Harnessing renewable energy: Onus on South Asia

The energy situation in South Asia has been that it is primarily energy fuel deficient as all countries in the region are dependent on substantial imports of fuel, including coal, oil, and natural gas, to meet their growing energy needs, writes Partha Pratim Mitra for South Asia Monitor

Partha Pratim Mitra Oct 03, 2020

Recently while delivering the Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture, instituted by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi, since 2002, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had asked all G-20 countries, including India, to invest in a clean, green transition as they recover from a pandemic, ending fossil fuel subsidies, placing a price on carbon pollution and committing to no new coal power plants after 2020. 

Earlier on this year, in the backdrop of threatened lives, crippled businesses, and damaged economies due to the pandemic, the UN chief warned the Petersburg Climate Dialogue in Berlin that much more needs to be done on the UN-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Recognizing that like the coronavirus, greenhouse gases respect no boundaries, he maintained that isolation is a trap in which “no country can succeed alone.” Pointing out that 121 States have already committed to carbon neutrality by 2050, the Secretary-General asked all countries to “prepare enhanced national climate action plans,” or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), “to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.”

Renewable technologies

SDG Indicator 7.2.1 is a renewable energy share in the total final energy consumption. This is measured as renewable energy (inclusive of solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, bioenergy, and marine sources) as a share of final (not primary) energy consumption. The energy mix includes electricity, transportation, and cooking/heating fuels. The Goal is by 2030 to increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

In 2016, solar and wind energy both received 47 percent of investment (combining to account for 94 percent of global finance). These two technologies have been taking an increasing share, especially over the last five years. In 2006, bioenergy (both in the form of biomass and liquid biofuels) took a sizable share of global investment, peaking at 36 percent.

This has dwindled over the last decade, receiving less than four percent in 2016. These trends suggest that investors see solar and wind energy as the dominant renewable technologies of the future.

In Asia, the overall picture of renewables in the region requires contrasting renewable energy development against the background of energy supply dynamics. Although the deployment of renewable power is increasing, this is occurring at a slower rate than that of conventional fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.

The sub-regions with the highest penetrations of renewables in the energy, the mix is Southeast Asia (45.7 percent on average) and South Asia (42 percent on average), in contrast to sub-regions where renewable energy comprises a smaller share of the total (Central Asia, at 16.2 percent on average, and Northeast Asia, at 11.7 percent on average).

Across the region, traditional biomass, the most widely used renewable energy source has been gradually replaced by cleaner fuels, although most of these fuels are non-renewable in origin. Overall, five of the 18 countries – China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Thailand – use significant shares of renewables for heating and cooling, specifically solar thermal, with a combined capacity in 2017 of 362 gigawatts-thermal (GWth), 97 percent of it located in China.

Voices within the UN system calling on governments to use their COVID -19 recovery packages to create sustainable economies are growing. “If governments take advantage of the ever-falling price tag of renewables to put clean energy at the heart of COVID -19 economic recovery, instead of subsidizing the recovery of fossil-fuel industries, they can take a big step towards clean energy and the healthy natural world - which ultimately is the best insurance policy against global pandemics,’ concluded the Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP.

The energy situation in South Asia has been that it is primarily energy fuel deficient as all countries in the region are dependent on substantial imports of fuel, including coal, oil, and natural gas, to meet their growing energy needs. There also has been an abundance of hydroelectric generation potential as well as substantial opportunities for renewable energy generation, including solar power and wind energy.

Energy-sharing between South Asian countries

According to data available in Asia and the Pacific renewable energy status report (2019); the share of renewable energy in total final energy consumption for 2016 has been 37 percent for India, 34 percent for Bangladesh, 46 percent for Pakistan and 51 percent for Sri Lanka.

The existing cooperation for cross-border projects has been limited to bilateral projects, like those between Bhutan and India or Nepal and India. It is only in recent years that electricity-sharing projects between the three countries-Nepal, India, and Bangladesh have been possible. One common refrain has been that often, negotiations are held at technical or political levels while the people who are likely to be affected economically through the loss of land and livelihoods are often not taken into confidence. 

Security challenges also come in the way, not just of inter-country security issues, but also the security of the project itself through the life of the project.

The root cause for limiting cross-border partnerships to a bilateral and single project transactions seem to be an atmosphere of hesitation from both parties to enlarge the scope of cooperation from a purely commercial proposition to the larger perspective of an integrated, regional strategy. This is mainly due to the reluctance of leadership to take on political risks because of a lack of trust between the negotiating parties.

This lack of trust is strengthened further by the periodic change in leadership in almost all South Asian countries. Energy cooperation agreements are by nature long drawn as they have to work through the smallest details of risk and reward and mitigation of shortfalls in supply and payments. Changing political environments, as well as changes in leadership in the negotiating countries, have been responsible for the very slow pace of negotiations and the very limited successes so far.

COVID-19 impact on employment in energy sector

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates jobs in the hydropower sector as approximately 1.93 million people worldwide in 2019. China, India, and Brazil are the largest employers, followed by Pakistan, Vietnam, the Russian Federation, and Myanmar. The employment figure is likely to decrease further in 2020, given the delays in construction during the COVID-19 lockdown, which caused staff shortages due to travel bans. Hydropower still has huge untapped potential.

It is expected to remain the world’s largest source of renewable electricity generation in the medium term. Therefore, skills, training, and educational requirements need to be well anticipated so that policymakers can assess hydropower’s future workforce needs and design support policies accordingly. The onset of the COVID-19 crisis-affected economic trends and the dynamics in all sectors the world over including in the energy sector. Renewables have been affected by temporary disruptions in the supply of equipment, components, or raw materials, and more recently by demand-side impacts.

Although the pace of new renewables installations has been slower in 2020 than predicted in pre-COVID forecasts, construction of many large-scale utility projects are proceeding, though with some delays. Jobs appear less affected in the operation of utility-scale wind and solar plants than in solar rooftop installation and off-grid solutions, where social distancing requirements and constrained household budgets have a significant impact (IRENA, 2020c).

An ambitious strategy linking short-term recovery efforts with medium-and long-term strategies to 2030 and 2050 is essential to achieving the key elements of UN Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
South Asia could do much more in this area with better cooperation among countries. 

(The writer is a retired Indian Economic Service officer who worked in the labour ministry. He can be contacted at ppmitra56@gmail.com)  



https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2020-04-28/secretary-generals-remarks-petersberg-climate-dialogue-delivered,April 28,2020



Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre/BNEF. 2020. Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2020, http://www.fs-unep-centre.org (Frankfurt am Main) Copyright © Frankfurt School of Finance & Management gGmbH 2020 https://www.fs-unep-centre.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/GTR_2020.pdf

2019 Asia and the Pacific Renewable Energy Status Report - REN21https://www.ren21.net/asia-report-2019,https://news.un.org/en/news/region/europe,August,28,2020june10 

Dr S Narayan, August 11, 2020, Energy Cooperation in South Asia: Utilising Natural Resources for Peace and Sustainable Development, By Mirza Sadaqat Huda, Taylor and Francis, 2020 https://www.isas.nus.edu.sg/books/fueling-south-asias-energy-goals/

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