India’s Solar Switch
By Alli Devlin
Can India’s switch to solar deliver not just clean energy, but empowerment of the poorest? For one of the world’s most rapidly developing economies, a lot rests on the answer to this question.
The South Asian nation emits over 2300 megatonnes of CO2 each year, making it the third-largest emitting nation after the US and China, although on a per capita basis the emissions of the average Indian citizen is only 1.6 tonnes per year--far below the global average of 4.4. But the country’s emissions are not stabilising. Instead, they are rising rapidly as the economy grows; in 2018, India’s emissions had increased by 335% since 1990. The situation is grave indeed, and given India’s major role in global emissions, it will take a concerted effort to eliminate the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions to keep global warming below 2⁰C.
India is still heavily dependent on fossil fuels, particularly on coal. However, since signing up to the Paris Agreement in 2016, the Indian government has made significant progress towards reducing its emissions. In late 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a target of 450 gigawatts of installed renewable energy capacity by 2030, equivalent to 60% of the country’s energy needs.
While there is a place for all kinds of renewable energy generation in India, solar energy in particular makes sense in a country that is blessed by significant daily exposure to sunlight most of the year round. There is significant potential for solar to dominate the Indian electricity grid mix, as it can be deployed quickly and affordably. Solar may also be able to quickly reach communities through decentralised energy models, like village-scale micro-grids or household-scale off-grid solutions. Additionally, with correlations between electricity access and poverty reduction, solar can also bring direct socioeconomic returns. In the decade after 2005, approximately 200 million people in India gained access to electricity and 270 million moved out of multidimensional poverty.
A range of innovative solar solutions have been experimented with and implemented across India--from rooftop installations, to lanterns and streetlights, to ‘solar canals’. This approach, which involves the installation of solar panels atop canals not only preserves residential and agricultural land, but also prevents excess water evaporation, simultaneously supporting food and energy security.
Zooming out, though, It is clear that with a population of 1.4 billion spread across 2.4% of the world’s land area, larger-scale solutions are required--with one approach being to drive down the short- and long-term cost of renewable energy through the cultivation of a competitive manufacturing industry. And, despite solar electricity now being cheaper than that derived from fossil-fuels, there is a need for the initial investment to enable a transition to this form of electricity generation; investment in monetary terms, but also in capacity-building through knowledge and skill hubs, and regulatory action to ensure a fair, competitive market for the manufacturing and supply of PV panels/modules.
To that end, in 2018, investment in solar photovoltaic (PV) panels in India was greater than investment in all fossil fuel sources combined. And, in November 2020, the government announced a US$630 million investment package for the development of high-efficiency PV modules.
Unfortunately, inconsistent government action and contradictory policymaking is politicising the switch to renewables. For example, Prime Minister Modi was elected on the back of a campaign promise to ensure electricity access for all. And, between 2000 and 2018, 700 million people in India gained access to electricity, an achievement which should be applauded. However, in Prime Minister Modi declared that the government had achieved ‘100% village electrification’, based on a definition of electrification which considered any village with at least 10% of households, public spaces, schools and health centres as electrified. In reality, 31 million homes remain without connection. More concerningly, coal is still not off the national energy agenda.
The successful switch to renewables will be a greater feat for India than many other nations due to its quickly increasing population, projected to reach 1.66 billion in 2050. This means that renewable energy sources do not just need to replace nonrenewable sources, but to exceed current total energy supplies. But the potential of renewable energy to provide access to reliable and affordable energy to more people across India, while simultaneously contributing to a reduction in air pollution and mitigating climate change, is too important and significant to be ignored.
How can innovation, investment and the development of competitive markets and industry help to accelerate the uptake of solar in India? Atmospheric emissions do not discriminate by national borders, and neither should investments. The switch to renewable energy is crucial for the quality of life of both Indian citizens and the global community.
Now the question is more, how fast can India switch to solar? And will it be enough, if we don’t all join the transition?
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