Need a JNNSM-like policy to promote geothermal in India
Dr Ritesh Arya, a Chandigarh-based hydro-geologist, holds the Guinness Record for successfully drilling the highest tube well in the world at over 11,000 feet in the Himalayas. He is the Indian coordinator heading a tri-nation initiative — Norway, Iceland, India — aimed at developing new green technologies based on geothermal energy resources in the Himalayas. He was invited to present his innovative concept at the World Sustainable Energy Conference organised by the United Nations’ International Sustainable Energy Organisation in 2012. His concept of Agneyodgara Urja (Energy from Lava) aims to provide free, safe and renewable energy to all by 2050 and intends to make India an energy surplus country in a sustainable manner. In an interview to Upendra Singh, he discusses the potential of geothermal energy and the alleged hazards associated with it.
Q:What is the potential of geothermal energy in India, especially in the Himalayan region?
India has vast potential for geothermal energy development. Traditional estimates of 10,000 MW can be increased 10 times more if geothermal and Agneyodgara sites are properly developed in the unexplored areas in view of the geo-tectonic and geological setup. Right from Puga in Ladakh (Jammu & Kashmir) to the Barren Island in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the geothermal development potential is enormous owing to favourable geotectonic features related to subduction of Indian and Chinese plates after the initial collision around 60 million years ago resulting in elevation of the Himalayas, and an event which also coincides with the Deccan volcanism leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The Indian Himalayas are no exception and the geological conditions along with geothermal spring areas and high heat flow provinces make them promising areas for geothermal utilisation. Development of geothermal resources has the potential to supply the region with electric power, heat and cold which may increase industrial efficiency and productivity in sectors such as agriculture and food processing. Also, alongside geothermal resource development for direct and indirect use in power generation, it has huge scope for geotourism development in the region.
Q:What are the reasons for the delay in its takeoff in India?
The first and foremost reason is lack of awareness about its benefits, and to an extent, lack of expertise in geothermal energy. Also, what I find is that there is a lot of emphasis on solar and wind energy in the country, whereas very little has been done for the geothermal energy sector till now. There is a need to realise the potential of geothermal energy in the country. In India, exploration and study of geothermal fields started in 1970 and around 350 potential geothermal locations were identified by the Geological Survey of India. Some projects were started in the Puga Valley of Jammu and Kashmir, and Maharashtra and Gujarat. However, as of now, not a single site has been commissioned. There is a need for a policy like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Policy (JNNSM) to promote geothermal, as the development of this resource has the potential to overcome the country’s power crisis in an effi cient and sustainable manner. Moreover, to meet the energy crisis, the government risked to have nuclear power plants installed in India in spite of deep resentment among the local people, especially after the Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Q:How are you planning to take the concept of geothermal energy ahead and what is being done for its success?
We are in the process of developing this technology and several studies are being conducted. A tri-nation initiative involving India, Norway and Iceland is underway; aiming to develop new green technologies based on geothermal energy resources in the Himalayas. Norway and Iceland are two countries where a lot of research has been done and the best practices have evolved in the geothermal
energy domain. Iceland meets over 60 per cent of its energy requirements through geothermal sources. Their experience and technological prowess will be of great help to India in developing the sector. Norway has provided around Rs 7 crore to promote bilateral co-operation to find the sources of geothermal energy in the Himalayan region. The INDNOR project also envisages building a local qualified human resource base over a period of time to sustain and enlarge capacities in the geothermal sector.
Q:There is a perception that geothermal creates seismic problems. Are these concerns reasonable?
There were problems initially and the perception built up due to drilling into the magma in Krafl a, Iceland, right in the mid-oceanic Atlantic ridge which separates the two drifting plates — North American plate and Eurasian plate. Depth of magma was encountered at 1.8 km but total bore hole was drilled up to 2.1 km in 2009. Its completion coincided with massive volcanic activities that disrupted flights for 2 months in Europe. However, whether there was any geological relation to eruptions in Iceland to the drilling activity was not established. As nothing has been proved we should not jump to conclusions. Geothermal science is in its infancy and a lot of experiments need to be done before a final picture will emerge that would be rooted in reality. Geothermal drilling is no different from drilling for oil. If oil wells can be drilled and are not linked with any natural geological activity, then there is no reason to raise doubts about geothermal wells either.
Q:What are the costs of per megawatt electricity generation from geothermal energy and of a project from conception to commissioning?
Setting up a 1000-MW geothermal power plant would cost anywhere around 3-4 billion US dollars; however, they are cheaper when compared to nuclear power plants of the same magnitude. A nuclear power plant costs around 5 to 5.5 billion US dollars. Considering the sustainability aspect of geothermal energy, it is head and shoulders above nuclear power which is nothing less than a ticking time bomb for mankind. The nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima speak volumes about the safety and threats associated with nuclear power plants. So, the need of the hour is to bank on those forms of energy which not only fulfi l the energy demands but are safe and clean at the same time. In this regard geothermal energy is the energy of the future. Today, the first geothermal power plant set up at Larderallo in Italy in 1904, is yielding 5000 GW per year and the cost of per KW is around 0.06 euros.
Q:It is often said that the high-costs of drilling and exploration and corrosion maintenance outweigh the benefi ts of geothermal energy. What do you have to say about it?
Geothermal exploration drilling is quite similar to drilling done for oil wells across the world. If you talk about uncertainties in geothermal drilling, then the same is true for oil wells as well. However, you can see that the oil sector has developed and the industry is flourishing. Oil prices keep the oil rigs and oil wellsrunning. No one bothers about questioning the failures of oil wells. Last year, the ONGC successfully abandoned the 5-km well drilled near Kasauli in Himachal Pradesh, and no eyebrows were raised at the loss of around Rs 100 million. I think the failures are taken in stride as one successful drill would recover the entire cost. Financial uncertainties and failures in the oil sector have been well-established, but when it comes to geothermal resources, the same questions become a big hindrance.
Q:Sites can run out of steam over a period of time due to drop in temperature or if too much water is injected to cool the rocks – resulting in a loss for firms that have invested. So, how long does a site last in terms of energy production?
Yes, there have been instances but we have to look at things from a broader perspective. After Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, nuclear power plants are being looked at as a threat to mankind. Oil reserves are depleting. During the World Future Energy Summit at Abu Dhabi, it was clearly stated that the future lies in alternative sources of energy. Geothermal is one such option that has the capability of being used almost everywhere on micro and mega level. The micro use can be anywhere where geo heat exchangers can reduce energy bills by 30-40 per cent, whereas mega geothermal resources can be developed in almost
inaccessible areas which can produce gigawatts of safe power. However, these mega projects are only suitable for regions where temperature below the earth can produce steam over a long period of time. For this, a lot of research is required. So, maybe we can work out the cost of the entire process of setting up a plant by undertaking a study to see which areas are most viable for geothermal drilling; equipment required; setting up of a plant, and how evacuation of power is done.
Q:So, do you see successful commercial application of geothermal energy in the foreseeable future?
If you ask me, I would say that the potential is immense and could provide clean and safe energy to all by 2050. Earlier, it was believed
that geothermal energy could be produced only where hot water springs were present, but with the advent of technology, every site has a potential to generate electricity. All nuclear power plant sites that are witnessing a lot of protests have the potential to generate power from the earth. A concept like Agneyodgara Urja has the capability to produce power and heat at almost every place on this earth, which could lead to fulfilment of our energy needs in the future.
Q:What is the concept of Agneyodgara, and how is it different from traditional geothermal energy?
Agneyodgara Urja means energy from lava to produce gigawatts of sustainable and safe energy in geologically favourable locations almost anywhere using Geocogen technology. The concept is to tap geothermal heat of lava at shallow depths. This is the future energy and perfect replacement for nuclear power plants the world over. The concept of Agneyodgara is based on clean water and green energy for all through judicious use of natural resources without actually harming Nature. Geothermal energy is a general term used to denote energy from the earth whereas Agneyodgara means energy from lava, and hence is a very specific term evolved to meet future energy requirements on a sustainable basis.
Q:So, how is energy produced through this process and what are the potential sites for power projects?
Waste water in metropolitan cities and the unused energy of lava from the outer core of the earth are the main raw materials to generate gigawatts of unlimited green and pollution-free energy with hot stream as its end product. This steam can again be re-used to produce energy or cooled to get potable water to quench thirst. Agneyodgara covers all the five elements essential for our survival – land, earth, fire, water, air and souls by driving energy from land and using water (waste) and Co2 or other gases as main raw materials. The energy as end product doesn’t pollute the environment and produces uninterrupted cost-effective power. In India, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai are perfect Agneyyodgara sites and can be developed as pilot projects. The Agneyyodgara system has the potential to generate around 1 GW of clean electricity from a single site which is the need of the hour. By doing so, India can address the issue of power shortage in a sustainable manner, and believe me, we could be power surplus by 2050 – with all Indians and all the people who have invested in Agneyodgara getting free and safe energy. Agneyodgara Urja is key to providing free, safe and sustainable energy to all. Agneyodgara Urja sites will be potential areas where future energy centres will be created and industries which require high energy will flourish.