Dirty power

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced at the COP26 summit in Glasgow that India will install 500 GW of non-fossil-fuel energy generation capacity by 2030. In his analysis of Modi’s speech for The Wire Science, Kabir Agarwal wrote that the phrasing evokes a contrast with Modi’s announcement at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit on New York, where he said India would install 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030.

Apparently, “non-fossil-fuel energy” is not the same as “renewable energy”, and that the biggest difference between them is hydroelectric power production.

As much as drastic climate action is warranted, it must also ensure we don’t privilege the ends at the cost of the means. For example, decarbonisation must happen such that the inevitable wealth loss, current and prospective, is distributed justly in society – such that the super-rich lose the most and the poor lose the least – and climate deals (both international and sub-national) should account for the corresponding mechanisms in their terms. Saving the planet by destroying the poor would be a meaningless triumph.

Such incrementalism demands that we consider our problems one step at a time. For example, first we must all agree to phase out fossil fuels and replace them with renewable sources of energy. Then we can get on to figuring out ways to incentivise manufacturing and installation, and then to energy storage, distribution and grid parity.

On this path, hydroelectric power seems to have been relegated to the “non-fossil-fuel” side sooner than other renewable sources – so much so that invoking it requires a careful shift in the language used to talk about it at multilateral fora.

But while the syntactic choice shouldn’t surprise us, it should remind us that the differences between hydroelectric power and solar and wind power are often very small.

An important one is the perception that hydroelectric power is dirty – but so are solar and wind today, albeit in more circuitous ways. The shift from fossil fuels to so-called ‘green energy’ is fundamentally a shift from extracting hydrocarbons to extracting minerals and metals instead. It doesn’t spell the end of extractive capitalism, or change the fact that mining is bad for the land, its life, the air above and the local micro-climate, or that solar and wind installations are not as pleasant as they sound.

Some of the world’s largest extant reserves of the specific metals, especially lithium and the lanthanides, and minerals required for the systems of the futuristic ‘green world’ – electric vehicles, wind turbines, solar panels, renewable-energy batteries and in fact everything ‘smart’ that promises to increase energy efficiency by adjusting demand according to supply in real-time – are located in Africa, South Asia and South America. These regions also host most of the world’s low- and middle-income countries, and are often the sites of extreme wealth inequality, unstable local governments and poor representation in high-level climate deliberations.

It is not unheard of, as in Bolivia, for governments to be erected on or trip over who gets the profits from mining these materials – the locals or privately owned conglomerates. An Oxfam review of the Africa Mining Vision in 2017, eight years after it was introduced, found that contrary to the vision’s goal to have mining on the continent benefit the people there, lax implementation and economic inequality were forcing countries to enter into deals with companies that were profitable in the shorter term but hurt later.

In addition, solar and wind power generation require substantial quantities of steel, plastic and concrete, most of which the world still produces using fossil fuels, and whose production releases significant quantities of carbon into the environment.

Taken together, solar and wind power are dirty as well, but perhaps just less dirtier than hydroelectric. Put another way, Modi’s new announcement roping hydroelectric power into the task of ‘greenifying’ India’s power generation mix only makes the mix dirtier than it already was.

Perhaps we’re giving hydroelectric short shrift because its turbine is located much closer to the ground its chassis has gouged out than ‘solar farms’ are to the sand removed from distant rivers or wind turbines are to the bauxite mined from a remote peninsula. And then there is the inundation that dams bring. The ‘dirtiness’ of hydroelectric power is much more in your face, whereas those of solar and wind are often hidden away as negative externalities.

A spate of accidents in Uttarakhand has only reinforced the awful reputation of hydroelectric power – and the recklessness of the people, including Prime Minister Modi, who make the decisions to build them the way they do.

Second, Modi must realise that solar and wind power need ‘cleaning up’, too.

The problem areas aren’t hard to find. In Gujarat, wind turbines are being installed on forest land and solar power plants have been flagged for “procedural” irregularities. In Karnataka, farmers and cattle-breeders have spoken out against the concrete foundations for solar farms that change soil-water interactions.

In Tamil Nadu, villagers had to mount a noisy protest to keep an Adani-built ‘solar park’ from guzzling water from a nearby river. In the Western Ghats, wind turbines have affected the diversity of predatory birds and the livelihoods of an indigenous population. In Assam, proponents of a solar power plant didn’t have patience for stakeholder consultation or the proper approvals before starting construction.

Incrementalism, especially if it’s quicker, is essential to ensure we make a just transition away from fossil fuels – while also committing to the possibility that things that are bad for the planet today needn’t always be so, through a combination of technological innovation and the value chain reshaping itself according to new incentives and sanctions.

If hydroelectric power is not “renewable”, perhaps this is an admission from the most powerful individual in India that it deserves to be discarded, not replicated. But equally importantly, Modi’s statement also visibilises the problems with solar and wind power, and reminds us that the cleanliness of our energy is fundamentally political. India, and other countries, need solar panels and wind turbines, but if our leaders in government don’t adopt them in sustainable, democratic and socially just ways, it will be just another meaningless triumph.