02 January, 2018

Resources, Energy, and Growth in the Indian Context


It takes nature about 5 million years to produce the fossil fuels the world consumes in 1 year. The modern way of life is dependent on fossil fuels whether it be for furniture, entertainment, comfort materials, etc. However, fossil fuels are non-renewable in nature. Since 1860, geologists have discovered over 2 trillion barrels of oil (318 km3). Since then, the world has used approximately half of it. [1]

Once a source starts producing fossil fuels, be it oil or coal, it’s only a matter of time before it a matter of time before it enters a decline. Individual mines and wells have different production rates. When taken together, we find that the production increases after the source has been discovered, reaches a peak and enters a permanent fall. In 1956, Shell geoscientist M King Hubbert predicted that the overall petroleum production would peak in the US between 1965-75.[2] In 1970, the US oil production peaked and entered a permanent decline. Subsequently in 1974 Hubbert projected that global oil production would peak in 1995.[3] Various predictions were made by others as trends fluctuated in the intervening years claiming different dates for global peak oil. Hubbert’s theory, and its implications for the world economy, remain the only factual proof about the case.

Evidence is mounting that the world’s oil production is peaking, or is close to it. The rate of discovery of new oil fields peaked in the 1960s. Over 50 years later, the decline in discovery of new oil fields seems unstoppable. 54 of the 65 major oil producing nations have already peaked in production. India said to have peaked in 2007.

Modern cities are fossil fuel dependent. Even roads are made from asphalt, a petroleum product, as are the roofs of many homes. Large areas would be uninhabitable without heating in the winter or air-conditioning in the summer. Suburban sprawl encourages people to drive many miles between work, school and stores. Major cities have been zoned with commercial and residential areas placed far apart forcing people to drive. This concept of Suburbia was designed on the assumption of plentiful oil and energy. Chemicals derived from fossil fuels, i.e. petrochemicals are essential in the manufacture of countless products from phones to footballs. The modern system of agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, as are hospitals, aviation, water distribution systems, and the military. Fossil fuels are also essential for the creation of plastics and polymers which become the key ingredients in computers, entertainment devices and clothing.[1] We are so dependent on oil and other fossil fuels that even a small disruption in supply may have far-reaching effect on every aspect of our lives.


The average Indian uses 6.42 MWH of energy per year, i.e. the equivalent of 2.4k slaves working 24 hours a day.[4] Materials which store this energy for work are called fuels. Different fuels have different energy densities, i.e. the amount of extractable energy in the material per unit mass or volume. Of these fuels, oil is the most critical. India consumes 211.42 MT of oil per year, which is equal to 267.62 m3. In the year 2011-12, 81% of India’s oil was imported from Saudi Arabia (28.17%), Iraq (14.09%), UAE (10.68%), Nigeria (9%), Kuwait (8.91%), Iran (6.38%), Malaysia (4.97%), Angola (3.98%), Indonesia (3.31%) and few others (10.51%).[5] Several factors make oil unique. It is energy dense (46.3 MJ/kg), liquid at room temperature, easy to transport, and usable in small engines.

To acquire energy, energy needs to be used. The trick lies in using smaller amounts to find and extract larger amounts. This is called EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). If more energy is used to get the fuel than is extractable from the fuel, it’s not worth the effort of extraction.

It is possible to convert one fuel source into another, at the expense of energy density contained. For example, there are unconventional fuels such as tar sand and shale, both of which can be converted to synthetic crude oil. However, this requires large amounts of heat and freshwater reducing their EROEI which varies from 1.5-5.

Coal exists in vast quantities and generates almost half of the India’s electricity. India uses almost 535.88 MT of coal per year. Production issues arise as surface coal is depleted and miners have to dig deeper and in less accessible areas. Many use destructive mountain-top removal to reach coal deposits, causing environmental mayhem.

Natural gas is often found alongside oil and coal. Indian gas production is said to have peaked in 2001.[6] Recent breakthroughs have allowed the extraction of unconventional natural gas, such as shale gas, which might offset the decline in the years ahead. However, it is controversial as it needs high prices to be profitable.

Large nuclear fuel reserves for fission still exist. To replace the 3.57 petawatt hours India currently produces per year by fossil fuels would require 303 nuclear power plants.[4] At that rate, the known reserves of fossil fuels would last for only 2 years. Experiments with Plutonium based fast breeder reactors in France and Japan have been expensive failures. Nuclear fusion faces massive technical obstacles.

Wind power has a high EROEI, but is undependable. Hydropower is reliable, but most rivers are already dammed. Conventional geothermal power-plants use existing hotspots near the Earth’s surface. They are limited to those areas. In the experimental system, 2 shafts are driven 10 km deep. Water is pumped down one shaft to be heated in fissures then rise up the other generating power. This technology might supply 138ยต% of India’s energy. Wave power is restricted to coastal areas. The energy density of waves varies from region to region. Transporting wave generated energy in land is challenging. Also, the salty ocean environment is corrosive to turbines. Bio-fuels are fuels that are grown. Wood has an energy density of 18 MJ/kg, i.e. 39% of that of crude oil, and grows slowly. India uses 216 MT of wood per year. Bio-diesel and ethanol are made from crops grown from petroleum powered agriculture. The energy profit from bio-diesel is 42.2 MJ/kg and that of ethanol is 30 MJ/kg. Some scientists consider turning corn into ethanol. Using ethanol to supply 10% of India’s oil demand in 2012 would require 3% of India’s land, i.e. 5% of the agricultural area of India. To supply all of India’s oil consumption, would take 50% of the land used to grow food.

Hydrogen has to be extracted from natural gas, coal, or water; which uses more energy than is generated from hydrogen. This makes a hydrogen economy unlikely. All of India’s photovoltaic solar panels working at 100% efficiency are expected to generate as much electricity as 9 coal power plants by 2020. The equivalent of 1-4 tons of coal are used in the manufacture of 1 solar panel. 29,293 km2 of panels would have to be covered to meet India’s energy demands. As of 2010, there were only 133 km2. Concentrated solar power, or solar thermal, has great potential. However, at the moment, only 6.42 km2 of installations have been made.[7] They are limited to sunny climates using large amounts of electricity to be transmitted over long distances.

All the alternatives to oil depend on oil powered machinery or require material such as plastics that are produced from oil. When considering future claims of amazing new fuels or inventions, it must have a working commercial model of the invention. The energy density must be high enough to make it commercially viable to extract energy out of it. It must be easy to store and distribute, reliable, scalable, devoid of hidden engineering challenges and environment friendly. A transition from fossil fuels is a monumental challenge. As of 2013, coal generates 50% of India’s electricity; 10% is from natural gas, 9% is from oil and 31% from hydro. Nuclear and renewables other than hydro only generate 1% of India’s energy demands. It is difficult to replace a system based on fossil fuels with a patchwork of alternatives. Major technological advances, political will and cooperation, massive investment and international consensus would be needed. It would involve a retro-fitting of the $1.8 trillion Indian economy including transportation, manufacturing industries, agricultural systems and officials competent enough to manage the transition. If such a change is put in place, the current way of life must change.


Humanity has lived on a model of growth since the discoveries of oil and coal. Growth, low or high, produces large increases in total volume over time due to an exponential effect. At a 1% growth rate, an economy doubles every 70 years. At 2%, it doubles in 35 years. At a 10% growth rate, it doubles in only 7 years. If India keeps growing at the current rate of 3.2%, it will double every 22 years. With each doubling, the demand for energy and resources will exceed all the previous doublings combined.

Banks lend money they don’t have, in effect, creating it. The borrowers use the newly created money to build their businesses and pay back the debt with an interest payment, which requires more growth. Due to this debt-created money, most of the world’s money represents debt with interest to be paid.[8] New and ever-larger generations of borrowers produce growth and thus pay off these debt, inflating the balloon of world economy to the point near its collapse. This system is meant to either expand, or die. Partly through this debt system the effects of economic growth have been spectacular in GDP, damming of rivers, water use, fertilizer consumption, urban population, paper consumption, motor vehicles, communications, and tourism. Economic expansion has also resulted in increases in atmospheric nitrous oxide and methane, ozone depletion, increases in great floods, damage to ocean ecosystems, including nitrogen runoff, loss of rainforest and woodland, increases in domesticated land, and species extinctions.


The Indian Economy grows at about 3.2% an year consuming increasing amounts of non-renewable fuels, minerals and metals, as well as renewable resources like water, forests, soils and fish faster than they can be replenished. At this rate, the economy will double every 22 years. The problem is intensified by other factors: Globalization allows people on one to buy goods and food made by those on another. The lines of supply are long, placing strains on a limited oil resource.[9] We now rely on distant countries for basic necessities. Modern cities are fossil fuel dependent. Most Banking Systems are based on debt, forcing people into a spiral of loans or repayments - producing growth.

Conservation will save money, but it alone won't save India. If some people cut back on oil use, the reduced demand will drive down the price, allowing others to buy it for less. In the same fashion, a more efficient engine that uses less energy will, paradoxically, lead to greater energy use. In the 19th century, English economist William Stanley Jevons realized that Better steam engines made coal a more cost effective fuel source, which led to the use of more steam engines, which increased total coal consumption.[9] Growth of use will consume any energy or resources saved through conservation.

So called sustainable growth or smart growth won't help, as it also uses non-renewable metals and minerals in ever increasing quantities. Recycling will not solve the problem, as it requires energy, and the process is not 100% efficient. It is only possible to reclaim a fraction of the material being recycled; a large portion is lost forever as waste.

Many economists believe that the free market will substitute one energy source with another through technological innovation. However, the main substitutes to oil face their own decline rates. Substitution also fails to account for the time needed to prepare for a transition. The issues of energy shortages, resource depletion, topsoil loss, and pollution are all symptoms of a single, larger problem: Growth. As long as our financial system demands endless growth, reform is unlikely to succeed.

What should a person do to prepare for such a possible future? The society must fall back to a simpler state, one in which energy use is a lot less. This would mean a harder life for most. More manual labor, more farm work, and local production of goods, food and services. Supplies of food and goods from far-away places must be decreased. Walking and recycling must gain importance. People must get used to using less electricity and debt, and try to avoid banks. Instead of shopping at megastores, local businesses must be supported. Food grown locally must be brought. Gardening to grow one’s own food is also an option, while learning how to preserve it. Should the larger economy fail to function[10], local currencies will need to be used while developing greater self-sufficiency. None of these steps will prevent collapse, but they might improve chances in a low energy future, one in which we will have to be more self-reliant, as our ancestors once were.[11]


  1. Fossil and Nuclear Fuels – The Supply Outlook. Energy Watch Group. p 91. March 2013.

  2. Orlov D. Thriving in the Age of Collapse. 2005.