India’s rapid progress on Green Energy front
Though the Western countries continue to spread the stereotype of India as a filthy country (US President Donald Trump, in his Presidential debate with Joe Biden on October 22, described India as ‘a filthy country’), the fact remains that in its “Clean Energy” campaign, India is doing much better than the West, exceeding targets, breaking records and quickly making the age of cheap clean energy a reality.
India’s resolve in this regard was further reiterated by Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan on October 21.
As per its commitment to the Paris Agreement, India is to increase the share of power-generation capacity that doesn’t use fossil fuels to 40 percent by 2030; but today, generation capacity from renewable, hydroelectric, and nuclear sources already reaches 38 percent, putting India on track to comfortably exceed its target.
India’s other commitment is to reduce carbon emissions by 33 to 35 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2030: but today, India looks likely to reduce emissions by as much as 45 percent by 2030, far surpassing its Paris target.
India has also set its own ambitious renewable-energy goals. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans to build 175 GW of new renewable-energy capacity by 2022. According to Amitabh Kant, CEO of the government policy think tank NITI Aayog, India has already installed 89 GW of renewable power capacity and will achieve Modi’s 175 GW target as planned.
At the September 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit, Modi announced a new target of 450 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2030. This goal needs to be seen along with measures to reduce consumption of energy produced by burning coals. The Modi-government has imposed a tax on coal production equivalent to $6 per ton with nearly unanimous approval from the 36 political parties represented in the Indian parliament.
India’s clean-energy initiatives are being facilitated by global advances in green technology—especially solar power, wind power, and energy storage. These technologies, as Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labour and Worklife Program and co-author of From Incremental to Exponential: How Large Companies Can See the Future and Rethink Innovation, points out, are progressing exponentially and have entered a virtuous cycle—as prices for these technologies fall, demand for them rises, and as production is expanded to meet demand, prices fall some more, all of which contributes to accelerating adoption. “When Bell Labs built its first solar photovoltaic panel in 1954, the panel cost $1,000 per watt of electrical power it could generate. By 2008, the modules used in solar arrays cost $3.65 per watt; by 2018, that figure had fallen to less than 40 cents. In India that year, solar power generation crossed an important threshold, becoming cheaper than coal (by 14 percent on a “levelized” basis, which adjusts for the impact of subsidies, construction costs, and financing). Fast-plunging costs have allowed India to increase its solar-power generation capacity more than tenfold since 2015”.
Wadhwa further says, “other renewables, too, follow this trend. Wind power became cost-competitive with coal in 2018, and costs continue to plummet. Battery technology, once the crucial weak link in renewable energy, is rapidly approaching the point where it solves a critical problem that has held most clean energy back: Solar panels only generate power when the sun shines and windmills only turn when it is windy. Until now, the dirty secret of green power has been that every gigawatt of sometimes-on, sometimes-off renewable generating capacity has required another gigawatt of fossil-fuel power generation capacity to stand by as a backup. Batteries resolve that conundrum by storing power and releasing it when needed; a more brute-force, low-tech method of storing wind or solar power is to pump water up a hill into a reservoir, from where it can generate hydroelectric power on demand.
“India made green history this year, breaking not one but two records. In January, it conducted the world’s largest tender for renewable power that no longer requires fossil-fuel backup. One company, Greenko, will provide 900 megawatts of uninterrupted, unsubsidized power using a combination of solar panels and hydroelectric storage. Another, ReNew, will supply 300 MW of steady power using solar panels and battery storage. In May, ReNew made another successful bid to provide 400 MW of solar power with battery storage. At a levelized first-year cost of 2.90 rupees ($0.04) per kilowatt-hour, it will be among the world’s lowest rate for uninterrupted renewable power—finally making generating and storing clean energy cheaper than burning coal.”
Wadhwa argues that India is a major beneficiary of these technological advances because “it is rapidly adding generating capacity as it develops, avoiding many of the costly and politically charged adjustments as developed countries replace one energy technology (and its jobs) with another. It also has large stretches of sunny, sparsely populated land for acreage-hungry solar arrays. Low labour costs make the installation and maintenance of renewable generation inexpensive; solar is a low-skilled sector once the panels have left the factory. As India imports the vast majority of its oil and a significant part of its coal, it is happy to replace costly imports with home-generated clean energy, which also helps explain the relative lack of opposition to it.”
With India’s costs already among the lowest in the world, it is at the cusp of an age of truly competitive, unsubsidized clean energy. When the price of solar panels and batteries falls another 50 percent, as is likely during the next three years, market forces will take over, and Indian consumers will take the clean-energy mantle from the government—something that still looks quite ways off in most developed countries.
Incidentally, a recent World Bank study says that India’s clean or green energy drive will help in making the Corona-hit economy revive with the help of the returning migrant workers from the cities. It has made five points:
Returning migrants can be encouraged to set up new forest-based enterprises
Given the rapidly growing demand for natural products, returning workers can be encouraged to set up MSMEs that add value to non-timber forest produce (NTFP) using their knowledge of new technologies and urban markets. The move may help in generating jobs and raising local incomes.
Thriving forests can benefit agriculture
Increased forest areas can help in controlling soil erosion; improving the quality of soil, water, and air; preventing landslides; reviving pastures; recharging aquifers; and providing food, fodder, and medicines. Restoring forests can also help regulate sediment and water flows in large river basins such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra, making agriculture, hydropower, water supply, and roads more resilient to the impacts of climate change, and reducing air pollution.
Promotion of nature-based tourism
Restoring India’s natural heritage and unique ecosystems can also boost opportunities for nature-based tourism. By creating safer habitats for India’s vast biodiversity, forests can help boost tourism, generating gainful employment for rural residents.
Meeting international commitments towards climate change and land degradation
Restoring forests and terrestrial landscapes may help India meet its international commitments towards climate change and land degradation. Under IUCN’s Bonn challenge, India has the highest global commitment for arresting climate change, aiming to restore over 20 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. Achieving this could make India the global leader in green recovery.
Building green infrastructure
India can use the Mahatma Gandhi National Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhyaan – which have a combined annual outlay of $20 billion – to build the country’s green infrastructure. These programs can help restore forests at scale; improve the quality of pastures, forests, and wetlands; control erosion; and forest fires.
It may be noted that the World Bank highlights that every dollar spent on restoring the landscape has the potential to generate at least $9 in economic benefits. In the US alone, ecological restoration is a $9.5 billion industry, employing 126,000 people and indirectly generating $15 billion and another 95,000 jobs.