Friday 28 November 2014

Sunny Solutions for the Power Crunch in poor countries

Industrial growth of India has been severely hobbled by the lack of power production capacity. The state under greatest power stress is the new state of Telangana. ‘Telangana has been facing acute shortage of power as AP government has denied about 1,980 MW of its share so far,’ declared the chief minister. It seems the state is spending Rs 5 crores a day to buy power to meet essential needs. Several of its power stations are suffering outage. It is unlikely that the Seemaandhra government will honour its electric power sharing obligations, since a power crunch will limit the state’s financial resources available for social schemes. The technical problems of electricity generation are compounded by party political rivalry induced by the prospects of winning the next assembly elections.
Vithal Rajan PhotoTo increase generating capacity by another 20,000 MW in the next few years is a daunting task, especially for a cash-strapped state. Several parallel strategies may be followed simultaneously. The late Professor AKN Reddy’s work may be revisited in which he showed that renovation and efficiency improvement of existing thermal plants could almost double production throughout the country. A spectacular increase in power production can also be achieved in Telangana by following the innovative solar route, since the state is blessed with the highest solar direct irradiation.
Solar energy units are modular enabling cautious financial beginnings to be increased exponentially under successful conditions. Since few villages require more than 5KW of power, rural demand-side management of energy can optimize reliable supply by installing off-grid [photovoltaic] PV units to size. Home lighting can be provided through energy-saving LED systems, such as those developed by world-renowned expert, Prof. Dave Irvine-Halliday, now based out of Hyderabad. The other important rural need for power is to energise pumpsets. However, deep bore pumping is wasteful, both of water and power. It would be best to integrate this need with community watershed development to raise the water table, and use drip irrigation and SRI cultivation methods to reduce water requirements to less than half, even for water intensive crops like rice.
Since the plant-load factor for PV solar systems is necessarily limited to around 20%, as they are dependent on sunshine hours, industrial needs could be met with the newly developed Concentrated Solar Power [CSP] systems, which use mirrors to focus sunlight, and convert water into steam to turn turbines. The giant CSP 377MW Ivanpah station in California, rated to produce over a billion units a year, focuses light on a receiver tower, where water is turned into steam for the thermal station below. Spain is dotted with dozens of smaller CSP power stations which use parabolic troughs to heat the fluid passing through a pipe at their focal point. To meet energy needs at night, molten salt storage, from which heat can be drawn during non-sunlight hours, is used to drive the turbines. Denmark’s Aalborg and Norway’s NEST companies have developed a radical new technology utilising special concrete with embedded steel heat exchangers that are expected to work even better. Whatever the technology preference, it powers conventional thermal power stations without using polluting fossil fuels, or the very dangerous and extremely expensive nuclear fuel system. Piyush Goyal has the distinction of being the first minister to question the need for nuclear power, which despite several decades of expensive development has accounted for no more than 1% of the country’s energy consumption.
With central government help, the Telangana government can invite bids from established CSP companies, such as the American Bright Source, Danish Aalborg, or Spain’s Abengoa and Acciona. It would be in the interest of these companies to offer competing bids to take advantage of Telangana’s sunshine days.
The price of solar power has fallen dramatically and uniquely to a fraction of its original cost, since it was first used in the Sputnik satellite. With further developments, there is little doubt even among pessimists that it will be the cheapest source of power in the future. However, at present it is still more than thrice as expensive as fossil fuel power. If the government takes the long view, and health and climate change factors into consideration, solar power stations of the magnitude of Ivanpah are viable even today. If we take into account the opportunity costs of not developing India’s vast resources of low-calorific coal for valuable petrochemicals, there is no question but we should switch from coal to solar to produce electricity.
Last year India imported 75% of its crude oil needs, and the import bill stood at $150 billion. The present bonanza of politically depressed oil prices at less than $75 a barrel cannot last, since this dip in price was just a lesson the USA and Saudi Arabia wanted to teach Iran and Russia, where production costs are much higher. When oil prices come back to over $100 a barrel, India’s current account deficit will continue to soar. Around half of the imports go to the transport sector, and 80% of the oil is consumed by vehicles on roads. Diesel, which is subsidised, and accounts for the great bulk of the imports, caused a loss of around Rs 140,000 crores last year!
It is high time India, as a member of BRICS, followed Brazil’s successful example and switched to ethanol as fuel for road vehicles. Almost all Brazilian vehicles use ethanol, and some run on nothing else. Ethanol was Henry Ford’s first fuel of choice, but the dirt cheap price of crude oil from the Middle East a hundred years ago made petrol the main fuel. Since ethanol and petrol are easily miscible the cars on the road can immediately use a 20% mixture without difficulty or loss of power. Major car manufacturers such as General Motors have models that run purely on ethanol.
Indian ethanol is derived from sugarcane, the second most important commercial crop after cotton. Around four crore farmers produce anywhere from 250 million tonnes to even 350 million tonnes of cane in a good year. However, when there is a glut of sugar in the market, prices get depressed, sugar factories stop buying cane and farmers lose. The cyclical nature of the industry can be changed if a policy is created to encourage sugar factories to increase ethanol production. At present from every tonne of cane about 7 to 10 litres of liquor are produced as a by-product which can be converted to ethanol fuel at little cost. Even 100 litres can be produced from a tonne of cane if production is switched completely to ethanol when demand for sugar is low. It would be a win-win situation for the government, farmers, the sugar industry, and even vehicle owners, for domestic ethanol will drive down fuel prices.
So far government has failed to offer a competitive price for ethanol compared to the liquor industry which is the main buyer of liquor from sugar factories. Government’s hesitation to push forward such a policy is caused by obstruction from the liquor lobby which provides more than 30% of excise revenue. While the cost of potable liquor will certainly go up if India pushes forward an aggressive ethanol policy, the sugar factories ability to increase production will stabilize prices in the near future and the liquor industry will not be the loser.
There is no single simple solution for the energy crunch. A package of several policies must be pursued simultaneously. Demand side management is a vital necessity of the energy requirements of the various sectors, industry, domestic urban and rural, and agricultural. These demands must be disaggregated on the basis of location and size, and independent solutions found for all of them utilizing various energy sources and technologies. Piyush Goyal has said the present government does not ‘operate in silos.’ Several ministries must collaborate actively if affordable and reliable solutions are to be found to energize India’s future growth.

Thursday 27 November 2014

Cricket is not a Gladiatorial Contest

Dr. WG Grace glared when a bouncer went past his head. The bowler apologised: ‘Sir, she slipped,’ he said humbly, but the great man was not mollified for some time. The gentlemen of Hambledon in Hampshire are credited with popularising the pleasant village sport of cricket in the 18th century. Long before the modern Olympic games were organised of as a way of teaching sportsmanship among the athletes of different nations, cricket had become the gentlemen’s game, renowned as much for its courteous conduct as for the skills displayed. ‘It is not cricket’ has come to mean in common parlance that some act is not sportsmanlike. AG Gardiner, one of the great writers on the game, called Ranji ‘the prince of a little state but the king of a great game,’ lauding his invention of the effortless leg glance. But Ranjitsingh was not dodging bouncers. When Jardine brought in bodyline bowling during England’s tour of Australia in 1933, to curb Bradman’s genius, the world of cricket condemned it unanimously. Bradman and Ponsford came to the crease wearing towels round their middle. The Nawab of Pataudi, Tiger Pataudi’s father, refused to join the loaded leg slips and returned to India before the English tour of Australia was completed. Even Jardine did not ask Larwood to aim at the head.
Famous batsmen, who have just retired like Gavasker, never wore a helmet, which has now become a necessary part of a batsman’s body armour. With Phillip Hughes’ tragic death, we see that even this is not enough to ensure safety. A bouncer is not bowled to secure a wicket. A batsman can offer no stroke and avoid it. A series of bouncers with the batsman ducking will produce no runs and no wickets, and is not cricket even in its limited sense. A bouncer is bowled to intimidate a batsman, and unfortunately it has come to be accepted like offensive slagging as part of the day’s entertainment, and that is the root of the issue.
These days, a sport has to entertain an armchair spectator, preferably sitting in front of his TV, to be able to attract corporate sponsorship, and advertising. From being a game that is played by sports men and women, cricket has become spectator entertainment for people escaping from the drudgery of stress filled lives, like cinema, or gambling, or drugs. India with its huge masses of urban poor has fuelled this change, giving rise to the money spinning IPL series, and match fixing by bookies, managers, and players alike. Like the Roman spectators of old, the masses crave excitement, and they want bouncers and sixers. They have no taste for the leg glance or the late cut.
Poor young Hughes was trying to hook a bouncer that should have been left alone, because that is this kind of daredevilry the stands shout for. Calling it a freak accident, or mourning his death for a short regulation period will not do. If Hughes has paid with his life for what cricket has become in the 21st century, let the tragedy also bring back all sport, not just cricket, from being a ruthless moneymaking machine to its original purpose of creating healthy bodies and friendly comradeship among the young.  

Wednesday 26 November 2014

The Sexual Signal, and its Interpretation

Some years ago a famous journalist and an even more famous judge were accused in India of sexual harassment. Many Indians were all angered that such incidents could have happened.
Indians are a censorious people, especially so, when there is a hint that a person’s behaviour could possibly have had sexual undertones. Knowing that such predilection exists for quick social condemnation, the powerful male tries to protect himself by making censure rebound on the socially weaker person, normally a young female, easily suspected in our hypocritical prurient society of harbouring raging desires. Hence, whenever there is an accusation that an important man has harassed a woman, we find very quickly that there are counter allegations that it was the woman who invited the advances.
But the psychological context in which such incidents take place is far more complex than can be judged by law or public vociferous condemnation. Middleclass Indians in the present day live in several cultural spaces: that of traditional society with highly reserved social contact between the sexes outside of the family; the half-open space of ritualised Victorian courtesies with their now meaningless values; imitations of imagined American life; and the dream-world of media-sponsored erotic daring, to mention only the obvious. Negotiating constantly between these self-contradictory social contexts can and does cause pain, especially when all of us feel fragile about half-expressed, un-understood, and socially unacceptable emotions. The limits of expressing admiration, affection or regard differ according to social context, and while clear sexual predation can be made out in any context, there are a variety of ill-expressed and confused social messages which could unfortunately come to be classed among the offensive.
From the days of Saussure, linguistic scholars have made us aware that the true meaning of a sign can be deciphered only within the context in which it appears. The situation is made worse when we cannot recollect in which of our many social contexts an event has taken place. When troubling social signals are experienced, the vulnerable subjectivities of the participants further confuse the intended meaning. Then, to cap it all, a defining imprint is many times forced on the event by third parties, persons of social authority, who impose their own rigid definitions, later accepted by all as to ‘what really happened.’ Frayn’s famous play, Copenhagen, delves into the misunderstood space where even famous scientists like Heisenberg and Bohr are unable to recollect later what exactly each of them said or meant. Arthur Miller’s Crucible about the 17th century witch hunt in Salem, which he wrote to condemn McCarthyism in the Cold War period, stands as a famous indictment of social condemnation based on an interpretation of an event forced on it as an after-thought. EM Forster’s A Passage to India is centred on the alleged rape of an Englishwoman by an Indian doctor, which the story reveals never happened. But what did happen? As in Frayn’s play no one really knows.
We live in unequal and unjust times, with deep historical memories of hurt, and around the world there are contested divides, separating white from black, rich from poor, brahmin from dalit, men from women. Sometimes encounters result in hurt, sometimes casually unperceived by the ‘perpetrator,’ though resented and dwelt upon nonetheless by the other. Sometimes a perfunctory casual exploration, or even an ungainly compliment, could be misconstrued as threatening or aggressive.
But we have gained in sensibility in the last few decades. The silly ethnic joke has disappeared. And men are more aware in the presence of women thanks to the paradigm shift brought about in male egos by the feminist movement. But beneath this visible level lies the unconscious where physical and spiritual attractions are inextricably merged, and both sexes as yet lack an appreciation of these ancient forces we harbour in our beings, whether old and male or young and female. A franker acknowledgment of the many facets of humanity may help us perceive ourselves and others a little more clearly, and avoid incidents that perhaps were never intended in the first place. A start needs to be made with a rejection of outworn patriarchal values, and a new exploration of what psychical equality means among the sexes.

Vithal Rajan [Advisor, The Jung Centre, Bangalore]
1-2-16/11, First Street, Habsiguda, Hyderabad 500 007
Tel: 9704540608

Monday 24 November 2014

The Case of the Hot Rasagoola

‘Your powers are remarkably undiminished, Holmes! I mean to say, this is our first morning in Calcutta, and you have already shown your genius, even as lunch was served!’
‘It was obvious, Watson, less than elementary.’
‘None but you, Holmes, could have known that something was amiss! Can’t say I know how you did it!’
‘Well, the moment I ate the rasagoola I knew something was wrong. It was warm, Watson, warm!’
‘Yes, now I recollect, it was a kind of tepid sweet.’
‘Rasagoolas are never served warm. A Bengalee would rather die than do that. Now, our host had gone out to the most famous confectionery in Calcutta to serve us their special delicacy. The shop lies directly to the west of this hotel. Now, does that convey nothing to you?’
‘No, I’ll be damned!’
‘Well after buying a jar of rasagoolas he drove, or he should have, directly back to the hotel. Now where does one put a jar of sweets in a car when driving over a bumpy road? Clearly, where it will not topple over. Most people would put it safely on the little ledge under the rear window, and Mr Das must have done the same. In that safe place, the rasagoolas would be shielded from the morning sun and would remain cool. Now, why did they get warm? There could be only one explanation. For some reason, Mr Das turned back towards the west and the sweets for a considerable time were exposed to the full heat of the tropical sun!’
‘Remarkable, Holmes!’
‘Merely elementary. My curiosity aroused, I went out to investigate, and you followed soon after wondering what had happened to me. Well, the dirt road told its own sad tale. By the culvert, we saw the tire marks as Mr Das served wildly to avoid one of these badly driven lorries. Even you could see how he braked sharply, the drops of blood, and the pathetic little grave he had dug.’
‘I had not expected that he would break down so completely when you confronted him, Holmes.’
‘You see, as a Hindoo it is against his religion to kill. Now he has to undertake the most elaborate penances by the Ganges to be absolved of the sin he has committed.’
‘For killing an ordinary crow, Holmes, that too by accident?’
‘The East is East, Watson, as Rudyard has reminded us.’
‘I will mark this down as the Case of the Hot Rasagoola. Come to think of it I am reminded of that other curious case which I shall never be permitted to record.’
‘You mean that trifling Hapsburg affair brought about by the cold Christmas pudding?’
‘Precisely, but it was no poor hotelier who was at fault but the Prime Minister himself!’

Sunday 23 November 2014

Pakistan's Strategic Depth: A New Idea for Obama

Military planners in Pakistan have landed themselves in an existential mess by backing their American allies a few decades ago to convert free-living tribals into the Taliban. They took this dangerous step to help create strategic depth in Afghanistan against any Indian offensive. Now, a flaming frontier has appeared on the western border of Pakistan, and extremists from these border regions are eating away the integrity of the state through uncontrollable terrorist incursions even as far east as Lahore. Undoubtedly the people in the heartland of Pakistan, in Sind and Punjab, wish to stabilize their western frontier and bring internal peace to their country. Can the military do this swiftly enough without moving the compass 180 degrees to the locus of threat in the west? Can this be done without refiguring Pakistan’s strategic depth as lying to its east, in India? What will it take the governments of both countries to achieve this shift in policy and military thinking?

The political animosity of over sixty years cannot easily be forgotten by anyone, and so-called confidence-building measures will be blocked from time to time by bitter memories and fears that the enemy now coming in the guise of a friend is cleverer than he really is. However, history affords some heart-warming examples, notably the cemented friendship between France and Germany in a new Europe after several centuries of warfare, conquest, and counter conquest. The leaders who cautiously built up war-torn Europe with the beginnings of the European Economic Community would, if called to account today, quickly disown having held any intention of building the future European Union. But what is an undeniable fact today is the wealth and security of Europe. So, can we hope for a coming rapprochement between India and Pakistan?

What moves perceptions around quickly enough is money, or the prospect of more of it. Undoubtedly, the leaders in both countries, as well as leaders in countries selling arms, have a lot invested in the present military face-off. It would be impossible to bring peace to South Asia without holding out the real prospect of the leaders being immeasurably better off by peace breaking out. The roadmap for such a consummation, however devoutly to be wished, is unclear, muddy in parts, and most of it is trackless. But none can deny its potential as none can deny how wonderful life would be if there were no poverty in South Asia.

An economically vibrant South Asia could achieve the dual blessing of peace and prosperity. The second most powerful man in the world, in terms of the assessment made by Forbes, and its greatest salesman visited India, primarily to sell arms and create jobs in America. Eight years ago, the world looked to Obama to create the miracle of change in the world’s most conservative country. Failing in that attempt, can he accomplish a greater miracle by cementing peace in South Asia to bring about an economic upturn? Can cross border trade be vitalized through American initiatives to further enrich the rich of both countries, and incidentally relieve the poor of abject misery? Obama should go for this tantalizing objective, for not only would he bring many more jobs home, but he would end the menace of terrorism and become more popular in American memory than FDR himself! The only other option he has to end terrorism he has already tried, of bombing some unfortunate people!

Even if the American President on his momentous visit to India’s Republic Day celebrations in 2015 could miraculously come out with a plan for peace and prosperity in South Asia, someone is bound to raise the question of Kashmir. Oddly enough, Bollywood, even after Haider, its latest offering, reminds everyone that Kashmir is very like Switzerland, to which mountainous country its filmmakers have shifted their crew under present unsafe circumstances. Now, Switzerland was war-torn at the end of the Napoleonic period, riven by two religions, divided by at least three languages, dirt poor, and an environmental disaster. Wise leadership, hard work, and above all community cooperation have made this little country a heaven on earth within a century. And French and German leaders must be blessing their own good luck that they did not try to hold on to Switzerland.  Do Indian and Pakistani leaders ever read history? So let us present this thought to Obama and hope he can make something of it.