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First Fuel: My Energy Efficiency Story

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Padu Padmanabhan's picture
Former Senior Energy Advisor, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), India

Mr. Padu S. Padmanabhan was the former Program Director of the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy (SARI/E) and Senior Energy Advisor for USAID/India’s bilateral program.  He has served...

  • Member since 2008
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  • Oct 4, 2021

Whenever I have had the time to browse at a bookshop with those endless rows of books on energy and the environment,  it has occurred to me that one more would hardly make a difference unless it is written for truly compelling reasons and to tell a story that really matters.  This post is about my book, First Fuel: India’s Energy Efficiency Journey.   The historic oil crisis of 1973, which permanently altered significant economic policies worldwide, marked a turning point in India’s energy odyssey, putting the country on the path towards energy efficiency. This story book charts India's post independence energy journey through engaging anecdotes, key characters and the roles they played. While doing so, it draws upon valuable experience from the United States, its energy industry, national labs and professionals that helped inform this four-decade-long quest for energy efficiency.

In the Spring of 2011, when I was asked to do a semester at the School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University (JHU), Washington DC,  I was at once trepidant and excited.  I was to share India experiences on energy and development in a global context. For students of the first world, this was alien and strange. I stuck to logical explanations, and anchored thoughts around case studies. I took them through the institutional challenges in a democracy that is electoral and a bureaucracy that is opaque. Why over-bureaucratising an institutional framework fails, why energy efficiency processes are more about autonomy and encouraging of decision-making down the line; in a large country like India, how institutions develop their rhythm; why certain issues don’t secure importance from core management in such institutions; why is the private sector alone not capable of delivering in a developing country and how social parameters become of equal, if not greater, concern in such economies as India’s?

One example that I took then at SAIS is of the Noida Power Company and its effort to cut power losses. We realised soon that the best of competence in technical design and approach is defeated by the walls of resistance that arise from people in government agencies, the power utility, and from among energy users, too. How do we overcome human behaviour of resistance and foster sustainable behaviour?  At another meeting I chanced upon a street play artist and told her of our predicament in getting the message across. She said she will design a few street plays that would weave the theme of energy efficiency with little stories and folk songs written and staged in and around Noida. I found a small grant that helped this group to stage a series of such acts for not only the officials and employees of the power company, but also for the urban and rural consumers of power in the district to the east of the national capital, New Delhi. It worked like a charm. The play revolved around energy and the rural setting, how to save energy and water. A year later when we took stock we found the net impact of the plays in terms of energy savings was far in excess of what was anticipated. Loss reduction thanks to technology upgrades was tangible alright, but that was dwarfed by what came from voluntary behavioural changes from farmers and housewives. Back at the school this triggered some animated discussion among students on community-based social marketing, and that initiatives to promote behavioural change are often most effective when they are carried out at the community level and involve direct connect with people. Why social intermediation in fostering sustainable behaviour is necessary and can make an impact. The cornerstone of energy management is delivering programs that are effective in changing people’s conduct was a lesson that was driven home.

That is the storyline that this book seeks to pursue. The intent is to explain the source-think for many of the programs that we drove in those thirty years of work between strategising and initiating in Delhi and in Washington, and with multiple industry partners and researchers who actually made things happen in both India and the USA.

Because it imports nearly 80% of petroleum fuel that powers its economy, India is unusually vulnerable to energy market risks. Energy markets from crude oil to natural gas have been buffeted by political and investment risks, and, technological disruption. However it’s not just how much energy is needed but also about how one uses it. Along the way, from those early years of the 1970s when I began my career in India I have questioned often the very premise of the inordinate tilt towards energy supply. The search continued in the years spent in the United States as part of the World Bank in Washington DC and, a decade and half later, back in Delhi at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).  A decisive shift from thinking supply side to moving towards a national effort on the demand side of the energy equation, working on energy saved and not supplied, has to be part of the future. That tilt in emphasis is the essence of this story.

Every unit of energy saved at the point of end-use translates to 4-5 units saved of avoided generation. And the cost of doing this is a piffle -- one-fifth to a tenth of producing it. Energy efficiency as the first fuel wasn’t heard as loudly as it is today. The chorus of voices, first articulated by the Paris based International Energy Agency (IEA) that energy efficiency is the first fuel is growing stronger and louder the world over. India is no exception. The battle has since gained energy, to mix a metaphor, since the turn of the millennium. There is more about these unsung pioneers and their organizations in both India and the US as one reads the book.

As you step into the 2020s and into the long and challenging decades ahead, how do you define limits and potentials that shape the energy quest? How do you spell out directions that perhaps have the best chance of creating a more energy secure future? How do you yet preserve the integrity of the natural ecosystem and its intricate web of biodiversity? And in a more immediate sense, how do you delve deeper into solutions that work within the biophysical limits of national development, with its food and energy needs apart from the gross abuse of resources for luxuries? How do you connect the dots between civilization’s rising consumption of water, energy, food and products, and the natural ecosystem’s capacity to provide these vital resources?.

The new realities of the world energy situation make these relationships even more important for the present and future.  Anyone who wants to understand the compulsions of growth with the pressure on natural resources will want to gain insights from the chronological if not historical recount here. You cannot do without it and yet we take it so much for granted. It will help for you to take a moment to understand how the journey between that flick of a switch for your air-conditioner to the kilogram of coal that someone mines at 200 meters sub-surface, there is a dynamic and continuing link that needs to be first understood and then disrupted as we go into the future. Every story here is about that first fuel called energy efficiency. Sometimes it is central to the narrative and at other times it lurks in the background. There are sections on the greening of the supply-side with renewable energy forms but there is simply no getting away from the truth that the only solution for energy deficiency is energy efficiency.

Here is an example. Buildings today in India consume about 30 percent of all energy and is threatening to grow to 40 percent by 2030. To halve energy use for buildings from say the 2000 benchmark is another major stake before India 2050. That sounds impossible by the looks of things today. But given that almost 65% of India’s buildings projected in 2030 are yet to be built provides hope that future habitats will gradually tend to be “net zero” dwellings. 

 The journey that began in 1973 continues to this day five decades later, in 2021. Will energy efficiency and protection of the environment find a central place at the heart of India’s development goals? More importantly can it tip the energy balance towards the demand side of the equation?. The government’s economic development agenda will result by 2030 in a two fold increase in per capita consumption of energy from 1200 units at present which will also result in an increase in installed power generation capacity. While these levels of per capita energy consumption, large that they appear to be, are still just one-fifth to one-eighth of the developed world. In the face of growing energy deficiency, security and climate change concerns the question to ask: Can India as a nation moderate its energy demand at a level that helps mitigate environmental consequences while securing its energy supplies and deliver a quality living standard for its people. It is my belief that it could do so if the journey thus far is any indication. A new key driver is that complex process to mitigate climate change and keep global temperature rise below 1.5 deg C called decarbonisation. India will need to successfully adapt to a changing world characterized by technological change driven by the need to decarbonise.

The Covid19 pandemic on top of the looming climate change crisis has merely deepened need for this change with public health emerging as another national priority. The pandemic is a mere flea bite in the face of the far larger threat that looms over the 50-year horizon for the world, indeed for India.  As Noam Chomsky said deep into the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic, "We will ultimately recover from the pandemic [even if] at a terrible cost. We will never recover from the melting of polar ice sheets and other grim consequences of global warming which will have hideous effect on the world."

As Newton said, how do we stand on the shoulders of those who have pushed the envelope over the decades, and look farther with lessons learnt from those vignettes of history of energy efficiency in India? How do we understand our past to carve our future? My hope is that the book, First Fuel, will be of interest to the members of Energy Central. The book, published by MacMillan is available on US Amazon whose link is provided below:

Padu S. Padmanabhan

October 3, 2021


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 4, 2021

Every unit of energy saved at the point of end-use translates to 4-5 units saved of avoided generation. And the cost of doing this is a piffle -- one-fifth to a tenth of producing it.

This tells you everything you need to know about the importance of efficiency-- well said!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Oct 6, 2021

Padu, I worked in Mumbai helping to build the 1st country wide wireless market. It has very efficient fiber optics ring all around the country. Many CDMA cell sites for great coverage. Customers using a cell phone can be very efficient or ordering on line before traveling to pick up good . It is the Reliance company that funded and bought this equipment. 

    I saw a lot of people on bicycles which is efficient. Even some of the taxi vehicles were pedal powered. Now many are electric powered. Most people ate pure veg which is very efficient and low carbon to produce. But they all wanted more stuff which is hard with so many people.

    They did have some nice wind projects near the shares. But no solar homes or small business. Their monsoons are are to do well with solar. I am not sure what their best renewable energy is. Do you see what is being good in India for energy?

Padu Padmanabhan's picture
Padu Padmanabhan on Oct 6, 2021

Jim, I think what you observed during your stint in Bombay is a reflection of the choices that common people make in the use of energy. Mobility through pedal power or preferring a low carbon vegetarian diet are some of the examples that are popular in most communities although that is beginning to gradually change. It is hoped that bottom-line economics and concern for the environment will reverse that trend. Conservation through life style choices are a perfect complement to technological fixes through energy efficient equipments and devices - and one can witness both in India. On-grid and off-grid solar is emerging as the major energy resource in the country. There have been more renewable energy capacities added the past few years, compared to those fuelled by fossil fuels. The country plans to add 175 GW of renewable power by 2022 and 450 GW by 2030 and all indications are that they are well on their way to achieve the nearer term target of 175 GW by next year. 

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Oct 8, 2021

Padu, Thanks for the update. I hope to see many more Solar projects there in the next few years. Jim

Padu Padmanabhan's picture
Thank Padu for the Post!
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