Frontlines Online Edition
Climate Change/Science & Technology
June/July 2011

Q&A with Padu S. Padmanaban, USAID Senior Energy Adviser

Padu S. Padmanaban has worked with USAID/India for over a decade, and is the program director of the South Asia Regional Energy Initiative. His career spans 35 years of service as an energy specialist with multilateral, bilateral, and quasi-governmental organizations in Asia and North America. He has specialized in the energy sector, leading environment and energy policy reform programs with host governments in India, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives. Padmanaban teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

FRONTLINES: What is your role at USAID?

Padu S. Padmanaban
Padu S. Padmanaban

PADU S. PADMANABAN: I'm the director of the South Asia Regional Initiative for Energy. Until recently, I was also the senior energy advisor to USAID/India. My role is to support the bilateral program—to mentor the program officers, to design the mission's energy strategy, to establish contacts with the stakeholders in India, and to maintain those contacts through professional discourse and represent the mission on energy sector issues.

On the regional program, I do the same, but I do it in seven other countries. I design the strategy to advance the three critical objectives of the program.

The first is cross-border trade between the countries in the region, so I try to bring about a certain nexus out of political understanding between the countries of the region to trade with one another in the energy sector, to develop the rationale for such trade, and to promote the rationale for such trade.

The second objective is to establish energy markets in the region, so I try to harmonize regulations and policies to meet that end.

And the third area is to establish a flow of ideas among various countries across the region in the areas of efficiency and renewables, and to try to create capacity in these countries in the process.

FL: What is the relationship between energy security and climate change?

PADMANABAN: Energy security and climate change are two sides of the same coin. You advance energy security, and you ought to do that in a sustainable way. Of course, if you advance energy security in an unsustainable way, then you may not promote the objective of mitigating climate change.

So, clearly energy security is meant to enable countries to access energy at affordable prices. And in an ideal world you would endeavor to do that in a way in which the energy resources are either renewable or they're alternatives to energy supply such as efficiency and conservation.

And if you were to do both efficiently—conservation and renewable strategies—along with increasing the availability of conventional energy in a sustainable, clean manner, then you'd be advancing both energy security and climate change mitigation. So the relationship has to be seen as twins that belong together.

FL: How responsive is India, in particular, or South Asia, in general, to these types of actions on energy security and climate change?

PADMANABAN: I think that the responsiveness of the countries in the region has greatly increased in the past few years. And the reason is that energy is now center stage for the economic development of the countries. The energy challenges that the countries face are such that they need to work in collaboration and cooperation.

The three fundamental energy challenges that the countries face are energy security, climate change, and the issue of energy access to their populations. The number of people who have access to electricity, for instance, in India is only 45 percent of the population. There are almost 600 million people in that country who are unserved or underserved.

Apart from these three, a fourth major challenge is to mobilize capital for energy infrastructure investments. Now, countries in the region require support, assistance, capacity building in order to face these challenges, and they understand that, working with USAID, they get a window of opportunity here, which they like to access and build upon.

FL: Do you see the solution, if we can call it that, as coming from the private sector, a public-private effort, or something else?

PADMANABAN: The energy sectors in the region are largely managed by governments and by the public sector, although there are cases in the countries where the private sector plays a very important role.

I think this is a very good case for a public/private partnership. The private sector may not have the resources to make the kind of investments required for the dramatic need for energy supply growth. For instance, India will require something like 800,000 megawatts by 2030 to fuel its economic growth rates of 8 to 10 percent every year between now and then.

That means adding something like 640,000 megawatts, and the cost of it is astronomical. A hundred thousand megawatts will cost you something like more than $150 billion. And, clearly, the private sector will not be able to raise the resources by itself. It will have to depend on institutional financing and government financing.

But, having said that, the private sector has a much stronger track record in operations and delivery of efficient services, and can definitely improve the quality and reliability of energy supply by providing better management. And the private sector brings in innovations, better governance, and superior management and technology, financing, and so on.

FL: Most people think of climate change as an environmental problem. Is it more than that?

PADMANABAN: Climate change is a humanitarian problem. On the face of it, it appears to be an environmental problem, but it's a problem which involves almost every sector that a country is involved in. So, it's a food security problem. It is also a problem of disaster management and disaster relief.

And it's a problem of poverty alleviation because, ironically, the countries that will face the maximum brunt of climate change are the most vulnerable countries, the poor countries. More tellingly, the poorer sections within these countries will be most affected. The impact it would have on the livelihoods of these unfortunate people would be phenomenal. So that's why I say it's a humanitarian problem, first and foremost.

So, to look at climate change in the narrow silo of an environmental problem will not be doing justice to the subject. It's much broader and bigger than that.

FL: How do you think climate change should be factored into long-term development strategies?

PADMANABAN: Well, there's been a great deal of discussions on this. Climate change has been seen as an opportunity for development and growth, an opportunity for countries to move from an oil-dominated, fossil fuel-dominated economy to a renewable energy-dominated economy, so there are a lot of business opportunities, trade opportunities, growth opportunities, science and technological development opportunities out there. The problem boils down to this simple statement: How can countries grow their economies without having to grow their carbon emissions? All strategies—short, medium or long—must address this question.

So, clearly, climate change can be seen in a positive light and not as something negative. But there are short-term impacts of climate change which have to be addressed through adaptation technologies. Societies and countries have to adapt to a certain increase in temperatures—meaning they will have to have solutions to ensure that their standard of living and livelihoods are not impacted beyond a point.

And then there are the so-called mitigation strategies, which reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. That can be done through a combination of various energy efficiency actions that reduce energy consumption because energy generation from fossil fuels is one of the leading contributors to climate change. And if you use energy sources with high-end carbon emissions and you release more carbon into the environment, you trigger the climate change impacts.

The idea is to move to a low-carbon emissions strategy by using fuels which have low carbon content; and by looking at efficiency, and introducing life-style changes where one displaces the need for even using energy for certain wasteful applications in the first place; and by substituting one source of energy with another low or no carbon energy source—that's where renewables could play a key role.

There are significant economic opportunities in clean energy. The Obama administration has, time and again reiterated that clean energy is the future of the U.S., and there is no reason why clean energy cannot be the future of the developing world, too.

FL: Do you think India sees it that way as well?

PADMANABAN: I think India sees it that way very, very much so. India knows that it doesn't have the resources to meet its energy demands for the foreseeable future. It's not endowed with a lot of energy sources. It's not an oil-exporting country; rather, it is an oil-importing country. It has coal, but the coal reserves are limited to the next 50 to 60 years. For the most part, it has zeroed out large hydro-power. So it will have to depend on alternatives. It clearly looks at renewable energy as an opportunity for job growth and for economic development.

And nuclear energy is not a panacea for all ills. It would play a role, but by no means a dominant role. India clearly sees climate change as an opportunity to grow the economy.

FL: What role can science and technology play specifically in addressing climate change in developing countries?

PADMANABAN: I think science and technology will have to play a critical role in advancing cooperation between developed and developing countries. There are significant cost barriers to many of the technologies which would address climate change. And the reduction in costs is largely a question of further research. It's also a question of large-scale deployment of clean energy technologies.

The second reason, apart from cost, is the fact that many of the technologies would have to be adapted to the prevailing local conditions in these countries. This adaptation also requires a sizable amount of R&D [research and development], which each country will have to employ.

The third reason for science and technology collaboration in the area of climate change is that the frontiers of technology and innovation cannot be stagnant. One has to advance the frontiers of knowledge and applications at all points in time—a continual stream of research in products, in services, and so on.

So clean energy research is a stirring example of cooperation between the U.S. and India that has implications for the energy security and climate change resilience of both nations as well as globally.

FL: What's the simplest thing people can do to move the needle on energy security or climate change?

PADMANABAN: I think the simplest thing people can do is look at the patterns of their own energy consumption and reduce energy which is otherwise wasted. This is more in the nature of “quick actions” which can give you returns at no cost, or low cost. So look at appliance efficiencies, look at efficiencies in transportation, look at recycling waste or reusing products and materials and, above all, take action on how to reduce energy usage in all applications. And that would probably be in everyone's self-interest, because one can reduce the soaring costs of energy bills.

Then there are a whole lot of “must-dos” where you may make some investment but then your return is generally very good.

And if somebody is buying a car, she or he might wish to go for a hybrid. If somebody is buying a kitchen [appliance], he or she can ensure that it's an Energy Star-labeled refrigerator, and so on. I think most people should be motivated and sufficiently informed to do this. I'm talking about the man on the street who possibly thinks about efficiency only at the time when he is making a decision to buy a product. Information provided on the energy performance of the product through labels or standards at this point would be hugely useful.

Then there are the longer-term transformational technologies, which require the investment of a lot of money. Are people ready to do that? Probably not. You've got to bring down the cost, and that's the role of the government. If you're going to have solar energy to power your house, it's going to cost you a lot of money, and incentives such as tax credits could make it an attractive proposition.

FL: Do you have an energy or climate hero—someone in your mind who has made great gains in these areas?

PADMANABAN: I think we all look at some of the heroes in contemporary U.S. politics who have done a great deal. My hero is Al Gore, who has taken the subject of energy and climate change and made it a household name. It required somebody in public office to do that. He consistently did it when he was in public office, and he did it when he was outside public office. And certainly he's a hero in that sense.

Similarly, in many of the developing countries there are individuals and institutions who have done really well but, beyond looking at all that, my other hero is [US]AID itself. I think AID brought, for the first time, attention to some of the issues that I talked about way back in the '80s. The Office of Energy had a robust energy efficiency program in many of the countries. It had a program for clean coal technologies in many of the countries, including India.

And a lot of innovative work was done at a pilot scale by AID, which is now being looked at as pioneering models in technology, management, and finance. So, my heroes, if I have to answer, were the strategic thinkers in AID in the last 20 or 30 years who allowed this program to take root and grow.

I think the other agencies of the U.S. government can certainly take some solace from the fact that AID has shown leadership around the world. And now, of course, the others have also come in—U.S. [Department of] Commerce and DOE [Department of Energy] and so on, and rightly so. But in developing countries, AID waved the flag first.