By Donella Meadows
–June 6, 1991–
Amulya Reddy, a soft-spoken, urbane professor at the Indian Institute of Science, calls his government’s energy policy GROSSCON — growth-oriented, supply-sided, consumption directed. According to the Oxford Dictionary, Reddy says, “gross” means “flagrant” and “con” means “confidence trick.” The Indian energy policy is not different from the policies of most other nations of the world. That is why, says Reddy, we have everywhere an economic crisis of impossible energy costs, an environmental crisis of intolerable pollution, and a social crisis, as people who live near potential energy generation sites fight against displacement, pollution, and danger.
As a classic example of GROSSCON he cites the official electricity plan for Karnataka State in South India — a state that contains 40 million people, most of whose homes do not even have electricity. The plan calls for a new 1000 megawatt coal-burning plant and 2000 megawatts of nuclear power, plus new transmission lines and railways for the coal. Over the next ten years it will cost $17 billion, which is to be borrowed from the World Bank, the government of India, and private investors.
Will this massive expense electrify all houses? No.
Will it supply enough electricity for the houses that ARE electrified? No. There will be shortages and brownouts.
“Conventional plans are no longer solutions; they are exercises in profligacy,” says Reddy. He has worked out an alternative plan for Karnataka. He calls it DEFENDUS — development focused, end-use oriented, service directed.
“Development focused” means placing highest priority on the provision of basic needs, starting with the neediest. “End-use oriented” means defining what people in fact need. They need light, cooked food, and refrigeration, not kilowatt-hours. When you organize energy planning around delivering final services, you stop planning how many megawatts you can build, and you start asking how to provide the most light or refrigeration with the fewest megawatts.
That simple shift in focus changes everything. It leads you to do something that GROSSCON planners never do. You list all possible sources of electricity, including efficiency measures. After all, if you can devise a light that gives you twice as much illumination for the same energy, or a cookstove that gives you twice as much cooking, that’s as good as doubling the power plants that supply lighting or cooking energy. Reddy made such a list of technologies and ranked them from least to most costly. Then he listed the energy needs of Karnataka — lighting for ALL homes, irrigation pumps, power for employment-generating industry, and so forth. He then matched every need from his supply list, stepping up from the least costly option to the next and the next.
The resulting plan would electrify every house by the year 2000, run every pump, supply every need. It would require 40 percent of the electricity and one-third the cost of the GROSSCON plan. No coal-burning or nuclear plants would be built — they fall toward the expensive end of the cost curve and never have to be called upon.
Reddy’s DEFENDUS plan uses a rich mix of efficiency improvements, local decentralized sources, and central electric generators. The cheapest technology turns out to be the substitution of inefficient with efficient electric motors. Then comes the retrofitting of irrigation pumps with frictionless valves and leak-proof plastic piping. The next steps up the cost curve are small-scale hydroelectric generators, efficient compact fluorescent lamps, and cogeneration from burning the bagasse waste from sugar factories. Also included in the mix are solar hot-water heaters, efficient gas cookstoves, biogas, and finally central power generators fueled by natural gas.
This plan comes out of strict economic and technical criteria, but it is also an environmentalist’s dream. Amulya Reddy estimates that it would cut air pollution and greenhouse gases by a factor of about 200. “As demand escalates, the more inescapable become the environmentally malign and harsh technologies,” says Reddy. “As demand goes down, it becomes possible to avoid some of these harsh technologies. In Karnataka, reduced demand means that the technologies that have become controversial in the state — nuclear power plants, coal-based thermal power plants, and large-scale hydroelectricity — can be largely avoided.”
The DEFENDUS scenario also brings on energy more quickly — it’s faster to change lightbulbs than to build power plants — and it leaves India with much less debt.
Which plan will Karnataka choose? That’s not yet certain. Says Reddy, “The cheaper, quicker, more environmentally sound and more equitable DEFENDUS scenario is so obviously superior that it should be chosen without hesitation if rationality prevailed. Energy decision-making, however, is not done on the basis of rationality; there are powerful vested interests. But it appears that the supply lobby can no longer procure the capital to carry through its exorbitantly expensive schemes. Conventional plans are impossible to sustain.”
It may be that the Third World isn’t the only world that could benefit from that message.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1991