Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Relying on Jatropha

One of the biggest names in Indian corporate history is throwing its weight behind a Jatropha-based future for India motor fuels. Of course it is not abandoning its highly lucrative oil business yet, but the boost the bio-diesel industry will get from this show of support will be substantial, while the bottom line of the company itself will definitely be better off from the effort.

Recently Saudi Arabia, despite being the biggest oil producer in the world, announced a major bio-diesel initiative. Of course the reason given was "waste water usage" and "greening the desert", and not merely creating fuel.

India's biggest private sector name in the oil industry, Reliance Industries is now launching a major initiative to grow jatropha at Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh. Though the pilot is likely to be on 200 acres of land, it should grow to thousands of acres if all goes well. Going by Reliance's track record in India, it would be a wonder if all does not go well - which is great news for the alternate fuel industry.

The initiative will be spearheaded by Reliance Life Sciences, a subsidiary of RIL, while the Bhavnagar-based Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute will provide the know-how on crop and fuel extraction technology.

* A jatropha seed contains 31 to 37 per cent extractable oil
* A plantation of 100,000 hectares of jatropha is expected to yield 250,000-300,000 tonnes of crude jatropha oil per annum
* The initial 100,000 hectare jatropha farm may yield revenues of $100 mn a year
Among other things Reliance's interest is seen as a vindication for the profitability of the bio-diesel industry.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Revolutionary Reactor Design by BARC

Scientists at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Bombay, have designed what they claim is the safest and most economical nuclear reactor in the world. BARC scientists V Jagannathan and Usha Pal revealed the design, which has been in the making for seven years, in their paper presented at the week-long 12th International Conference on Emerging Nuclear Energy Systems (ICENES 2005) in Brussels.

There are some nice and unique things about this reactor. The design presented was for a reactor that can produce, "600 MW of electricity for two years 'with no refuelling and practically no control manoeuvres.'" Most accidents are because of human error. So automation would mean minimal chances of accident - plus reduction in cost. Importantly for India, the reactor does not need uranium, and runs of thorium instead (which India has in plenty). I have doubts about that being an advantage. Though it does not need uranium, it still needs plutonium (800 kg a year), and in comparable quantities to the thorium (1100 kg a year).

The design is called ATBR (A Thorium Breeder Reactor). It uses plutonium as the seed to start the reaction cycle, which then carries on with thorium getting converted to fissionable uranium-233. It is a thorium breeder of sorts (a first with thorium in the world - fast breeding is normally done with plutonium), so it produces as much fissile material as it depletes, extending a single cycle over a period of two years. Thus the minimal human interference required.

World reserves of thorium are about three times that of uranium, and India has 32 per cent of the world's thorium. Thus India is rather anxious to start exploiting this huge resource, which incidentally also cannot be used to create nuclear weapons.

India has a so-called "three-stage nuclear program". In the first stage, plutonium is created in its pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWRs) and extracted by reprocessing. In the second stage, fast breeder reactors (FBRs) use this plutonium in 70-percent MOX-fuel to breed uranium-233 in a thorium blanket around the core. In the final stage, the FBR's use thorium-232 and produce uranium-233 for other reactors.

The first stage has been realized with India's 10 nuclear power plants. The second stage is only realized by a small experimental fast breeder reactor (13 MW), at Kalpakkam.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

August 20th - Renewable Energy Day in India

Last Saturday, India observed the birthday of former PM Rajiv Gandhi as Renewable Energy Day - Rajiv Gandhi Akshay Urja Diwas.

Some celebrations were rather symbolic. In Manipur the main observation was held at the office premises of the Manipur Renewable Energy Development Agency (MANIREDA), where the 2030 deadline on energy independence was stressed again. Others saw a little more than just that.

New Delhi

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh addressed a function:
- a community biogas plant for every village
- micro-hydel projects in the hills

The Minister of State (Independent charge) for Non-Conventional Energy Sources Vilas Muttemwar
- the biogas initiative would be a major objective of the ministry
- "grid quality electricity to 25,000 remote villages, which cannot be connected with grid, by 2012 through the renewable energy (RE) sources."
- "Renewable Energy Clubs are being formed in 1300 engineering colleges and technical institutions with a grant of Rs 25,000 per annum by the Ministry of Non-Conventional Energy Sources, which would help development of renewable energy technology and present this as a career option."
-"District Advisory Committees (DACs) have been set up in 465 Districts for accelerating use of RE devices and removing obstacles in the way," said Muttemwar

India's Largest Wind Energy Producer honored

MSPL Ltd was awarded the ''Highest Investor Award in the field of Renewable Energy'' for 2004-05 by the Karnataka Renewable Energy Development Limited (KREDL).

"...the company had invested about Rs 460 crore during the financial year 2004-05 for installing wind mills of 105 MW.

An ISO 14001 certified company, MSPL has the unique distinction of being India's largest 'Wind Energy' Producer. They have a total installed capacity of 140 MW of Wind Energy as of date that has been put up at an investment of about Rs 650 crore. MSPL Limited alongwith group companies exports about 385 million units of energy to the Karnataka State grid per annum.

One of the major upcoming projects of MSPL Limited in the field of renewable energy for the current financial year 2005-2006 is the expansion of the existing Wind Farm Projects with an additional capacity of 75 MW."

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Integrated Energy Policy - almost there...

India has been working (for a while now) on an Integrated Energy Policy a draft of which was recently released by the Planning Commission. The draft gives an indication of the direction the policy is likely to take and the areas of concentration.

Firstly it has suggested an overhaul of the current fuel pricing mechanism. More than 50% of the retail selling price of petrol is made up of taxes in India, and taxes mandate that petrol is significantly more expensive than diesel in the country. The policy however aims at interlinking the prices of all fuels in the country.

It points out that the high cost of fuel affects competitiveness of industry, agriculture and commerce, thus negatively affecting the economy. Which is rather true. The high prices would have been justified when we were a more closed economy highly concerned with outflow of foreign exchange. Now if the price of petrol is lowered, we will see an increase in sales. But this increase will have a cascading effect on other areas of the economy. Sales of automobiles will go up. More people will travel more often, leading to an increase in business for the services sectors. The cost of a whole range of commodities for local consumption and export will fall, thus further fueling the growth of the GDP. And yes, we will be that wee bit more competitive with respect to China where petrol costs the equivalent of Rs 18 per litre.

The role of the government as both regulator and principal owner of almost 75 per cent of all fuel resources, came in for mention. Considering the current fuel pricing crisis, this it is especially relevant that the separation of both roles was suggested. "It also says that each regulatory body should be charged with the responsibility of creating enabling environment to foster competitive and transparent markets for energy supplies/services."

The policy could look at some rather "out-of-the-box" thinking. Companies like NTPC could be asked to increase their fuel efficiency (through acquired technology) by 30%. They could also used cleaner ways to use the coal reserves like, recovering coal bed methane, in-situ coal gasification, carbon-capture and sequestration; and integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC).

And now for the best part - the policy stresses on the importance of reinforcing the National Solar Mission, "to promote innovation and acquisition of state-of-the-art technologies aimed at reducing cost of solar photo-voltaic technologies, exploring the use of solar thermal technologies for power generation and enhancing applications aimed at effective recovery of heat energy from available solar insulation."

The automobile industry will be asked, "to seek technology for super batteries and engage in research to develop such batteries in a time-bound manner." Does this indicate a move towards electric and/or hybrid vehicles?

BHEL's Solar Lamps for Jharkhand Schools

BHEL (Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd) in a joint initiative with the Jharkhand State Tribal Development Corporation, has installed solar lighting systems in tribal schools in various parts of the state. The solar power plants commissioned were in the 2-5 KW range, and each is equipped with solar photovoltaic panels, battery banks and power conditioning units for generating electricity using sunlight.

Jharkhand has one of the biggest backward tribal populations in the country, and the initiative is expected to help students who, "were earlier forced to call it a day at dusk itself". I am rather skeptical regarding schools conducting classes beyond dusk - only evening colleges do that. But classrooms must have enough lighting inside the class even in the day time and so this is good. More than that however, this initiative is likely to help showcase solar power in the tribal areas, and possibly generate interest. The experience should help further the role of solar power in achieving the targets of the Remote Village Electrification Programme.

Bio-diesel - Another Small Step

Bio-diesel in India came one step closer to consumers, as Indian oil companies, IOC, HPCL and BPCL, have agreed to buy bio-diesel for blending with diesel. In fact, at a price of Rs 23 per liter, they have offered to buy "any quantity". The government however is in favor of a Rs 25 per liter to include an encouragement premium.

The 3 oilcos between them plan to set up 20 depots all over the country to collect bio-diesel. Each will have a laboratory facility to check for the quality of the bio-diesel being supplied. However the program to actually sell diesel mixed with the bio-fuel could take 4-5 years to launch on a commercial scale.

The growth of the bio-diesel industry in India is expected to benefit from the setting up of a Bio-Diesel Credit Bank in New Delhi, by the Petroleum Conservation Research Association (PCRA). The bank will provide, "provide all relevant information - right from people engaged in the cultivation of non-edible oil seeds to those engaged in collection and processing of bio-diesel and the desired quality of bio-diesel."

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Pushing The Prius - Faster, Longer, Cheaper

The hybrid Toyota Prius is the darling of alternate energy enthusiasts in the US. Though there are other hybrids in the US market, I suspect the most endearing factor of the Prius is its super best-selling status which gives hope that there is a lot of interest in the country in moving away from traditional fuels. People pay as much as five thousand dollars to jump a two month waiting list for a Prius. Others buy a Prius only to immediately sell it at a profit.

Essentially all that the Prius does is to improve the efficiency of a petrol car by running an electric motor on energy generated via a flywheel during actions like braking the car. However the introduction of the electric aspect opens up the doors for all sorts of alternate energy. Enthusiasts are converting Prius' into plug-in hybrids, so that their batteries can be charged overnight - just like an electric car. Unlike petrol, electricity can come from a variety of renewable sources, and very little petroleum is used in the US for generating electricity.

Then some take that concept even further to build a photovoltaic hybrid. While a regular Prius can top out at 47 miles per gallon (about 20 km per litre), a photovoltaic hybrid can reach 71 mpg (30 kmpl). Under special conditions folks have managed up to 110 mpg (46 kmpl) over 1400 miles using what is called the Pulse and Glide Technique. Plug-in pybrids however are reported to have returned as much as 250 mpg (106 kmpl). The idea is to put additional batteries in your hybrid, and charge all of them overnight. If you dont travel more than 20-30 miles every day, you may not need any petrol at all. What does it cost to run your car on electricity? "To drive a hybrid car about 1 km, takes about the same electricity as to light a 150 watt bulb for one hour!"

Monday, August 15, 2005

The President on Energy Independence

President APJ Abdul Kalam had an image as a dreamer even before he became the First Citizen of this country. No wonder then that visions are a usual feature when he addresses the nation. On Republic Day this year he gave us a vision of universal employment via sustainable development. This time he talks about energy independence.

The first half of the speech was dedicated to talking about the recent floods in various parts of the country, including the financial capital of the country. He also mentioned that action was being taken on some of the 8 areas he had mentioned in his Republic Day speech.

Energy is the lifeline of modern societies....As it is said, energy and water demand will soon surely be a defining characteristic of our people's life in the 21st Century.

Energy security rests on two principles. The first, to use the least amount of energy to provide services and cut down energy losses. The second, to secure access to all sources of energy including coal, oil and gas supplies worldwide, till the end of the fossil fuel era, which is fast approaching. Simultaneously, we should access technologies to provide a diverse supply of reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable energy.

Energy scurity, which means ensuring that our country can supply lifeline energy to all its citizens, at affordable costs at all times... independence has to be our nation's first and highest priority. We must be determined to achieve this within the next 25 years, therefore by the year 2030. This one major 25-year national mission must be formulated, funds guaranteed, and leadership entrusted without delay as public-private partnerships to our younger generation, now in their 30s, as their lifetime mission in a renewed drive for nation-building.

What are the envisioned energy sources for the future?

Firstly, better using our coal thus: "...a movement towards energy independence would demand accelerated work in operationalising the production of energy from the coal sector through integrated gasification and combined cycle route." In 2030, "the power generated from coal-based power plants would increase from the existing 67,000 MW to 200,000 MW". Simultaneously "fossil fuel imports need to be minimised and secure access to be ensured. Maximum hydro and nuclear power potential should be tapped."

The best part comes after that: "The most significant aspect, however, would be that the power generated through renewable energy technologies may target 20 to 25% against the present 5%. It would be evident that for true energy independence, a major shift in the structure of energy sources from fossil to renewable energy sources is mandated."

"Solar Farms"

"Solar energy in particular requires unique, massive applications in the agricultural sector, where farmers need electricity exclusively in the daytime. This could be the primary demand driver for solar energy. Our farmers demand for electric power today is significantly high to make solar energy economical in large scale.

Shortages of water, both for drinking and farming operations, can be met by large-scale seawater desalination and pumping inland using solar energy, supplemented by bio-fuels wherever necessary.

The current high capital costs of solar power stations can be reduced by gridlocked 100 MW sized Very Large Scale Solar Photovoltaic or Solar Thermal Power Stations. In the very near future, breakthroughs in nanotechnologies promise significant increase in solar cell efficiencies from current 15% values to over 50% levels. These would in turn reduce the cost of solar energy production. Our science laboratories should mount an Research & Development Programme for developing high efficiency CNT based Photo Voltaic Cells.

We thus need to embark on a major national programme in solar energy systems and technologies, for both large, centralised applications as well as small, decentralised requirements concurrently, for applications in both rural and urban areas."

Municipal Waste, Energy Efficiency and Bio-diesel

He also spoke of the potential for power generation from municipal waste: "Today, two plants are operational in India, each plant generating 6.5 MW of electric power. Studies indicate that as much as 5800 MW of power can be generated by setting up 900 electric power plants spread over in different parts of the country, which can be fueled by municipal waste."

Transmission losses, which encompass power theft, came in for special mention. The President pointed out that reducing these losses from 30-40% to 15% will save as much power as Rs 70,000 crores (about $15 bn) worth of investment can produce.

He also repeated his Republic Day commitment to bio-fuels, pointing out that India can produce 60 million tonnes of bio-fuels annually. Interestingly again he did not mention ethanol. When he spoke about the full economic cycle, the phases were conspiciously those for the bio-diesel cycle.

Nuclear Power

In the only disappointing aspect for the greens, he also stressed on ramping up on the nuclear power front. His stance however moves away slightly from the US' potential "helping hand". The President stressed the need to build Thorium-based reactors because India has good reserves of the metal.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

India Petroleum Update

The Shale Story

We all know that petroelum is formed when organic matter decays under an appropriate amount of pressure and temperature. Coal is actually formed somewhere along the journey from just-dead organism to petroleum. We saw how conversion of coal to petroleum products is getting hot as a propect with the maturing of technology in that area. Now if coal is good enough, then why not oil shale, which is a little closer to petroleum in the formation process?

Oil Shale is a kind of shale that contains kerogen, which can be processed to get oil. The cost depends on who you ask, but it will definitely be competitive compared to coal. Now comes the interesting part. ET reports that Oil India Ltd geologists claim that India has enough oil shale to meet all our oil requirements (at current levels) for the next 100 years. Swaminomics comments on this here.

Here is a quick look at the statistics. If India has to have the kind of shale reserves being claimed here, it would have to be the world's best kept secret in that department. 140 million tonnes every year for the next 100 years translates to current reserves of 14 billion tonnes - that is proven (or at least estimated) recoverable reserves. According to the world energy council survey 2001, only the US at 60-80 billion tonnes has more recoverable reserves than that. Now since the US is estimated to have over 60% of world reserves, India's share comes up to above 10%. The survey does not mention India at all - and that means that if true this is the world's best kept secret in the field of geology.

Iran-Pak-India-(China?) gas pipeline

While an Indian delegation reaches China today to discuss cooperation in exploring energy resources in third countries, one proposal that will loom large over all discussions would China's participation in the Indo-Iran gas pipeline project. China's participation will mean a big win-win situation for India. For one the transit fees will more than make up for whatever India would be paying Pakistan. Secondly if the same pipeline feeds China too, then Pak will be far more enthusiastic about ensuring the security and sanctity of the gas flow. Thirdly the Chinese angle is likely to make it far easier to tie up an international consortium to build and maintain the pipeline.

So how likely is this? TOI reports that "Officials of the petroleum ministries of India and China are engaged in a serious dialogue about the possibility of Chinese participation in the India-Iran gas pipeline". The US is against such a deal with Iran, and China is smarting under the recent failure of its bid for UNOCAL. Please do the math. To speak the truth, China has not yet officially commented on the proposal.

Domestic Developments

HPCL chairman M.B. Lal told Rueters of plans to set up three new refineries - one on the east coast in Vishkhapatnam to process 300,000 barrels per day, the second in Bhatinda in Punjab to process 180,000 bpd and the third (oil ministry willing) in Rajasthan to process Cairn's crude. Cairn and ONGC have already submitted a proposal for a joint-venture refinery in Rajasthan and the oil ministry will take a final decision on this.

For its part, Indian Oil Corporation has put its own projects on hold citing mounting losses from under-recovery on the petro-product sales. This also being the first quarter ever when all four oil retail PSU's have recorded a loss, the current under-recovery rates mandate that IBP, BPCL, HPCL and IOC will all become sick in sequence from September 2005 to July 2008.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Eko Cosmic - I

In January this year, Bangalore-based Ekovehicles launched an electric scooter, which had caught public attention just a month before at the Grahak Utsav-2004 in Bangalore. Here is an interview with Anil Ananthakrishna, Chairman of Ekovehicles, where among other things he announces plans to launch an electric motorcycle sometime next year.

About the electric scooter: Launched on Jan 21, 2005 in Bangalore, it was christened Eko Cosmic-I. Costing Rs 30,000 onroad in Bangalore, it returns 50 km on a single charge that costs Rs 3, thus returning the amazing mileage of just 6 paise per km. The top speed though is just 40 kmph. The good part is it looks as good as the best scooters in India, and considering the low output (500 watts or 10cc), it needs no road tax to be paid or even a driving liscense.

Is this India's first electric scooter? No. The first scooter was Vidyut-24, also launched by Eko Vehicles in Bangalore way back in the 1980s. The product bombed back then. Since then Mr Ananthakrishna, an electric vehicle technologist has worked on several types of battery operated vehicles in Germany, the US and China. (In fact China has sold about 4 million locally manufactured electric two wheelers.)

Is this truly a Made-In-India product?Trick question! Though the Eko Cosmic-I is his own design, the components are almost completely imported (a majority from China), and only assembled in Bangalore. However, talks are on for localization. Crompton Greaves could supply the motors, Roloform the wheel rims and Fiem the headlights and taillights. An 80-85 percent localization is the immediate target, with high-end electronics from Japan and Europe the only imports.

So whats the future? At a rapid battery charging station, the vehicle needs just 10 minutes to charge. Eko is setting up 140 such stations in Bangalore this year. A tie-up with reliance to introduce charging stations at petrol pumps along the highway is on the anvil. A lithium-ion battery can increase the range from 40 to 100 kms, but will cost substantially (Rs 20,000) more.

The Karnataka government is likely to give a sales tax rebate of Rs 3,300 on the Eko Cosmic.

While the company is targeting 100,000 in sales in the next one year (only 400 have been sold so far), they are also planning to launch an electric motorcycle, an electric cycle called the E-bike and sometime next year a 3 or 4 wheeler costing just Rs 80,000.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Y2K, Peak Oil and Cassandra

Jamais Cascio has a great post on WorldChanging titled "Peak Oil and the Curse of Cassandra".

Just to be safe, here is some background. I guess everyone knows all about the Y2K, but just in case someone has forgotten, here is a primer. We are also well aware with the term Peak Oil, I suppose, but here is a link (via treehugger) anyway. Now Cassandra is probably not as famous except among history/mythology buffs. She was the Trojan seeress who could correctly predict the future, but was cursed to be always ignored. She correctly cried out when Paris brought Helen home, though the city rejoiced. She similarly knew of Achilles and company hiding in the wooden horse, but no one believed her. She was also the sister of Paris and Hector.

Now for the interesting part. Jamais believes that the Peak Oil scare is like Y2K. And no, Y2K was not a hoax. It was a desperate and herculean effort that averted the Y2K crisis, and a similar thing will happen with Peak Oil. Then people will call Peak Oil a hoax. But the scare was vital to mobilizing the resources to beat Y2K, and a similar emotional frenzy will help with Peak Oil too. Beyond this, I would urge you to read the original article..

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Ethanol - the Net Energy Debate continues

The Alternate Energy Blog has this post on how ethanol may actually need more (fossil fuel) energy to produce, than it can give out. The cartoon is telling enough actually.

One reason The Indic View does not wax eloquent on the virtues of ethanol is the uncertainty over its net energy status. Alt-e has some figures here, which apparently depend on who you ask:

"The ethanol lobby claims there's a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn. Other boosters, including Woolsey, claim there are huge energy gains (as much as 700 percent) to be had by making ethanol from grass."

However according to, "David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley,...ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains." The corresponding figures for soybeans is 27%, switch grass 50%, wood biomass 57% and sunflowers 118%.

On the Indian scene, the government is committed to ethanol-ing retail petrol soon, and a 5% blend has already been made mandatory. However the roll-out is currently not on track because of the unavailability of ethanol (sugar crop was bad last year). With a good crop expected this year (until recently at least), the government and the ethanol groups were confident of supplying enough to get the roll-out on track.

What about the cost? The last time I heard, the sugar mills were going to sell ethanol to the oil companies at something between Rs 19-21 per litre. Yes, the numbers looks rather unrealistic even to me. Does someone have any other numbers though?