Bryce 58:44
What is her name again? I'm sorry.
Shreya Jai 58:47
SWATI D'Souza. She is with currently with the International Energy Agency. Another person whose work is very, very different than I liked reading it was her colleague in ies and thought Singh. We have talked in the past about urban electrification and how urbanization would change the electricity demand scenario in the country. So his work is something on the government and policy front. I was for a very long time in touch with this lady who's currently who's currently in. She's the district magistrate for I think, the ABA somewhere. Her name is Rita Maheshwari. Some years back, she spearheaded the reforms in Kanpur electricity reforms in Kanpur and she was partially successful. Her word made it was made into a documentary and I would suggest you to watch it. It's called Katia, boss.
Robert Bryce 59:46
It's the electricity, the electricity thieves. Yeah, right. I've seen it. Yeah.
Shreya Jai 59:51
So the lady who is featured in there, the one who was the managing director of gaesco back then Rita my Cherie Very fiesty lady I have always admired talking with her. She is currently not in the energy sector. But yeah, her work I did admire a lot. And she was here heading, new transmission division of a government company. That's when also I interacted with her. So yeah, that's how I think I've listed.
Robert Bryce 1:00:19
That's great. And I and I, it's one of the things that I realized in my own podcast that I, you know, I talked to a lot of, well, a lot of people who look like me, right? And I want to I want and I'm bored with me. So I'm, but I want to talk with more women. And so that's one of my goals. So I'm glad to get those thoughts from you. So just a couple of more things. So what are you reading? I know, you know, you're busy. And there's a lot to do. But do you have any books that you're reading these days in a particular authors that you follow?
Shreya Jai 1:00:47
No particular author as such that I follow. And currently I'm so sorry, I'm not reading anything related to the energy sector. I'm reading two very interesting books by journalist again, sorry, not here to promote my Courtrai, but I just somehow end up ended up reading them. One is called despite the state by M Raj shaker. It talks about how something that we also talked about that reforms the start, but never reach till the very end, something that rashica has tried to address and in his books, he has taken example of five states and try to showcase how democracy or reforms fail, the Indian public and,
Robert Bryce 1:01:31
and the title, again, is despite the state, yes, yeah. Good. No, that's yeah.
Shreya Jai 1:01:37
And second is a book by Joseph Joseph. It's called the silent coupe. I've just started reading it, but I'm really looking forward to it. Josey has is a great journalist and his earlier book feast of vultures was a great insight into investigative journalism. And I'm hoping to pick up some more notes. It's new books.
Robert Bryce 1:02:01
And the silent coup is that is the title.
Shreya Jai 1:02:05
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Okay. And apart from that my sight reading is fiction crime fiction, especially by Irish authors, or Scottish authors, or nado Lindros son is by current favorite.
Robert Bryce 1:02:20
Who was the prime author? Who was the what was that last name? So
Shreya Jai 1:02:23
I, I pardon? My, you know, pronounce pronunciation. It's called, or Knodel. Indra, the son
Robert Bryce 1:02:31
of Nardo. What's the title? Can you give a title?
Shreya Jai 1:02:37
Okay, I am currently reading voices voice our silence of the grave. You can Google these to
Robert Bryce 1:02:49
silence of the grave. Okay, good. Yeah. Well, those are good. Those are good recommendations. I'm writing them down myself. So last question. Shreya. What, what gives you hope, I mean, you've seen, you've been traveling a lot in India, and you've seen a lot of change. But you also see the challenges and they're big that for a country is as diverse and complex as India, what gives you hope, as you look at all this stuff.
Shreya Jai 1:03:18
One thing that gives me hope, probably would be that people are getting more informed. And when people are more informed, they make informed choices. And when they make informed choices, you get better leaders, you get better criticism for policies, you get better pushback to bad policies, and you get acceptance for good policies. So I think that is a little bit of change that I am witnessing. Now. I think social media has a huge role to play in that. But still, I think, you know, people becoming informed will be a big change in a democracy, like India. And second thing that I'm very, very hopeful of, because this is something that I'm witnessing people from my school and college batch, and my peers, people in my age group coming to for taking up positions in public administration actively trying to participate in public discourse. I think that will bring a lot of change. I think, given that the country is in its prime youth, that youth is trying to channelize its energy into better public discourse was trying to, you know, take up roles take up jobs into public restroom. I would just summarize it and say that they're trying to change makers. And, and I think it could be channelized much better if there are larger employment opportunities in the country. But nevertheless, I think the young are very excited, very driven, self driven, self motivated, and I think that should initiate some sort of change in the country. That's That's my hope. Sure.
Robert Bryce 1:05:06
Well, that's great. Well, lid we can in there. My guest has been Shreya J. You can find her on Twitter at Shreya J Shreya. Underscore J. J I Shreya million. Thanks for being on the power hungry podcasts. I've enjoyed it and glad glad to revisit India from afar. It was a beautiful country, and I love the people there and it's great to connect with you.
Shreya Jai 1:05:28
Thank you so much. It was so fun to talk with you. There's so many things that I didn't think that we will touch upon. But we did so thanks for your question. And next time your hair do come I would love to be your host.
Robert Bryce 1:05:41
That's very kind. Thank you. Well, if so thanks to Shreya J. You can find her She's an assistant editor at Business Standard. She's on Twitter is easy to find. And thanks to all of you in podcast land for tuning into this episode of the power hungry podcast until the next one. See ya
Transcribed by https://otter.ai