Monthly Archives: May 2018

India: Coal or Solar?

India has built a lot of coal power stations, but will they become stranded assets, displaced by cheaper, cleaner solar?

India has built a lot of coal power stations, but will they become stranded assets, displaced by cheaper, cleaner solar?

Last month atmospheric Co2 levels passed 410 parts per million. To avert climatic catastrophe humanity needs to shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. India presents us with both the scale of the challenge and the scope of possibility. The government of India wants to bring electricity to all its 1.3 billion people, the population is still rising and the country is rapidly industrializing. Energy demand is increasing, and so too carbon emissions. Many new coal fired power stations were built in the decade 2007 to 2017, more than doubling coal capacity. This all bodes ill for local air quality, and for the global climate. At the Paris climate summit a couple of years back the Indian government was rather dragging its feet, only promising to decrease the carbon intensity of its economy, while planning for rapid economic growth and emissions still rising for years to come.

However things could change for the better very rapidly. The price of solar, both photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal, is falling fast, and India has a very good solar resource. In 2017 for the first time India added more new renewable capacity than new coal. Many coal plants are proving economically unviable: they simply cannot match solar on price and are shutting down. As solar prices are predicted to keep falling this should only accelerate this process. Currently the government are still trying to protect coal from these market forces. They are also beginning to grasp the new opportunities that solar can bring. For isolated rural communities across India local solar plus storage will be key to their development. At the other extreme are new solar based megacities.

The Dholera Special Investment Region, located near the head of the Gulf of Khambhat in the Indian state of Gujarat, is a huge area earmarked for a new city and cleantech industrial hub. A 5 GW solar pv plant is planned, with local manufacture of solar cells and panels and other ancillary industries. This will further decrease the price of solar electricity, hastening the demise of coal. A project like Dholera opens up many new opportunities to create new forms of prosperity not based on ever more pollution but on new and ecologically sustainable technologies. It would be a perfect place to invest heavily in solar desalination and new forms of super productive hydroponic agriculture, on many forms of energy storage and on electric and hydrogen fuel cell transportation systems. India could lead the world with the speed to its energy transition. Technologically India has lagged behind Europe, USA or China, but it has probably the best solar resource of these four. It could leapfrog them, and be the first solar powered superpower. Essentially it is a political choice, which path India will follow, coal based or solar based development? The economics of going all out for solar are looking increasingly good, which is good news for India, and for the rest of us.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is providing leadership in so many inspiring ways. Following a short civil war in 1948 it abolished its army and has for these last seventy years put the money saved into improving education, health and welfare systems. It now has longer life expectancy than USA. It is by far the most peaceful country in Central America and has very much lower crime levels than any of its neighbours. It has done much to protect and enhance its biodiversity. It has long been a beacon of good democratic government, and last month elected Carlos Alvarado as president.

The new president arrived at his inauguration ceremony in a hydrogen fuel cell bus, the first one in Central America. Costa Rica has for some years got about 99% of its electricity from renewables and has famously gone for 300 days without needing to burn any fossil fuels to generate electricity. It seeks to be a world leader by being the first country to fully decarbonise all its energy use. Transport is the big challenge. Carlos Alvarado has announced the incredibly ambitious goal of replacing all petrol and diesel use with battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars and buses by 2021. That would be a global first. It may not be fully achievable within these four years, but it is a goal worth pursuing. President Alvarado has described the full energy transition as a ’titanic and beautiful task’.

In order to make the transport sector fossil fuel free they will need to expand their renewable energy systems. So far most comes from hydro, with geothermal expanding quickly. Solar, wind and biomass are all still relatively underdeveloped. There is lots of scope for expansion. It will be very interesting to see what they can achieve in these next few years.

All the indexes and polls measuring happiness and wellbeing put Costa Rica up near the top, along with the five Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Low military spending, low levels of economic inequality, strong commitment to ecological sustainability and well functioning democracy seem to be unifying themes which help build a strong sense of social solidarity, wellbeing and happiness in all these countries: surely a recipe for others to follow?

Local Elections: Reflections

The local elections are over. The results are in. We’ve had a few days to read the analysis and reflect. What do they tell us?

The above graphic from the BBC sums up the results very nicely. Unfortunately the BBC coverage and analysis I found very disappointing, focusing as they usually do these days with both a very pro Brexit bias, and, as ever, seeing the election as a contest between Labour and the Tories. True Labour and the Tories are the biggest parties, and Labour did, just, gain more seats than any other party, but there are other and more interesting stories to be told.

Of the 4,404 seats contested across 150 councils which parties had the greatest percentage gains in terms of number of councillors, and why? By this measure the Green Party and Liberal Democrats did very well, with the Greens gaining 25.8% and the LibDems gaining 16.3%. Labour’s performance was pretty patchy and lacklustre at a gain of 3.4%. The Tories lost 2.4% of their councillors, which is a poor performance, but not as bad as it could have been had they not picked up so many former UKIP voters. The UKIP loss of 97.6% of their councillors must be one of the greatest annihilations of any political party in UK history.

If these local election results have anything to tell us about Brexit is that the public is rapidly turning against the whole process as a very bad idea. UKIP has collapsed and yet the Tories, supported by both the DUP and Labour are pushing ahead regardless. This is one factor why the most pro European parties are gaining ground. Clearly there are many other factors why people are turning to the Greens and LibDems, but the calamity of Brexit is certainly part of the picture. Their gains of 25.8% and 16.3% I find impressive and significant.

There is an extraordinary political paradox unfolding. The most passionately Unionist parties; UKIP, Tories, Labour and DUP are all in favour of Brexit, yet it will, in my view, almost inevitably lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The complexities Brexit presents regarding the border and the peace process in Northern Ireland seem unlikely to be solved any time soon. Scotland, like Northern Ireland voted against Brexit. The SNP, like the LibDems and Greens, is very strongly pro European. If Brexit does indeed go ahead then pressure will continue to grow for an ‘IndyRef2’, which would almost certainly lead to a win for Scottish independence from the UK. Yesterday there was a huge demonstration in Glasgow calling for independence.

After Brexit it seems probable that Scotland would gain independence. Northern Ireland would either join the Republic of Ireland, or possibly seek independence, strongly tied to the other parts of the British Isles still within the EU. So Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would remain in the EU while England and Wales were outside, and increasingly fractured by the calamity of Brexit.

I, like an increasing number of people, think that Brexit will not happen. Public opinion has turned against it. Any kind of ratification referendum would now almost certainly be a landslide for remaining in the EU. Yet Labour and the Tories still seem dedicated to pursuing the wishes of UKIP, despite UKIP’s demise.