India’s Energy Crisis Needs Political Solutions More Than Technical Ones

This article originally appeared on the Kautilya School of Public Policy blog and can be accessed here.

The past week saw a war of narratives with Coal India Limited (CIL) at the center. While the dust has started to settle, observers are left with more questions than when the situation started being termed, rather apocalyptically, as India’s Energy Crisis. The list of potential causes included the post-lockdown surge in demand for electricity70% of which is met through thermal power plants; the rapid rise in international coal prices due to a global demand surge, making domestic coal affordable; consistently poor investments in CIL and unsuccessful attempts to auction off coal mines. Other reasons included supply chain challenges owing to unprecedented rains in coal-supplying states that hampered mining and a general, seemingly orchestrated stagnation affecting CIL’s financial and operational efficiency.

While the government initially described the situation as tenuous, it didn’t take long before the representation of coal shortages and reported power outages were dismissed in their entirety. What are we to make of this turn of events? Did the government successfully thwart a potential crisis, or were the semantics of doom overblown from the start?

The facts on the ground present a different reality. Fuel shortages are not an isolated problem—China and much of Europe are facing similar situations, with resource supply chains unable to make as quick a turnaround as consumption following the upliftment of lockdowns. While there were, thankfully, no widespread or persistent power outages, there is no denying the writing on the wall. Dwindling global coal extractionincreasing cost parity of renewables, and an international political environment embattled by increasing climate emergencies indicate heydays for King Coal are over. For India, however, this is an unwelcome reality given that its economic growth is and will continue to remain coal-fed for the foreseeable future.

If the events of the past two weeks are any indication, CIL’s role in India’s growth story is far from over. While prudent policy directives shielded India’s renewables industry from the pandemic’s impact, existing installed capacity (100 GW) is still far from the government’s (450 GW) intended target. In such a situation, constrained by mounting international pressure to wean off of coal and cornered by commitments to continued socio-economic development, India is left with little room to wriggle a compromise.

While India’s coal-driven power supply infrastructure is at the center of international focus, its distribution-side challenges offer no sign of respite either. CIL’s financial problems are tied to dues that generation companies (GENCOS) owe, who are in turn due to receive payments from state distribution companies (DISCOMS) known for complex cross-subsidizing practices. These cross-subsidies and how state-owned DISCOMS manage electricity supply within their jurisdictions are tied to electoral aspirations.

Providing sustained and sustainable power to India’s citizens is as embroiled in service delivery politics as intractable economic and material contingencies. We know for a fact that the system has and will continue to weather sustained shocks in the form of ever-intensifying cyclones, wildfires, and landslides in addition to mounting international pressure for a zero-carbon future. In the face of persistent shocks, how long can such a volatile status quo be maintained, with incremental nudges and piecemeal solutions, remains a deeply political rather than a technical question.

Resilience: Getting the Discourse Right!

This article originally appeared on the Kautilya School of Public Policy blog and can be accessed here.

Amidst uncertainties surrounding the Indian economic growth and the ongoing pandemic wreaking havoc across the country, the climate question hangs in the balance. On the one hand, the Indian government’s support for the coal sector cast doubt on its commitments to mitigate the global climate crisis. On the other hand, the potential for climate adaptation through national programs like AMRUT, PMAY, Smart Cities Scheme, and SBM-U is inadequate due to these programs’ limited attention to resilience building or risk reduction. On 23 September 2019, the need for climate adaptation was brought (back) into focus by the announcement of a global Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure (CDRI) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The CDRI is a multi-stakeholder international partnership to build resilience into infrastructure systems to ensure sustainable development.

The use of the term ‘resilience’ in India’s adaptation efforts, as across the globe, raises important questions about the discourses underlying its use and their eventual manifestation in practice—to avert, prepare, and recover from climate-linked crises. Compared to sustainability that urges continual preparation for an ever-distant future, resilience offers a more hopeful and optimistic outlook for coping in the face of adversity. Notwithstanding this optimism, the translation of resilience in practice encounters accusations of glossing over critical social aspects of equity, justice, and participatory democracy. In the first instance, the contention lies in the concept’s propensity for multiple interpretations. From an engineering perspective, resilience describes a physical materials’ (iron or plastic) property to revert to its original form or structure after being deformed by external forces. A more dynamic interpretation, departing from the former equilibrist view, appears in the context of natural and environmental sciences. Rather than seeking equilibrium, resilience preserves system functionality by reconstituting its structure in response to internal or external disturbances. For example, a water body that responds to high nutrient content by undergoing eutrophication can, within specific limits, revert to its original healthy state once the pollutant content decreases. Notably, in both these interpretations—both equilibrist and dynamic, resilience is mainly construed as a property of physical or natural systems, not social.

The third interpretation of resilience arises from its deployment to describe social systems’ capacity for self-organization in the face of crises. In contrast to the former two, this reading of resilience was a deliberate attempt to expand its disciplinary reach and, rather normatively, explain how societies react to disturbances. Insofar as this expansion sought to conceive social systems as inherently resilient and capable of bouncing back from internal and external crises with or without reconstituting their structure, it precluded attention to the source of these crises and whether the pre-crisis state was desirable at all, and if so, for whom? As such, the mobilization of a concept emerging from hard sciences to explain social concepts and constructs carries obvious blind spots.

Subjecting social systems’ capacity to normative conceptions of adaptation to withstand various crises reveals intractable incompatibilities between the concept of resilience and the contemporary social sciences. Yet, the concept has and continues to garner traction, as mentioned above. Insofar as resilience is mobilized as a foundational concept to construct visions of a future beset by climate-linked disasters, it has manifested in three primary forms. First, emergency management and disaster preparedness plans emphasize risk reduction and institutional preparedness like the National Disaster Management Act 2005 and the National Disaster Management Policy 2009 and 2016. Second, roadmaps for post-disaster recovery and revitalization. Given India’s lackadaisical approach to post-disaster recovery and revitalization, examples of comprehensive disaster-specific recovery plans are few and far between. An essential aspect of recovery is addressed by the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF), constituted under the NDMA, 2005, ‘to meet the expenses for emergency response, relief, and rehabilitation.’ Third, climate adaptation plans to emphasize ‘developing systems and structures in the present to forestall the challenges of a potentially catastrophic future.’

Each type of plan mentioned above draws on a different understanding of resilience, resulting in the differential conceptualization of the disaster, the communities or regions vulnerable to it, and the subsequent post-disaster recovery and resource allocations that must follow. Take, for instance, the emergency management and disaster preparedness plans. Inasmuch as these plans underscore a proactive approach to averting or minimizing the impact of climate-linked emergencies, their primary focus remains on reducing recovery times and instituting standardized response protocols, often at the expense of improving mitigation and preparedness. An inherent issue with a top-down recognition of a disaster is the persistent exclusion of the vulnerable community’s perspectives. In the Indian context, this raises questions like: does persistent malnutrition and hunger among the country’s poor count as a disaster, or does it only get registered when a severe drought hits? A nonparticipatory view of what counts as a crisis and when and where an emergency occurs consistently shuts out communities with the feeblest voice. Also, the inability to differentiate between different types of disasters—slow-acting like food impoverishment of large swathes of the population versus sudden shocks like floods and wildfires—results in emergency management and preparedness plans that emphasize the latter at the expense of the former.

Whether and how a disaster is characterized has deeper repercussions for post-disaster recovery and revitalization interventions. The policies and plans set into motion by post-disaster roadmaps, whether addressing sudden shocks or slow burns, carry normative implications for recovery and reconstruction. For physical systems, like energy infrastructures, these strategies emphasize increasing investments to harden transmission lines and expand distribution network redundancies. For social structures, these same strategies, quite rightly, entail reducing poverty and eliminating social vulnerabilities. But one needs to look no further than the aftermath of the migrant crisis and the official reactions (or lack thereof) to the unfolding humanitarian disaster. Incisive questions asked by Lawrence Vale, Director of MIT’s Resilient Cities Housing Initiative, in the context of Hurricane Katrina also apply to India’s migrant crisis:

“Is ‘the city’ resilient even if many of its poorest former citizens have not been able to return? Or, as is the view of some, is the city’s resilience actually dependent on the departure of many of its most vulnerable residents?”

Increasing resilience of societies against slow-acting crises like malnutrition, droughts, or growing economic inequality, for that matter, carries greater normative overtures. The slow-acting nature of such crises subjects the determination of their severity and remediating assistance to political vicissitudes rather than case- and location-specific evidence-based policy measures.

Finally, the deployment of resilience in climate adaptation plans, unlike emergency management and post-disaster roadmaps, is rendered expedient in anticipating an impending catastrophe as opposed to ongoing or begone crises. Determination of vulnerability, social and locational, to anticipated climate catastrophes, then, increasingly, becomes the province of high-level political committees and expert-driven viewpoints, which often cede no meaningful ground to the vulnerable themselves. When given as likely to occur, a crisis sanctions non-local and non-state actors to marshal citizens to embrace standard adaptation practices without reference to local ‘threat perceptions’ in relation to the crisis. The 73rd and 74th amendments to the Indian constitution, which unfortunately remain ineffectually implemented, include provisions for poverty alleviation, welfare for weaker sections of the society, and devolution of State powers and responsibilities for economic development and social justice. Bolstering the implementation of these and other provisions to facilitate devolution to local levels is likely to improve urban and rural capacities to build context-specific adaptive capabilities, particularly for the vulnerable.

With its predominant focus on infrastructure resilience rather than explicitly on social dimensions, adaptation efforts resulting from the CDRI are likely to bypass the challenge of enacting feasible and effective social interventions to increase social resilience. Regardless, as India takes the critical step to building its resilience, it behoves policy professionals and civic leaders to question the optimism surrounding the concept of resilience, its potential for disregarding the vulnerable, and its propensity for being co-opted the dominant order.

Democratizing Energy Systems: An Opportunity for Planners as Cities Renew Commitment to Paris Climate Accord?

This article originally appeared on the blog published by The Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning (ACSP) and can be accessed here.
The absence of a national climate policy and the politics of denying anthropocentric climate change in the US has resulted in a number of states and cities stepping in to fill this ‘federal leadership vacuum’ (Byrne, Hughes, Rickerson, & Kurdgelashvili, 2007). An increasing number of states and cities are now encouraging distributed energy generation through on-site residential solar PV systems, not only by promoting the use of state and federal funds (tax rebates, tax credits, subsidies, etc.), but also by overriding neighborhood restrictions on road-facing solar PV installations and especially by legislating net-metering policies. As such, with cities becoming the venues for celebrating the benefits of decentralized energy systems (DES) (Adil & Ko, 2016), the social and material changes accompanying their widespread adoption by energy consumers across cities, especially through solar PV and thermal technologies, presents unique challenges and opportunities for planners and local policymakers. Not only can planners help resolve land-use conflicts — space limitations and siting issues (see Kaza & Curtis, 2014), they can also help democratize the energy sector by facilitating greater social capital and community cohesion around socio-technical issues pertaining to localizing energy systems (Hoffman & High-Pippert, 2005). 

However, inasmuch as the outcome of promoting the adoption of DES is economically and environmentally progressive, the rise of grid-tied energy producing consumers in a market-oriented sector has unintended socially regressive consequences. As more energy customers either reduce their consumption of retail electricity partially or curtail it altogether in what is referred to as ‘grid defection’ (Bronski et al., 2014), the utility serving them faces revenue losses. Where such losses are rendered unrecoverable, the cost burden to the utility is shifted to the remainder of its customers, in a classic move of ‘rent shifting’ i.e. shifting of the unrecoverable cost burden onto the consumer (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015). In this way, as retail electricity rates climb, solar PV technology reaches cost parity (Rickerson, 2014), but — and here is the catch — only for those utility customers who can afford it. In industry parlance, this is ominously called ‘utility death spiral’ (Kind, 2013) or ‘spiral of rate death’ (Blackburn, Magee, & Rai, 2014), which creates a victim of another, more vulnerable group besides electric power utilities — low and middle-income energy consumers.

Contrasting this with the social position electric utilities had acquired in the early days of the energy sector — i.e. as regulated entities providing a public good (Hirsh, 2002) — presents an unfortunate and unintended outcome. However, the extent to which such an outcome is in fact unintended is also questionable given that ‘rent shifting’ is something that the utilities are already accused of pursuing (Borenstein & Bushnell, 2015; Boyd, 1996). In light of these contexts and concerns, the choices facing local governments and planners in terms of who to side with — utilities or consumers — constitute the crux of local and state-level energy politics.

Emerging against this state of affairs, are communities of energy consumers that are advocating for a paradigm shift in order to reclaim electricity as a public good (ILSR, 2016). There are however no simple or standard answers here because of the disparate and overlapping impact of local, state, and federal policies for any given community and the different set of local environmental conditions influencing their technology choices. In my research, I look at grassroots responses from energy communities that aim to affect outcomes ranging from energy independence for single homeowners to energy democracy for whole communities. Whereas the former draws on the ideals of national energy security put forward in response to the energy crisis of the 70s, the latter is a new civic movement that draws on a broad set of principles that promote socially just and inclusive wellbeing across class and racial divides, encourage environmental protection through context-appropriate use of emerging technologies and more critically, pursue a more democratic and equitable model of the economy (New Economy Coalition, 2015).

Therefore, a transition from incumbent to emergent energy systems based on renewable energy technologies (RET) is bound to unfold along with varying modes of governance and social organization models — from the ones benefiting individual consumers to those empowering entire communities. The fate of a truly democratic energy sector, where everyone benefits — i.e. an energy sector which is equitable and just as it is sustainable — is decidedly predicated upon the cumulative interactions between diverse community grassroots initiatives and the top-down socio-technical, regulatory and political contexts facing them.

As RET take a firmer hold of local retail energy markets with efficient storage systems and interoperable electric vehicles, urban energy planning ought to be concerned with who benefits and who loses in the ongoing pursuit for alternate energy systems (Miller & Richter, 2014; Shove & Walker, 2007, 2008). Since the take-off of residential solar PV in urban locations across the country, several investor-owned utilities have filed for rate changes with their respective State Utility Commissions citing the undue burden to customers who have not or cannot install solar PV. As fair and equitable as this sounds, with utilities claiming to remedy ‘rent shifting’ to non-solar PV customers by requiring solar PV owners to pay more under the revised rates, siding with utilities would be an egregious error (Pentland, 2017). While there is no doubt that once resolved, most likely in favor of energy consumers — solar and non-solar, the question of planning for local energy projects in coordination with other infrastructure systems like transport, water, and build environment will at least partially land in planners’ list of things to do. Yet, most planning programs across the US continue to graduate planners who remain untrained in key technical aspects as well as social issues surrounding ongoing energy systems transitions. Despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord, much to the world’s dismay, there may still be light at the end of the tunnel with several mayors committing to the accord anyway (Domonske, 2017; Walker, 2017). The question that I seek to raise, as cities continue to combat the climate challenge, is: are planners equipped enough to tackle to the socio-technical challenges that new technologies and accompanying regulatory and intuitional contexts? or will the professional planner continue to remain subordinate to the electrical/civil/mechanical/environmental engineer?

Works Cited

Adil, A. M., & Ko, Y. (2016). Socio-technical evolution of Decentralized Energy Systems: A critical review and implications for urban planning and policy. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 57http://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2015.12.079

Blackburn, G., Magee, C., & Rai, V. (2014). Solar Valuation and the Modern Utility’s Expansion into Distributed Generation. Electricity Journal, 27(1), 18–32. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tej.2013.12.002

Borenstein, S., & Bushnell, J. (2015). The U.S. Electricity Industry after 20 Years of Restructuring (No. 252R).

Boyd, J. (1996). The “regulatory compact” and implicit contracts: should stranded costs be recoverable? Energy Journal, 19(3), 69–83.

Bronski, P., Creyts, J., Guccione, L., Madrazo, M., Mandel, J., Rader, B., & Seif, D. (2014). The Economics of Grid Defection.

Byrne, J., Hughes, K., Rickerson, W., & Kurdgelashvili, L. (2007). American policy conflict in the greenhouse: Divergent trends in federal, regional, state, and local green energy and climate change policy. Energy Policy, 35(9), 4555–4573. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2007.02.028

Domonske, C. (2017). Mayors, Companies Vow To Act On Climate, Even As U.S. Leaves Paris Accord. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/05/531603731/mayors-companies-vow-to-act-on-climate-even-as-u-s-leaves-paris-accord

Hirsh, R. F. (2002). Power Loss: The Origins of Deregulation and Restructuring in the American Electric Utility System. MIT Press. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=LrDxPgAACAAJ

Hoffman, S. M., & High-Pippert, A. (2005). Community Energy: A Social Architecture for an Alternative Energy Future. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 25(5), 387–401. http://doi.org/10.1177/0270467605278880

ILSR. (2016). Introducing the Community Power Map | Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Retrieved January 15, 2017, from https://ilsr.org/introducing-the-community-power-map/

Kaza, N., & Curtis, M. P. (2014). The Land Use Energy Connection. Journal of Planning Literature, 29(4), 1–16. http://doi.org/10.1177/0885412214542049

Kind, P. (2013). Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Strategic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business. Retrieved from http://www.eei.org/ourissues/finance/documents/disruptivechallenges.pdf

Miller, C. A., & Richter, J. (2014). Social Planning for Energy Transitions. Current Sustainable/Renewable Energy Reports, (September), 77–84. http://doi.org/10.1007/s40518-014-0010-9

New Economy Coalition. (2015). What is Energy Democracy and Why Does It Matter? – YouTube. New Economy Coalition. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE8FWors3TU&list=PLEJWmLm4zo60WE5ubklvf_gRFioJjcHbl&index=8

Pentland, W. (2017). Why the net metering fight is a red herring for utilities | Utility Dive. Retrieved June 6, 2017, from http://www.utilitydive.com/news/why-the-net-metering-fight-is-a-red-herring-for-utilities/307061/

Rickerson, W. (2014). Residential prosumers – drivers and policy options (re-prosumers).

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2007). Caution! Transition ahead: policies, practice, and sustainable transition management. Environment and Planning A, 39, 763–770. http://doi.org/10.1068/a39310

Shove, E., & Walker, G. (2008). Transition management and the politics of shape shifting. Environment and Planning A, 40(4), 1012–1014.

Walker, A. (2017). 246 mayors adopt Paris climate accord after U.S. pulls out (updated). Retrieved June 6, 2017, from https://www.curbed.com/2017/6/1/15726376/paris-accord-climate-change-mayors-trump