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Waste to wealth! This economic model can give new lease of life to India’s sustainable energy journey

sustainable energy, climate change, renewable energy, Bio-CNG, natural resources, solar industry

By Santhosh Jayaram

With climate change being the buzzword today, the need to reduce atmospheric emissions has become all-important. There are just two adjectives on everybody's lips: renewable and efficient. What is less known is that the energy industry is not the only industry where this kind of change is taking place. Though waste has become a contentious term, it has also given rise to a new way of doing business (more so in making energy), leading to a more innovative and sustainable dream for the near future.

Popularly referred to as the circular economy, this model of production and consumption comprises a design process for a regenerative economy that converts waste to wealth and creates enormous possibilities in its wake. It allows the lifecycle of products to be extended through a wide range of practices that involve utilisation of waste, improvement in efficiency and continual use of natural resources. Thus, it is redefining economic growth by placing an increased value on natural and societal capital.

To align with the global trend, India has been taking significant steps to increase the adoption of renewable energy. For example, India's solar story, through its compelling business case, is maximising falling renewable technology costs to further decarbonisation. The country has realised that it is cheaper to build and operate solar farms than to run existing coal-fired power plants. This in turn has helped the solar industry reach economies of scale, making India the cheapest producer of solar power. This move towards decarbonisation has a virtuous connect with the circular economy model.

Moving ahead, India has a substantial potential for energy generation from urban, industrial and agricultural waste/residue. Bio-CNG, biogas and energy from different wastes, such as cattle dung in rural areas or vegetable/food and municipal solid waste in urban areas could be used for cooking, electricity generation and transportation. For instance, based on the availability of cattle dung from an estimated 304 million cattle, there exists a potential for 18,240 million cubic metres of biogas generation annually. With the increase in urbanisation, municipal corporations are also facing challenges in Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) management and are planning to introduce waste-to-energy systems.

As the solar energy market expands, the volume of discarded products would also increase and without circularity for the materials used by the solar industry, it would cease to be a sustainable source of energy. A 100-GW solar capacity entails an estimated demand of seven million tonnes of materials, including glass, aluminium, silicon and silver, which can be retrieved and recycled, reducing the stress on resources. With the advent of electric vehicles and batteries, India also needs to plan for end-of-life issues for batteries. Countries like the U.S. and the U.K. have already taken the lead in research by establishing battery-recycling R&D centres/programmes.

The circular economy model can give a new lease of life to conventional energy sources as well. Industry symbiosis has the potential of utilising heat and material leakages from one industry process in another process. There are also possibilities of pre-production, production and customer interfaces wherein circularity can be a value enhancer. On the energy supply side, pre-combustion interventions, renewable energy, waste-to-energy, fuel conversion, recycling of materials from energy production plants are ways of implementing circularity while energy efficiency, demand response and energy as a service are possibilities on the user side.

That the energy industry is looking at a circular economy is no surprise. With immense possibilities and substantial room for growth, India's sustainable energy journey would be greatly aided by this concept being ingrained into project conception to aid the resource efficiency journey.

The writer is Partner and Head-Sustainability & CSR Advisory, KPMG in India