James Moran
World News /05 Jun 2017

India’s Solar Rush

Seventy years ago, India became independent. Now the world’s largest democracy is preparing for the future. What we hear most is that it will be the most populous nation on the planet. So what does it mean for climate change? To propel the economic engine of the nation, India needs a lot of electricity. Out of all the electricity that comes from the grid to power the economic growth for 1.34 billion citizens, 60% of that power capacity comes from coal. Adding to which 30% of the generated electricity is lost in transmission. This means India has to burn more coal for the same amount of electricity and that affects the climate! India is already the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). That’s not all, India is the fastest growing major economy with a growth rate of 7.5%.

It is third largest consumer of coal behind the US and China. To meet its growing demand, the government needs to double coal production. That means massive amounts of carbon dioxide are going to be emitted into the atmosphere. Apart from pollution, the temperature will also rise. Therefore, the effect is going to be catastrophic not only to India but the entire planet. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 promising growth oriented development and jobs for 800 million youths. To fulfill his election promise, Modi needs to increase electricity production. Modi seems determined to find a solution using renewable energy but can he accomplish that goal before it is too late.

In the summer of 2013, I visited Coimbatore, a major city in South India usually referred to as Manchester due to its extensive textile industry, fed by the surrounding cotton fields. The day I reached Coimbatore, the temperature was around 38 degrees C. It was a very hot day and I checked into a hotel. Suddenly during the night, the AC stopped working and I called reception to find out what was the problem. The receptionist told me that it was a power cut and advised me not to worry as they are going to start the generator. Next day, I learned that they have long hours of power cut during the day time.

The lack of adequate power supply has taken a great toll on the lives of many people. The worst affected are small farmers and small-scale and micro industries. It was shocking to learn how they use diesel-powered generators as backups that pour huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Here is the scary part, India has enough diesel-powered backup generators to power all of Canada. The grid is powered by coal with large transmission losses, inefficiently run with power outages all requiring more coal and on top of that, a massive number of diesel generator are warming the planet even more. There is an urgent need to generate power from cleaner and renewable sources like solar. That is what actually Modi is trying to do. Moreover, there are around 300 million Indians without any access to electricity that is equal to the US population. So much of India lives like the people in the West lived before the industrial revolution. That is changing rapidly now and India with a growth rate of 7.5% has already outpaced China and overtaken Britain as the world’s sixth-largest economy.

This summer it is a new scenario in Coimbatore. Due to India’s massive solar push, the city is witnessing an uninterrupted 24/7 power supply coming from solar panels covering an area of 2,500 acres, which, to put it in perspective, is enough space to organize about 500 parallel football matches. It has a capacity of 650 MW of clean power and provides electricity to 150,000 homes. India is now setting up another solar park in the deserts of Rajasthan that can generate 10,000 MW of solar power. Undoubtedly this plant will be another mega structure. India is also witnessing a surge in small-scale private solar companies which are trying to bring light to the 300 million people living without power.

For instance, OMC is a small-scale solar power company that sells power to about 200 homes. OMC had around 100 plants in 2016 and they are building plants at the rate of 1 plant per day. There are hundreds of such companies that serve as mini power plants. These small plants are something like neighborhood utilities and are not connected to the power grid. This brings clean power to villages at an affordable price of just $2 a month. For decades these villages, if they had power, relied on electricity from dirty sources like coal.

Today, India is taking long and fast strides towards a national goal of becoming one of the world leaders in solar power generation by 2022. That is 175 GW of energy generated from renewable sources. India has also set an ambitious target by 2030 it will cut GHG emission by 35% of 2005 levels. That is a huge energy commitment, especially since India is producing only 1/5th of its goal now with some 36 GW of renewable power generation. That is something like powering 60 million homes by solar by 2022. The previous government promised to boost the country’s solar power capacity from its existing level by 5 times. But after taking office, Modi raised the stakes to more than 30 times the country’s installed capacity. However, this dream relies heavily on foreign investment. The government estimates it will need around $100 billion in new investment. Much of this proposed new capacity will necessarily rely on foreign technology along with improving existing poor infrastructure and overcoming red tape. Therefore, Modi’s big dream could be a major challenge for his government.

Very soon India’s population will reach 1.5 billion to meet the aspirations of its population. Will the world help India meet its renewable targets? Here in North America, we are certainly not as ambitious as India is in cleaning up the way we generate energy. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, a major break from international partners that will isolate the United States in global efforts to curb global warming. Canada’s Justin Trudeau has been sending deeply mixed messages about the future of the country’s heavily polluting tar sands oil industry. Certainly, India is becoming a climate leader as the rest of the world falters.

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