Electricity is a powerful tool for building modern societies and plays a critical role in eradicating poverty and boosting economies. Yet, according to U.N. estimates, 1.5 billion people—nearly a quarter of the world's population—live without access to reliable power. In the developing world, rolling blackouts are still common, placing citizens and businesses in the dark and off-line for hours.
So is the case in India, one of the world's fastest-growing economies. The country lacks adequate generation capacity and electricity distribution to meet its current needs and support its future growth.
In response, India is aggressively developing renewable power sources such as solar energy and wind power. It's also invested in biomass power generation, a process using plant matter to generate electricity or produce heat. In India, biomass power is either producing steam for powering turbines or undergoing a chemical process to produce gas.
All of these solutions provide rural areas with a new supply of additional power, helping minimize the need for large investment in transmission networks while improving reliability and reducing pollution.
Nations seeking to improve their power infrastructure might learn from the experience of mobile telecommunications in these regions. Rather than rely solely on landline infrastructure, India and other developing countries leapfrogged fixed-line telephony, investing instead in mobile and cell-phone technology.
Electricity development could follow a similar path. As well as building national-scale power systems to provide electricity to the cities and commercial hubs, emerging economies could increasingly look to distributed generation and localized renewable-energy sources to provide power through software-enabled "smart grids" or "micro grids."
At General Electric (GE), we support India's National Mission on Enhanced Energy Efficiency, a government initiative based on the Energy Conservation Act of 2001 designed to address problems of inefficient energy use. It includes energy-efficiency certificates and mandates that energy suppliers must find new ways to bring electricity to those who never have enjoyed its benefits, as well as improve reliability to keep economies humming and improve living standards for those who already have it.
The Indian government, at the state and central levels, is paving the way for a jump to renewable energy through attractive prices to renewable-energy suppliers, financing options for developers, and capital-expense depreciation benefits.
India's Power Ministry has set a goal of power for everyone by 2012; in 2008 the coverage level was only 65 percent. Doing this in a sustainable manner is also the challenge. Today, India's power-generation mix is 66 percent conventional and 33 percent renewable.
In India, raising capital to purchase new plants may not always be the most feasible solution for improving the performance of state-owned energy companies. Improving the efficiency of existing assets for the power-generating companies could improve the overall availability of power and address other economic, social, and environmental goals identified in the national plan.
What may make more sense for some utilities and industrial energy suppliers is to pursue a strategy based on utilizing the best available technology while maintaining and improving existing infrastructure. GE Energy already is working with some power suppliers to modernize and extend the life of critical plant assets through the latest repair and inspection technology, like robotic fine-line welding, which saves utilities both time and money. When capital expenditures aren't possible, rehabilitating gas-turbine generators or extending their operational life could turn a 100-megawatt plant into a 120-megawatt plant. That's a substantial improvement for an industrial customer (like steel and other metal and mining companies) at significantly less expense. It also delivers a much-needed utility to society.
Reuse of By-Products
Another potential solution for updating power-generation machines is to reuse by-products associated with power generation. Power generation produces heat. In some plants, this heat simply dissipates and goes unused. By more effectively shifting the heat generated in electrical production to heat water or other operations, plants can achieve efficiencies of 70 percent or more.
Upgrading natural gas-fired power plants can provide cost-effective solutions to improving air quality and enhancing performance. GE's Dry Low NOx technology incorporates the latest technology to improve stability, extend intervals between outages, maintain performance, and decrease costs without massive capital expenditures. Upgrading an existing system to the latest technology can lead to a 45 percent to 67 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions per year. Switching just five turbines to this new technology would be the equivalent of planting 300 acres of trees.
Powered by today's technology solutions, modern energy systems can deliver cleaner, smarter, more efficient electricity to emerging economies. Today, the energy technology sector is ready to provide sound solutions to help solve serious global problems. Through our ongoing dialogue we aim to be a voice in economic development and can help deliver meaningful improvements on emissions and climate-change goals.
Governments and regulators need to create conditions for solving some of the developing world's most pressing energy problems.