India’s Report Card Against Short List Of Climate Actions Is Better Than Most Realize

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For several years I’ve been iterating The Short List of Climate Actions That Will Work. The work of organizations like Mark Z. Jacobson’s Stanford team around energy and Carbon Drawdown’s around everything are excellent in different ways, but also indigestible to most people.

The short list really is that. It’s broad, covering energy, transportation, agriculture, and industry. But it doesn’t try to be deeply nuanced. In fact, a few bullet points are enough to get the idea across.

  • Electrify everything
  • Overbuild renewable generation
  • Build continent-scale electrical grids and markets
  • Build pumped hydro and other storage
  • Plant a lot of trees
  • Change agricultural practices
  • Fix concrete, steel, and industrial processes
  • Price carbon aggressively
  • Shut down coal and gas generation aggressively
  • Stop financing and subsidies for fossil fuel
  • Eliminate HFCs in refrigeration
  • Ignore distractions
  • Pay attention to motivations

None of this is particularly surprising to anyone who has been paying attention and isn’t stuck deep into one of the swirling maelstroms of misinformation or motivated thinking. Regardless, committed climate action analysts, leaders, and researchers often find things to get deeply annoyed about with it.

For example, sharp eyes will notice it doesn’t mention efficiency at all. Enormous effort and time has been spent on efficiency programs as a great requirement. Negawatts and building envelope evangelists decry it being missing every time I publish an iteration. But unless electrifying is the point with efficiency being a Pareto-optimized expenditure to make the business case work better, efficiency by itself usually doesn’t do much. A study of 55,000 UK gas heated homes which had been insulated with governmental grants found that gas consumption was very close to pre-insulation levels within two years and fully back up to those levels at four years. Jevons Paradox cuts deeply.

Similarly, many people choke on electrify everything. A European national energy strategist commented that they dismissed the list out of hand because that was the first bullet. Many people assume that electrification has much more significant limits than it does, when those limits aren’t remotely technical in the vast majority of cases, but economic.

But what does India have to do with this? A few months ago Rish Ghatikar, a board member of the India Smart Grid Forum (ISGF), reached out to me. That organization was founded 15 years ago to be a think tank bridging the 28 state electrical utilities that service the 1.4 billion people of India. It brings leading practices from around the world to the Indian context. It funds and performs thought leadership studies to determine the most cost effective ways to decarbonize India with electrification. I spoke with the board member, the president Reji Kumar Pillai, and a couple of staff members a small handful of times subsequently.

And it runs an annual India Smart Utilities Week Conference. They asked me to present.

India Smart Utilities Week splash card

Thanks to the miracles of post-COVID hybrid conferences I was able to present to a big audience in New Delhi at 5 AM from my home office in Vancouver, and then catch a plane later in the morning to Calgary to facilitate an EU-Canada methane emissions reduction dialogue the next day (more on that later). Still, a couple of very long days.

This was an introductory session to a series of webinars I’ll be having with a diverse group of Indian electrification stakeholders over the next year where we’ll start with my perspective on most of the points, then have a deep discussion about how it applies in the Indian context. I expect to learn an extraordinary amount.

And I already have. In preparation for the first overview session I learned more about decarbonization in India than I had learned in the past three years. To be very clear, I make no claims to having more than the most trivial amount of knowledge about the country, its economy, or its journey. It’s a 1.4 billion person country with 122 major languages, the birthplace of four major religions, has averaged ~6% annual GDP growth since 1990, brought all but about 10% of its population out of poverty in the same period, and is packed into an incredibly diverse geography that’s only a third the size of Europe. While I’ve read a lot of Indian English-language literature, worked with India-based teams for 25 years, audited courses on its geography and history, and spent a reasonable amount of time comparing Sikhism and Hinduism to the Protestant Reformation, I know I’ve only barely scratched the surface.

Yes, it’s humbling to have been asked to try to assist a significant subset of its energy industry’s work to find a pathway to bringing that last stubborn percentage of its populace out of abject poverty while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. It’s a wicked problem.

The presentation was of the short list with an India flavor, as much as possible from my remote perspective. It’s worth documenting my initial observations, in part to see how they stand up to the scalpels of retrospective as I learn more.

Electrify Everything

The Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) Sankey diagram provides insights into energy flows and of all the national Sankey diagrams I’ve assessed, it does the best job of highlighting how inefficient our economies currently are. About two-thirds of energy becomes waste heat due to the burning of fossil fuels. I reviewed India’s Sankey diagrams before choosing this visualization for that reason.

US LLNL Sankey Diagram of US energy flows annotated by author
US LLNL Sankey Diagram of US energy flows annotated by author

Almost all of the rejected energy comes from burning fossil fuels in electrical generation, heating homes, business and industry, and powering transportation. An electrified economy running off of renewables is vastly more efficient, requiring far less primary energy.

For a presentation to global investors through the Jefferies investment bank a few months ago, I worked out that the US economy could deliver all of the energy services for economic value, comfort, and safety with slightly less than 50% of the primary energy it currently uses while only requiring six times as much low carbon generation as it already has in operation. What economy wouldn’t want to pick the more efficient pathway if it was developing?

While I didn’t use this analogy directly during the presentation, fossil fuel pathways are like meeting a drug dealer who gives a taste to get you hooked. Starting is cheap, but you have to keep paying month after month and year after year because you are hooked. We extract over a 20 billion tons of fossil fuels annually and mostly burn it, producing waste heat and carbon dioxide, with a minority of the output being useful energy.

And India knows this. It’s going to be at 100% rail electrification this year, leading the world. It’s committed to 50,000 electric buses by 2027, which is vastly more than Europe or North America has committed to, mostly by right-sizing batteries for routes instead of demanding perfect equivalence to diesel. Over 50% of its three-wheelers sales are now electric.

As BNEF reported last year, two- and three-wheeled electric vehicles are the biggest electric vehicle wedge in avoidance of 1.8 million barrels of oil a year already. India isn’t Europe or North America and doesn’t have nearly as many cars, but does have a very large number of two- and three-wheeled vehicles. That counts, and it’s a leapfrogging wedge.

Overbuild Renewable Generation

Traditional notions of baseload power are becoming increasingly obsolete. The industry is shifting its focus towards concepts like flexibility and firming to adapt to the variable nature of renewable energy sources. Wind farms, for example, have proven to be reliable, delivering electricity approximately 85% of the time despite capacity factors around 40% of potential generation. Similarly, solar farms, for example in regions like New Delhi, are capable of producing electricity for about 12 hours a day at this time of the year, just not at maximum output. However, it’s important to acknowledge that neither wind nor solar can provide 100% of the energy all the time due to their intermittent nature.

To address this variability and ensure a stable energy supply, overbuilding renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro is a practical solution. By increasing the capacity of these renewable sources by about 25%, it’s possible to generate sufficient energy for most demand scenarios, even during the edge hours when production might naturally decrease. This approach not only ensures that energy demands are met more consistently but also promotes a more sustainable and environmentally friendly energy landscape. Transitioning to such a model requires careful planning and investment, but represents a critical step forward in meeting the global energy needs of the future.

And India is working to build a lot more renewable generation by 2030, although it didn’t commit to the double down, triple up COP28 pledge. Per analyses I’ve read, it was due to a codicil on the pledge about cutting down on coal generation, something India finds problematic in a related manner to China, which needs firming power for its renewables and gets it most economically from coal.

Build Continent-Scale Electrical Grids & Markets

HVDC transmission is the new pipeline, representing a significant advancement in the efficiency and reliability of long-distance electricity transmission. India has positioned itself as a leader in the adoption of HVDC technology, boasting over 10,000 kilometers of HVDC lines and a capacity of 29 gigawatts. This places India ahead of the United States, which has around 6,000 kilometers of HVDC lines and a capacity of 20 gigawatts.

Furthermore, India has ambitious plans for the expansion of its electrical grid, with proposals for an additional 8,000 kilometers of HVDC lines and a significant expansion of its High Voltage Alternating Current (HVAC) infrastructure by 42,000 kilometers. This expansion is not just about enhancing domestic capabilities, but also about strengthening interconnects with neighboring countries, promoting regional energy cooperation, and stability.

On the regulatory and market front, India is making substantial strides in modernizing its energy sector frameworks to accommodate these technological advancements. The country is actively working towards implementing market-based and security-constrained economic dispatch models. These models aim to optimize the allocation of energy resources, ensuring that electricity generation and distribution are conducted in the most efficient and secure manner possible.

Build Pumped Hydro & Other Storage

Firming of electricity has become increasingly important. Firming refers to the process of stabilizing the energy supply to ensure consistent availability, especially given the intermittent nature of renewable sources like wind and solar. Traditional energy powerhouses such as China and the United States are relying on coal and natural gas, respectively, to provide this stability, running both at under 50% capacity factors and last on the merit order of generation. However, the focus is shifting towards more sustainable methods of energy storage and firming.

One key method is closed-loop, off-river pumped hydro storage. The Australian National University (ANU) has been at the forefront of research in this area, highlighting the technology’s capability to store energy in large quantities. This form of storage has a top and bottom reservoir that are not on existing rivers or streams, significantly reducing environmental impacts.

Higher head heights above 400 meters allows for small reservoirs to have very large energy storage capacities. For example, the lead researcher Matt Stocks indicated that a 500-meter head height facility with a gigaliter of water would store a gigawatt hour of energy, including round trip efficiency factors. The ANU GIS study looked for paired top and bottom reservoir site options with greater than 400 meters of head height, within 3 kilometers horizontally, off of protected land and near transmission.

Closed loop, pumped hydro resource capacity in India per Australia National University's global GIS greenfield atlas
Closed loop, pumped hydro resource capacity in India per Australia National University’s global GIS greenfield atlas

In India, the adoption of pumped hydro facilities is on the rise, with one operational facility in Gujarat and two more under construction. Recognizing the importance of pumped hydro storage, India has set a goal to achieve 18.8 gigawatts of pumped hydro capacity by 2032 and identified resource potential of 106 gigawatts. However, the resource potential appears far too modest.

That massive swath of red dots of very high capacity resources is in the mountains just north of the very densely populated plain New Delhi is located in. India’s resource capacity appears to be far above the estimates that India is using. As I’ve noted multiple times, as the global resource is 100 times larger than ANU’s projection of the requirement, only one in a hundred sites has to be viable to provide far more storage than is needed. There’s a reason that pumped hydro has been the largest form of grid storage since 1907 and will continue to be.

China is significantly advancing in pumped hydro storage, with 19 gigawatts already operational and a staggering 365 gigawatts either under construction or planned by 2030. In the United States, the focus on pumped hydro storage has been more conservative, with ten older facilities and only one currently under construction.

India has aggressive plans compared to the USA, but isn’t nearly as aggressive as China. As I frequently say, when it comes to decarbonization, look at what China has scaled massively and is committed to scaling even more, as it’s probably the right choice.

Plant A Lot Of Trees

Planting a trillion trees aims to bring back a third of the trees that have been cut down around the world and contribute to atmospheric carbon drawdown, air quality, and sustainable lumber resources. I discussed that with the lead Swiss researcher on the trillion trees GIS study a few years ago.

If we plant 100 million trees every week, it would still take 200 years to plant a trillion trees as I worked out subsequently. But it’s not just about trees. We also need to take care of grasslands, wetlands, and coastal areas. For example, India has lost 40% of its mangroves, which are important for the coast and also help in absorbing carbon from the air.

Comparing to China remains illustrative. It has the most aggressive tree planting program in the world, reforesting and afforesting, planting four million hectares in 2023 alone, resulting in total reforestation greater than the size of France since 1990. It’s also regreening grasslands and wetlands.

Planting trees and restoring these areas won’t meet the climate goals for 2050, but it will make a big difference by the years 2100 and 2200.

Change Agricultural Practices

In an effort to modernize agriculture and boost its efficiency, there’s a growing push towards industrialization and automation in farming practices. One significant step in this direction is the consolidation of smaller agricultural plots into larger fields. This change alone could lead to substantial efficiency gains for India, making farming operations more streamlined and productive and freeing agricultural manual laborers for more value added economic participation.

India stands out in this context as it is currently the largest market for tractors globally. However, they are still used in only a fraction of India’s vast agricultural lands. This underutilization presents an opportunity for a technological leap.

Bypassing traditional tractor-based methods in favor of advanced automation technologies like drone seeding and spraying wherever possible is one of those opportunities. These innovative solutions offer numerous advantages, including lower costs for spraying and seeding, electricity instead of diesel, reduction in soil compression, reduced overspray and the ability to operate effectively in challenging environments such as rice fields. Additionally, using drones for seeding and spraying can decrease the need for agricultural products by 30% to 50% due to efficient, targeted spraying where the prop wash pushes the product down into the growing plants.

The move towards low tillage agriculture is another aspect of this modernization effort. This farming technique minimizes the disturbance to the soil, preserving its health and reducing erosion while also locking in a lot more atmospheric carbon for longer term sequestration through glomalin pathways. Further enhancing agricultural efficiency, agrigenetics plays a crucial role, especially with the development of nitrogen-fixing microbe products like those from Pivot Bio that reduce the need for chemical fertilizers.

Using green hydrogen for fertilizer production significantly reduces the carbon footprint of agriculture as well, and is a high merit order use of the substance. As I worked out recently, biofuels from crops enhanced with green hydrogen would deliver 65 times more energy than just using the hydrogen as an energy carrier. There’s a reason that I strongly assert that batteries and biofuels will be powering all transportation that can’t just be grid-tied like trains in the future.

Fix Concrete, Steel, & Industrial Processes

India has made a significant leap in steel production, overtaking the United Kingdom and the United States to secure the position of the world’s second-largest steel producer. India’s iron and steel industry is supported by 127 iron mines, which collectively produce 282 million tons of steel annually.

A key component of India’s steel production strategy involves the increased use of scrap steel in electric arc furnaces. Currently, India uses scrap steel for 54% of its steel production, a figure that stands between the European Union’s 40% and the United States’ 70%. Increasing this percentage to about 75% is both achievable and desirable as I worked through in my exploration of the key industrial product a year ago.

Millions of Tons of Steel Per Year By Method Through 2100
Millions of Tons of Steel Per Year By Method Through 2100 by author

Direct reduction of iron ore using synthetic gases, currently manufactured from natural gas or coal gas, is a strong pathway to decarbonizing new steel manufacturing. As I found, the world has already scaled this approach to 100 million tons a year with firms like Midrex and ArcelorMittal providing and operating the technology. This process can be powered by electric heat and use biomethane for the synthetic gas.

Then there’s green hydrogen reduction like that from Hybrit and direct electrochemical reduction as Boston Metals and Fortescue are pursing, all of which significantly lower the carbon footprint associated with new steel production. Such a shift is vital in the context of global efforts to combat climate change and would reduce India’s dependency on imported Australian coking coal.

The drive for electrification extends beyond steel production. The limestone kilns used in cement manufacturing are also targets for electrification, coupled with the implementation of carbon capture technologies. By transitioning to electric cement clinker kilns, the cement industry can significantly reduce its carbon emissions, aligning with global environmental goals.

Electrifying industrial heat in general is another lever India can lean into. Heat pumps can already deliver heat sufficient for 45% of industrial heat demand and there are electrified solutions for virtually every aspect of heat, from resistance up to 600° Celsius with Kanthal products through electric arc furnaces up to 3,000° Celsius and electric plasmas at up to 10,000° Celsius — the temperature of the surface of the Sun. The only reason that fossil fuels have been used is because they have been cheap.

Price Carbon Aggressively

Addressing climate change effectively demands bold measures, and one of the most critical tools in this fight is the implementation of a formal, regulated carbon price. Such a mechanism puts a monetary value on carbon emissions, incentivizing businesses and consumers to reduce their carbon footprint. However, India’s approach to carbon pricing is currently voluntary, making it less effective than necessary. This voluntary market has led to the export of cheap carbon credits, which India is likely to need in the future. When that time comes, repurchasing these credits could come at a steep cost, as I discussed with Dr. Joe Romm in the run up to COP28 last year.

While India has taken steps towards environmental fiscal reforms, such as the fuel excise tax, this tax does not extend to the industrial or power sectors, limiting its effectiveness in reducing overall carbon emissions. In contrast, the European Union’s carbon pricing guidance will make gas and coal plants financially unviable compared to renewable energy sources, something I worked out the basic economics of a few months ago.

Alberta, Canada, offers a compelling example of carbon pricing in action. The province will down its coal plants this year, six years ahead of schedule, primarily because the cost of coal was quadrupling by 2030 under the carbon price.

Globally, the momentum for carbon pricing is growing. China and 12 US states have implemented a carbon price, and the European Union has established the most aggressive carbon pricing mechanism. The EU is also taking a bold step by enforcing this pricing on imports through the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), ensuring that external suppliers adhere to similar environmental standards. Pricing on imports is starting in 2026 and all greenhouse gases are being included in the ETS in the same year, ensuring it’s a big broom. Pricing is gradually being increased to match the ETS over a few years and some big hitters like oil and gas don’t start paying until 2030, but that’s only six years away.

Furthermore, entities like the EU, Canada, and the US Environmental Protection Agency have aligned on the social cost of carbon, currently valuing it at $194 per ton. This figure is expected to rise rapidly, reaching near $300 by 2040, reflecting the growing recognition of the environmental and social impacts of carbon emissions. The EU’s budgetary guidance, which influences CBAM pricing, is based on this valuation, underlining the serious approach taken towards carbon pricing.

Despite the global trend towards adopting carbon pricing, India has been resistant, particularly to measures like the CBAM, preferring to fight these regulations rather than embracing carbon pricing itself. This stance may hinder India’s ability to participate effectively in a global economy that is increasingly moving towards stringent environmental standards. Adopting a more proactive approach to carbon pricing could not only help India in mitigating its own carbon footprint but also ensure its industries remain competitive on the global stage.

Shut Down Coal & Gas Generation Aggressively

The health and environmental costs associated with coal-fired power plants are becoming increasingly hard to ignore. On average, each coal plant is responsible for approximately 80 deaths a year in the developed world due to air pollution. These plants are not only a significant source of carbon emissions contributing to climate change but are also the leading contributors of environmental mercury, posing a severe risk to both human health and the environment.

Comparison of health and carbon emissions impacts of different forms of electrical generation by Our World In Data
Comparison of health and carbon emissions impacts of different forms of electrical generation by Our World In Data

Given these dire consequences, there’s a growing call for a strategic approach to phase out the most polluting coal plants. The idea is to create a sunsetting schedule that prioritizes the closure of the worst offenders while ensuring that any replacement in capacity comes from modern, low-emission power plants. This approach not only addresses immediate health concerns but also aligns with broader environmental goals.

As a comparison, that’s something that China has been actively doing. As I noted last year, while China’s coal plant approvals and construction get the headline, something that’s also part of the story is that China has shut down, canceled, or mothballed 775 GW of coal capacity. While China’s coal capacity is growing, a great deal of the new plants are replacing the highest emitting and polluting plants. This is a solid strategy for India to emulate, balancing emissions, pollution and the need for firm power. And once again, it’s quite probable that something like this already exists and I’m just unaware of it.

As the energy market evolves, the role of coal is expected to change significantly, moving from a constant, baseload source of power to one that is used more for peak demand times and flexible supply. This shift will likely result in a rapid decline in coal’s capacity factor, which measures how often a plant runs at its maximum output. The industry must be vigilant about the potential for stranded assets and unprofitable investments as this transition unfolds.

To mitigate these risks, something India should consider — and probably is — would be to establish a strategic coal generation reserve. Such a program would allow coal plants to operate below market profitability levels at increasingly low capacity factors while still providing essential services during peak demand periods, ensuring a smooth transition away from coal without jeopardizing the reliability of the power supply.

Oil, as India’s second-largest source of electrical generation, also poses significant emissions challenges and requires a similar strategic approach to sunsetting. With India’s push towards increased electrification —  a crucial step towards modernization and environmental sustainability — the balancing act between current energy sources and the need for aggressive investment in renewables, storage, and transmission infrastructure becomes even more critical.

Stop Financing & Subsidies For Fossil Fuel

Per the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2022, India’s subsidies for coal, oil, and gas amounted to $32 billion, with indirect subsidies due to health impacts, climate change and other negative externalities of $314 billion. The $346 billion total figure represents about 10% of the country’s GDP. The following year, 2023, saw a further increase in subsidies, reaching $39 billion. As with many countries, India had capped consumer energy prices during the energy crisis to avoid energy poverty, but that led to record subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. Rolling back those caps and subsidies is a requirement.

The subsidies have kept the prices of coal and diesel artificially low, at almost 50% of what would be considered efficient market costs when accounting for global warming, pollution, and other negative externalities associated with fossil fuel consumption per the IMF. This approach also underscores a deliberate policy choice made by the government, weighing immediate social welfare against long-term environmental sustainability.

In that regard, it’s clearly aligned with China’s policy to first bring 850 million of its citizens out of poverty before more aggressively tackling climate change. Abject poverty being a much worse and more immediate impact than climate change or air pollution, and India now being the most populace country in the world with 17.8% of the world’s citizens within its borders, this is a choice that’s hard to criticize.

Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies is not merely an environmental imperative but also an economic one. Reducing subsidies for fossil fuels can free up significant financial resources that could be redirected towards supporting renewable energy projects, energy efficiency initiatives, and the development of cleaner technologies. Moreover, such a transition would help mitigate the adverse health impacts associated with air pollution from fossil fuels, contributing to a healthier population and reducing healthcare costs, while increasing work force productivity.

Eliminate HFCs In Refrigeration

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs) are chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioning systems. CFCs came under intense scrutiny due to their depletion of the ozone layer and global warming, hence the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Harm the Ozone Layer which led to widespread use of HFCs, which didn’t.

CFCs are also very potent greenhouse gases. HFCs are too, although slightly less so than CFCs. Still, thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. That led to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which was adopted as a global effort to phase down the production and use of HFCs.

India, as a signatory to the Kigali Amendment, has committed to joining the global community in reducing its use of these harmful refrigerants. However, the pace at which different countries are approaching this phasedown varies significantly.

China, for instance, has adopted a more aggressive approach to phasing down HFCs than India. The country’s proactive stance is aligned with its export policies. As China reduces its reliance on these refrigerants, it is simultaneously ramping up the production of heat pumps, an environmentally friendly alternative for heating and cooling. This shift is part of China dominating the global heat pump market with 40% of the market share, selling these more sustainable products at lower price points.

In contrast, the industrial policy in India is less focused on export-oriented growth in this sector. While India’s commitment to the Kigali Amendment is a positive step, the slower pace of its phasedown and the less aggressive push towards alternative technologies could place it at a disadvantage in the rapidly evolving global market for cooling and heating solutions. The European Union’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) and Canada’s carbon pricing include refrigerants, indicating a growing trend of integrating environmental costs into economic policies.

Given the global shift to low global warming refrigerants and the low cost of a couple of the major options, carbon dioxide and propane, India could be more aggressive in this space.

Ignore Distractions

Nuclear energy, hydrogen for energy, carbon capture, direct air capture, and synthetic fuels are mostly distractions, and India would do well not to dwell on them.

India has a long history with nuclear power, but it only contributes about 3% to its electricity mix. Its reliance on older CANDU reactor technology, which is minimally supported, highlights the challenges in scaling nuclear power in the modern era. Even China, with its vast resources, struggles to expand nuclear generation at a significant pace, indicating broader challenges in the nuclear sector.

As I’ve noted a few times, there are several conditions necessary for successful nuclear power expansion: a dedicated national strategy and budget, alignment with military capabilities, a robust human resources program, and a focus on a limited number of reactor designs over a multi-decade timeline. Small modular reactors (SMRs), while innovative, do not meet these criteria, raising serious questions about their viability as a large-scale solution.

Flyvbjerg cost overruns table
Flyvbjerg cost overruns table

As global megaproject expert Professor Bent Flyvbjerg’s hit 2023 book, How Big Things Get Done, revealed to a much broader audience, while wind, solar, and transmission tend to hit schedule and budget targets regularly once construction starts, nuclear generation is plagued by long-tailed risks that lead to significant cost overruns, only exceeded by the Olympics and nuclear waste storage projects.

At the international level, India has opted out of signing the COP28 nuclear pledge, showing caution in its commitment to nuclear energy. Disappointingly, it also skipped the renewables pledge, missing an opportunity to bolster its commitment to sustainable energy sources, but as noted, that was due to the coal generation codicil that India couldn’t commit to.

Hydrogen demand through 2100 by Michael Barnard, Chief Strategist, TFIE Strategy Inc
Hydrogen demand through 2100 by Michael Barnard, Chief Strategist, TFIE Strategy Inc

Hydrogen for energy is another distraction. Manufacturing low-carbon hydrogen will always be more expensive than current black and gray unabated hydrogen and we barely use that for energy at all. When we do, as in most hydrogen vehicle trials I’ve assessed globally, it’s only with the promise that it will be decarbonized in the future.

Hydrogen transportation pilot after transportation pilot runs aground on the rocks of high maintenance and fuel costs. Maintenance data shows that hydrogen buses are 50% or more expensive to maintain than diesel buses, while battery-electric vehicles are about 65% as expensive to maintain. The costs of manufacturing, distributing, compressing, and pumping hydrogen means that it always ends up being at least three times the cost of energy for the distance traveled as just putting electricity into batteries in vehicles. The high compression pressures required in refueling stations leads to them being out of service regularly, with California’s 55 stations being out of service 2,000 more hours, a full 20%, than they were actually pumping hydrogen, at an estimated cost of 30% of capital expenditure for annual maintenance if they were actually operating at full capacity.

In the realm of carbon management, Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) and Direct Air Capture (DAC) technologies are often discussed. CCS involves a hefty infrastructure for transporting and storing CO2, with significant challenges and costs associated, making it a less appealing option. The abject lesson from Satartia, Mississippi in 2020 of a blanket of CO2 rolling 1.6 kilometers downhill from a ruptured pipeline and leading to dozens hospitalized and hundreds evacuated from a tiny town in a very sparsely populated part of the USA can’t be ignored when large scale CCS would require pipelines through densely populated areas.

Similarly, DAC, likened to “closing the gate after the horse has escaped,” presents logistical and efficiency hurdles that question its practicality and impact on a large scale. Synthetic fuels proposed to be made using DAC-captured CO2 and electrolyzed hydrogen throw economic sensibility to the wind.

Nuclear, hydrogen for energy, carbon captures’ various forms, and synthetic fuels are distractions and all countries should ignore them, including India.

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Pay Attention To Motivations

The global shift away from fossil fuels represents not only a monumental transition in energy sources but also a profound economic upheaval. Trillions of dollars, decades of research, and vast industrial efforts are steering the world toward a new energy paradigm. As traditional business models, grounded in the combustion of fossil fuels, crumble, the repercussions are far-reaching. Technologies that once symbolized peak innovation, such as internal combustion engines, now edge towards obsolescence, their value plummeting.

This transformation has significant implications for the valuation of fossil fuel reserves, turning once-valuable assets into financial liabilities, significantly reducing their worth. Gas distribution utilities face a particularly dire situation, grappling with the utility death spiral where decreasing demand and escalating costs threaten their survival.

Amidst these shifts, motivated thinking, lobbying, and the promotion of ineffective solutions become increasingly prevalent. Stakeholders with vested interests in the fossil fuel industry are doubling down on efforts to sway public opinion and policy decisions. This includes investing in lobbying efforts to secure favorable regulations or subsidies for declining technologies and pushing for solutions that may not address the root causes of environmental degradation and climate change.

Such actions not only hinder the progress towards sustainable energy transitions, but also muddy the waters of public discourse, making it harder for genuinely effective solutions to gain traction. The result is a landscape fraught with misinformation and resistance to change, posing additional challenges to global efforts to mitigate climate change and transition to sustainable energy sources.

The implications of these dynamics are profound, calling for vigilance and critical thinking among policymakers, industry leaders, and the public. As the world navigates this transition, the ability to discern between genuinely sustainable practices and those that are merely promoted for vested interests will be crucial in shaping a sustainable future.

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