Pallava Bagla on US and India Collaboration to Grow the Global Green Economy

Pallava Bagla

While former LA Mayor, Eric Garcetti, has been reinventing himself as the U.S. Ambassador to India, relations between the two countries have begun to grow closer, both literally and figuratively. Soon, in 2024, NASA and India will be launching into orbit a joint project, the NISAR satellite, in order to better track the effects of global climate change, giving us clearer, more frequent data which will be used to address the crisis. VX News, to understand the importance of the India/US budding relationship, spoke with veteran Indian journalist, Pallava Bagla, on the upcoming satellite launch and opportunities for future collaboration between the two countries on green economy issues. Also, Bagla addresses Indias embrace of nuclear power and their long history of pursuing sustainable practices.

VX News: Pallava, as an experienced journalist in India, elaborate on the collaborative opportunities you see for India and California to scale and contribute to a greenereconomy.

Pallava Bagla: I work as a Science, Technology, Health, and Environment journalist, so my job is to provide my audience with the best information available that they may not have access to. If it's to know about best practices of the green economy in California, such as results and learnings from Los Angeles on cleaning up its air pollution, I would translate those learnings to educate my audience on how we can clean up the air pollution in New Delhi and other Indian cities.

If you were to ask me in the next couple of months my main focus would be a very big and interesting India/US space technology effort– the NISAR satellite, also known as the NASA-ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellite. Its big claim to fame is that it will be the single most expensive civilian earth-imaging satellite the world has ever seen, costing India and America 1.5 billion USD. It's a satellite, I say, for saving lives. It is also for monitoring climate change and carbon sequestration in forests or agricultural lands, but it also can monitor earthquakes, landslides, and mudslides, which have recently happened near the Pacific Coast in California. It's one of the finest satellites, and all earth scientists have been looking forward to its development and application, being one of the first big space-related collaborations between India and America. 

As the relationship between India and America is burgeoning and growing, this could be the flagship to propel the Indo-American relationships to a great height. This is a satellite that will not only benefit India and the U.S. but be valuable on an international scale as data is available instantly to the global earth science community. The NISAR satellite is an amazing piece of robotic technology. The satellite parts have been made at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, with one part being made at the UR Rao Satellite Center in Bangalore, India. Today, all of it has been assembled together at the satellite center in Bangalore and the launch will happen around early 2024 from India's launch port in Sriharikota, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. It is a satellite that will change the way many people understand solid earth and climate change. So, scientists and engineers are very, very excited. 

Since it's a radar imaging satellite, it doesnt get affected by clouds and can operate day and night; that is the beauty. When you can use radar images day and night, it gives you uninterrupted data. It also has a revisit time of every 12 days to the same location of the earth, so monitoring change is going to be far easier for climate change and earth scientists when it launches. India and America are very excited to deploy this technology and to explore future projects of global collaboration. 

Share the significance (and origin) of the India/U.S partnership to design, build and launch the NISAR satellite? Whats the potential of such collaboration?

Well, the partnership between India and America is very old, especially in space and nuclear projects. Indias first nuclear reactors came from General Electric in America and the first Indo-American rocket launched back in the 1960s, coming from America. From then, there was a small stumbling between the relations, but now Republicans and Democrats, as well as the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in India, having figured out their differences, realize the partnership between India and America is a good idea. The origins of the satellite come from American scientistsdesperation to look for a partner across the world who could afford to partner with NASA. When American scientists from NASA came to India, we ISRO understood this opportunity and jumped at it. That's how it came together.

Going forward in the 21st century, my own understanding is that when the world's oldest democracy and the world's largest democracy, which is the United States of America and India with 1.4 Billion people, respectively, can work together, magic happens. It is rare for the world, but magic can happen when both forces work together; whether it is protecting the earth, saving lives, or containing countries, such collaboration can serve as a global force. 

Elaborate, please.  

Cutting-edge technology has been developed in the United States of America, but when you scale up, you need frugal technology. You can't do it at the same level of the cost that is incurred in America with its multiplier effect. You need the same technology but implemented at a lower cost. When India and America work together, we have the magic of cutting-edge innovation with affordable technology, so when we combine forces, global solutions can be addressed. The same thing is happening in the NISAR satellite. The American component costs over a billion dollars with the Indian component costing about two times less. Hopefully, the future will bring a higher level of trust between our respective governments. Collaboration between the intellectual properties of technology and innovation can also make the world a better place to live as we work together to solve global issues.

What do you see as the most promising India/US solar, transportation, and transmission economic opportunities going forward?

The opportunities are very large, especially since solar is intermittently available. What do you do when you rely on one solar grid? Telling people that you cant provide energy at night when there is no sunlight is not a viable option. So, you need to have solar which is a lot more reliable. One way is to have better battery technology and the other is a slowly growing concept called One Sun, One World, One Grid. Essentially, when its night in one place and day on the other side, this concept uses that as an opportunity to transmit power from solar surplus to solar deficiency. Now, all you need is the development of sophisticated transmission systems and Im sure the best minds coming together could do that. There could be solutions that could come from space-based solar power, which is to harness the continuous 24/7 space-based solar and microwave-transmit the energy to Earth. 

The other part is looking at increasing the efficiency of solar cells. That is an area thats waiting for a breakthrough. Another area waiting for a breakthrough is the creation of lighter and more reliable batteries. When I started my career in science reporting nearly 35 years ago, one of the first stories I wrote was about lightweight plastic batteries, which has remained a dream. Nobody's been able to have a breakthrough there, and were struggling with trying to find greater sources of lithium, which powers these batteries but are limited. At the end of the day, a breakthrough in batteries is going to be a breakthrough in the efficiency of solar. 

If we can successfully deploy the One World One Grid concept, it could be a huge opportunity thatll also unite the world because when you're sharing power-- using the word sharing power not as a reference limited to electricity-- we're sharing power.

Youve noted a role in India for nuclear energy. Its an energy source that has not been warmly embraced in California. Speak to Indias experience with nuclear energy.  

India has embraced nuclear power for a long time. Today, the world's oldest and active power-generating nuclear reactor is in India. Its been working safely for 60 plus years, providing us with one of the cheapest sources of power, known as the Tarapur 1 and 2 reactors in Western India.

India has had nuclear energy in the equation for a very long time and there's a very detailed plan for it. Indias resources for uranium are very poor but we have plenty of thorium. Since thorium is not a source for nuclear fuel, India has been developing technology which uses fast breeder reactors to convert thorium to uranium. Thorium is much more difficult to get energy from, but for purposes of proliferation reduction, thorium is an important energy source. Most other countries have enough uranium so they don't want to go towards thorium, whereas India has been pushing very hard for nuclear energy solutions. India has also invested in the international nuclear fusion research and engineering mega-project in France, as one of the seven partner countries alongside the United States. Whenever that fusion reactor comes up, India will be a big partner in that. Clearly, we need all sorts of solutions.

Before concluding our interview, what is the potential for increased India/US green economy collaborations afforded by President Bidens appointment of former Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to be the US Ambassador to India, and Indian Prime Minister Modis prioritizing green solutions?

There's a tremendous opportunity. The Indian Prime Ministers have been very green. From the time of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as the only head of state present in the first Stockholm Conference, which is now considered the green economys bedrock for all things, to now, when we have Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who's looking at green solutions from hydrogen to nuclear to solar. He was instrumental in setting up the International Solar Alliance (ISA), which is a grouping of countries looking at solutions for global solar energy. With President Biden here, and, more importantly, with the former Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, now being the U.S. Ambassador to India, time-wise, political leadership is inclined towards supporting green efforts.

While our two countries have had a slightly rocky and hostile relationship at times, it has now become more friendly. Now, it's much easier for both countries to work together and so the opportunities are huge.

“As the relationship between India and America is burgeoning and growing, [the NISAR satellite] could be the flagship to propel the Indo-American relationships to a great height.” - Pallava Bagla