When electricity distribution networks fall into place, people start using electricity for everything. Heating, air conditioning, cooking, etc.: electricity is the supple path to all applications. Electricity is conveniently accessed at home, but at a system level, there are problems. Electricity is typically made in big facilities, primarily by burning coal or gas. It is then inefficiently transported to the home. Coal has the worst carbon footprint. Given the domination of coal in Indian electricity production, electricity consumption in India is highly carbon intensive.
Gas delivered to the home is a superior alternative, but this requires gas distribution to the home. A brand-new distribution infrastructure needs to be built, for delivering gas to the home. Once gas is at the home, it can be used for cooking and for heating. To the extent that this is done, it reduces the carbon footprint of residential energy consumption. And, given the way the world is going, gas delivered to the home is likely to be significantly cheaper (per joule) when compared with electricity, even without a carbon tax. (Question: Does someone know the price per joule for residential electricity versus piped gas in India?)
When we think about global warming in India, the dominant impulse is to say to the rich countries "this is not our problem; you guys loaded up the atmosphere with CO2, you guys fix it". While this approach has strengths, it is also important for India to find low-carbon paths to development. We have a problem in having a highly coal-fired economy. We also have the malleability in having the bulk of our energy system of 2050 having not yet been built out: this gives us choices about what should be done. In contrast, most rich countries have less room to maneuver. Policy decisions in India will determine whether cities develop energy-efficient mass transportation systems (such as the Delhi Metro) or not; in contrast, there is no possibility of Los Angeles or the Bay Area developing a good transportation system.
I suspect that gas is likely to be India's low-carbon bridge to renewables and nuclear, exactly as it will be for the rest of the world. From this perspective, we need to start looking for market-based channels to do more on building the gas ecosystem. One interesting litmus test that we can use is the number of households where one sees gas-fired water heating.
This requires distribution networks for gas, and then households have to switch from electric ovens, water heaters, stoves to gas-fired equivalents. In India, a few cities are now starting to have gas distribution to the home. In time, households should increasingly build up the capital stock of gas-fired appliances, motivated by the superior pricing of gas.
And this gives us an illustration of India's malleability. The CMIE household survey shows that at present, 5.5% of households in India today have one or more geysers (this is for the quarter ended June 2011). For these 5.5% of households, there is the question of junking the existing capital stock and shifting over to a gas-fired appliance. Presumably the differential pricing of electricity versus gas will justify such a shift for the household, but for India, it is a waste when there is such destruction of capital stock. Far more interesting are the remaining 94.5% of households. We should be doing things today, so that over the next 25 years, when 94.5% of India's households will buy a geyser, they will go towards a gas-fired heater rather than an electric one.
From this perspective, I was surprised to see a sales flyer of a small company -- P. K. L. Ltd. -- talking about a gas-fired water header:
This was news, atleast to me. I have never seen a gas-fired water heater being sold to a household before in India. I walked over to the Croma website and they don't have one. Similarly, all the water heaters at ezone are electric. Amusingly enough, the P. K. L. Ltd. website also does not talk about a gas-fired water heater. So either this is vapourware or their website is not updated. Do you know any firm selling gas-fired water heating for homes in India, and do you know any home that has one?