The first fridge in town

The recent visit by President Obama to India and the resulting discussions on climate change between the President and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have once again thrown the spotlight on India’s development pathway and its energy needs.

There were countless articles about the climate change discussions they had, but one story published by the BBC was particularly relevant and poignant. It was about Santosh Chowdhury, a gentleman who lives in the village of Rameshwarpur, on the eastern side of the country. He had just bought a fridge, which may seem uninteresting, but it was the first fridge in his village. There is one thing about refrigeration that is different to almost any other domestic energy consuming device, it requires fairly reliable 24/7 electricity. That means Mr Chowdhury, like many in his town who may now follow him, needs a grid connection and that grid has to be sending electrons his way all the time.

First fridge

This is the start of a long industrial chain that needs a modern energy system to support it. The fridge needs electricity on a 24/7 basis, which excludes the immediate application of renewable energy as the primary provider. Some sort of back-up or energy storage mechanism will be required. In India, given cost considerations, the baseload electricity will likely be generated with coal although it is clear that India are also looking towards nuclear. Solar energy will augment this and at certain times may provide for all Mr Chowdhury’s needs, but unless the town spends considerably more money and installs a more complex grid system with battery capacity, the dependency on coal will continue, at least in the medium term.

But the story doesn’t end there, given that electricity provides only about 20% of final energy needs globally and in India this falls to 15%. The lack of fridges in Rameshwarpur reflects the situation across the whole of India. The BBC article notes that only one in four of the country’s homes has one. That compares to an average of 99% of households in developed countries. In 2004, 24% of households in China owned a fridge. Ten years later this had shot up to 88%. India has about 250 million households, which approximates to 60 million fridges. By 2030 as population rises, people per household decline and fridge ownership approaches Chinese levels, India might have 400 million fridges.

So Mr Chowdhury’s purchase and others following, will mean that India needs to produce more fridges – lots more. In 2000 China was producing 13 million refrigerators per annum, but by 2010 this had jumped to 73 million. This means India needs more refrigerator factories and chemical plants to make the refrigerant. The refrigerators might be made of steel and aluminium which means mining or the import of ores, refining, smelting, casting, stamping and transport. All of these need coal, gas and oil. Coal in particular is needed for smelting iron ore as it acts as the reducing agent, producing carbon dioxide in the process. The intense heat required in the processes is most easily and economically provided by coal or gas, although given time electricity will doubtless make its way into these processes.

Oil will be needed as a transport fuel to ship all these materials from mines to refineries to manufacturing plants to distribution depots, then wholesalers, shops and finally Mr Chowdhury’s home. Although electricity is starting to appear in the transport sector for lighter vehicles, with the exception of railways it isn’t the energy provider yet for heavy transport. In India, rail transport is extensive and electrification is making good progress, but there is still much to be done.

With a refrigerator in the house, the BBC reports that family life for Mr Chowdhury will change. It will be easier, so his productivity in other areas may well rise. This could translate to more income, further purchases and perhaps the first opportunity for air travel in the years to come. That will certainly be powered by Jet A1.

There is no doubt that India is industrialising rapidly and Prime Minister Modi should be commended for his ambitious goal of 100 GW of solar capacity by 2020 and speeding up the nuclear programme, but this won’t stop carbon dioxide emissions from rising sharply in the near term; it is more a question of how high they rise and the more immediate actions that can be taken. I am reminded again of a tender call for 8GW of coal fired capacity in India that appeared in the Economist a while back. This is just one project of many.

India coal

Coming back to the discussions between Mr Obama and Mr Modi, it is clear to me that India faces a huge challenge, which should also be recognised as a global challenge to help them and others make a different set of energy choices. The start with solar is important but it may not be enough to keep coal emissions down in the medium term. So here are three suggestions from me to take India forward;

  1. Develop low cost village scale energy storage to support solar. This could also position India as a key supplier to Africa in the decades to come.
  2. In the short term,  favour natural gas over coal for electricity generation. This would make a real difference to power sector emissions and would help India bypass the severe air quality issues now being faced in China. It would also avoid the cost of retro fits later on.
  3. For the longer term, particularly for industry but also power generation, the real game changer could be carbon capture and storage. This is where more international focus is needed, especially in the development of funding mechanisms to support its deployment in developing countries.