I think it was in Bangalore a few years ago when I had this sort of Eureka moment. Actually I didn’t discover or invent anything … while visiting the washroom at a family home, I noticed an LPG gas cylinder kept in a corner with a pipe leading to a rectangular box, which, in turn, had a pipe running to the shower. The gas from the LPG cylinder was being fed into a burner, which, in turn, provided instant hot water. The best part was that the burner fired up the moment you turned the tap on and flamed out as you turned the tap off.
Simple as it was, this was an energy-saving innovation. Remember, most of us still source hot water from menacing “geysers” affixed near the ceiling in or inside the attic above the bathroom. And which always look like they could send a few thousand volts surging through your body if you touch them.
Watching Reliance Industries chief Mukesh Ambani unveil his gas-based distributed energy model last week in Mumbai, I had a similar feeling. Was there a possibility that we might have a part solution today to the power and energy shortages of tomorrow?
The details will emerge in the coming months but here are the contours. As is well-known, Reliance has discovered gas in the Krishna-Godavari basin off the Andhra coast. As it stands today, the gas will be brought up to Hazira in Gujarat, where it will join the original HBL pipeline. The pipeline to do this is already up — though gas will start flowing only early next year. There will be other pipeline networks as well, going east, north and north-west as in the case of Hazira.
Now here is the interesting part. Ambani is proposing that the gas not only be distributed to large industries like power, steel, fertiliser plants and homes, but also in a big way to mid-sized consumers like residential colonies, shopping complexes and even small townships. This is the distributed power generation model, a subject of much academic and industrial interest globally.
Ambani is also proposing to extend the gas to run some 50 million two-wheelers as well. Though technically possible, it won’t take off until gas-fired two-wheeler engines are designed to deliver the same or similar power/torque outputs as what you get from conventional petrol engines. But that’s another story.
Today gas is already being piped into some 360,000 Mumbai homes by Mahanagar Gas, a joint venture between the public sector GAIL, BG Group (formerly British Gas) and the Maharashtra government. As far as I know, this gas only feeds cooking stoves. Mahanagar Gas (and Indraprashta Gas in Delhi, feeding 130,000 homes) also supply the compressed natural gas (CNG), which runs lakhs of cars and autorickshaws.
The exciting part, as I see it, is when consumers will set up their own mini-turbines and generate their own electricity, and thus migrate towards independence from the power grid, at least in theory. A Reliance official told me that they are already working on how to do this with some of the large malls where Reliance Retail outlets would come up in Delhi.
A diesel genset also bypasses the grid but involves barrels of diesel being carted to the location. Also, it’s usually in backup mode, though in parts of Delhi, it’s the primary source of power as well. “Many large Delhi malls run on polluting diesel generator sets where it costs almost Rs 19 per unit of electricity generated. We are saying that we will bring a steady supply of gas to you so that you can generate power far more cheaply and cut pollution,” the official said. This sounds workable to most people I have spoken to, who are in the know, that is. Whatever the final price of gas when it reaches that mall in Delhi, it ought to be cheaper than diesel. And less polluting too.
It’s already happening in various parts of the world, notably in Japan and South Korea. There is a Korean apartment complex, for instance, that is powered by micro-turbines manufactured by a company called Capstone. Capstone has also supplied micro-turbines for a biogas-powered project in Purulia, West Bengal! That’s gas being used to generate power. Gas is already replacing electricity in some cases, like the water heater in Bangalore that I mentioned earlier.
Ambani’s idea is to go even beyond creating a grid-beating system of mini- and micro-gas turbines. His team wants to popularise gas absorption chillers (already used industrially and in some places, domestically as well) by which you can use the same gas to run your air conditioners, as, I would imagine, you did to run the water heater.
He is also speaking of using backend R&D to find new solutions to energy problems and figure out whether gas can solve them. And perhaps, like he originally set out to do in Reliance Communications, involve entrepreneurs in the “last mile” of power generation and distributed energy management.
So what’s the flip side? Actually the biggest one is that there is very little gas to go around in India today. Running mini-turbines which would generate electricity would mean a continuous supply of gas at relatively high pressures and the distribution infrastructure to ensure that. It would also mean some reconfiguration, akin to fitting a CNG or LPG convertor kit to a car. This could add to costs.
Second, small gas turbines are not yet as efficient relative to the fuel they consume. For these sizes, diesel is considered more efficient. There is, of course, a merry debate on between experts on whether or not gas turbines actually make the grade. The good news is that hard scientific work is on. And Mukesh Ambani, among others, believes the solutions are around the corner.
Finally the cost of gas itself could be an issue. Logically it ought to be cheaper than diesel and, of course, less polluting. But in the case of Reliance Industries, the price of gas, among other things, is the subject matter of a court dispute. One way or the other, the gas will reach the consumer some day soon. And you might have the greatest satisfaction of literally paying your own electricity bill.