Deconstructing the ‘First Fuel’

In the third episode of ‘Climate Course Correction’, Padu S Padmanabhan, an energy specialist and sustainability expert, tells Smitha Verma why energy efficiency is the first fuel. The former USAID and World Bank official also talks about his latest book ‘First Fuel’ and how individuals to corporations need to look at energy efficiency as a radical vision towards sustainability.  Edited excerpts from the interview… 

How did you go about putting together your five decades of experience as an energy specialist into your book ‘First Fuel’?

From my vantage point of view, I did try to look at a few instances which I thought were good examples, which could be showcased to people who want to move the needle on solutions to climate change with the help of energy efficiency.

In fact, all of us, as consumers of energy have a role to play in energy efficiency. You have consumers right across the spectrum, like those in the industry who are probably, more sophisticated in their understanding of energy’s use, to consumers as housewives whose understanding of energy may be a little more elementary. But they all have a role to play. And I tried to do that through this book.

How is energy efficiency the first fuel?

It was in 2005, when the late President Abdul Kalam, in a conference mentioned that energy efficiency is the fifth energy resource after coal, oil, gas, nuclear, and renewables. And some of us got to do some number crunching and we found, based on available data in India, that energy efficiency is not the fifth energy resource, rather it is the first energy resource. In fact, more energy has been saved through energy efficiency than has been generated through oil or coal or nuclear.

When the International Energy Agency in Paris did its own analysis of the 17 countries it works in, it found that in 11 of the 17 OECD countries, more energy has been saved through energy efficiency than has been generated through renewables. So they called it the first fuel. And I thought it applied to India as much as it applied elsewhere in the world. And that’s why the book is titled as first fuel.

What needs to be done to bring energy efficiency at the forefront?

Policy will make a huge difference. I mean, it is nice and cute, to save a little bit of energy. But really, it is policy, both at the national level and at the state level, which will advance energy efficiency. These policies result in incentivising people to go in for efficient technologies, incentivising industry to adopt processes that will reduce energy intensity. It’ll incentivise farmers to go into more efficient pumps. 

How do you think the discourse around energy efficiency has changed in the last five decades in India?

We started energy efficiency because of the oil crisis of 1973. That actually led to the first foray into energy efficiency where people were talking about fuel efficiency.

Then in the late 80s, early 90s, when the power sector reforms started taking shape, large sectors of Indian industry, such as cement and paper and refineries began to adopt energy efficiency as part of corporate strategy due to cost. But in early 2000, when climate change began to be a little bit of concern, then the connection between efficiency and climate change was made.

Almost 30 to 40 percent of our decarbonisation goals, and net zero targets can be met through energy efficiency. To move from a world dominated by fossil fuels to an economy dominated by renewable energy, you need a bridge and energy efficiency is that bridge.

Do you think India will meet net zero goals by 2070?

I think it is realistic. The trajectory, which we need to set ourselves over in the next seven to 10 years, will determine whether we will meet our target by 2070 or not.

Net zero is not only a scientific concept but a societal concept. You have to get a whole lot of other issues resolved, the political, the economic, the technological, and the environmental. We have to involve millions of people and motivate them to do the right thing and it’s not going to happen overnight.

Do you think there should be a separate ministry for energy efficiency?

We setup the Bureau of Energy Efficiency in 2002. When you have a conservation department under a supply ministry, then the chances of it getting the attention it needs will probably not happen.

We can learn from other countries. In the Philippines, for instance, the conservation movement is driven by the President’s office. So is it in Thailand.

Another thought could be the Ministry of Renewable Energy could be expanded to be called Minister of Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency, in case you don’t want to open up another ministry.

But having a separate ministry of Energy Efficiency is an interesting idea. And that can also be explored.

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