Four hundred million Indians, more than the population of the United States and Canada combined, lack electricity. An official of India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, recently said that his government wants every home to be able to run at least one light bulb by 2019. Administrations have made similar claims numerous times since India gained independence in 1947, but this time renewable power sources could bring the longstanding promise closer to a realistic vision.
In a sprawling, diverse country of more than 1.2 billion residents this task is tantamount to a second green revolution, the first being agricultural advances that relieved famine across the subcontinent in the middle of the 20th century.
In 2011, India was the fourth-largest energy consumer in the world, with over 40 percent of that coming from coal and another 20 percent from oil, the majority of which is imported. On top of resource issues, grid access is also a major hurdle. Electricity theft is pervasive: 15 to 30 percent of power is lost to illegal hookups, bill fraud, or nonpayment. The World Bank estimates that stealing from the grid reduces India’s gross domestic product by 1.5 percent. It also deters investment in grid improvements and new power plants.
“Administration after administration has promised rural Indians power since independence and failed,” Justin Guay, associate director of the International Climate Program at the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress. “And they have failed because they want to build huge power plants and extend the grid. Today in India there are independent companies working around a grid and government that don’t function and pursuing a bottom-up approach with renewable energy.”
Modi’s election comes with a plethora of social, environmental, and human rights concerns, but Guay said that the “one silver lining with Modi is that he is huge champion for solar.”
The new government could work to provide loan guarantees and financial access for clean energy companies to help them succeed where other administrations have failed, Guay said. During Modi’s tenure as chief minister of the sun-soaked northwestern Indian state of Gujarat, power reached a surplus, creating envy in the rest of the country where blackouts are common. He did this in part by pioneering India’s first incentives for large-scale solar power. Over four percent of Gujarat’s installed capacity, or around 825 megawatts, comes from solar photovoltaic (PV) power.
“Gujarat is a bellwether for the development of the Indian market,” reported Greentech Media last fall, long before Modi was elected prime minister. “With high insolation rates, rising demand, and a growing installer base, India will be the fifth largest market for PV in the world by 2015.”
Solar power can be deployed in very small increments and distributed over microgrids that can be connected to larger grids or stand alone as their own off-grid resources. This makes it much more accommodating to build-out in areas with sparse energy infrastructure such as rural India.
While the demand for solar power is getting a big push from the bottom, efforts at the top will provide additional pull. On Monday, Bloomberg reported that Narendra Taneja, convener of the energy division at Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that Modi plans to use solar power to enable every home to run at least one light bulb by 2019.
“We look upon solar as having the potential to completely transform the way we look at the energy space,” said Taneja, who went on to affirm that clean-power generation will be the administration’s top energy-related priority.
Clean power generation may be Modi’s preferred means of providing power, but there is no question that he will settle for dirty alternatives in what amounts to a version of the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy.
“I would read into those broad public statements on clean energy with a grain of salt,” said Guay. “Because at the same time Modi is also a supporter of all the bad stuff. What he’s done is give the all-of-the-above approach an updated meaning in India by including renewable sources along with oil, coal, and gas.”
Modi was elected with a mandate to help India get back to the level of growth experienced before the global financial crisis, and in doing so to address the ongoing issues of energy poverty and energy access. Climate change, while impacting everything from food prices to water availability, is not the salient issue when it comes to decision making.
“Unfortunately for those of us who care deeply about climate change, I don’t think that will be the central tenet of his government,” Jigar Shah, a leading clean energy entrepreneur, told E&E News. “But I do think this government will understand that you can’t dig the hole deeper with coal, natural gas and diesel. You have to transition to natively available fuel sources, which in India’s case is renewable energy.”
India and China both have similar additional energy capacity from coal-fired power plants proposed in the coming years. Since China has already built such a large fleet of coal plants and is currently facing strong public backlash over debilitating levels of air pollution, many observers think India may be the more likely culprit to actually build out that capacity.
Guay isn’t so sure. With the coal sector already struggling financially in the country, and even petitioning the government for bailouts, “there is a dark cloud looming over the Indian coal sector,” he said.
Before Modi’s election, India already had a goal of installing 20 gigawatts of solar by 2022. Current solar capacity stands just above two gigawatts, with wind and hydropower bringing the total renewable capacity of the country up to around 27 gigawatts. As of late 2012, India had 211 gigawatts of installed electricity capacity, mostly in coal-powered plants. Modi will have his hands full translating his energy-related success in Gujarat to a nationwide populace.
“To provide abundant and affordable power, Modi could wrestle with the half dozen different central ministries that manage energy –- from coal, to oil and gas, to power (generation and distribution), to nuclear, to renewables,” wrote William Antholis, managing director of the Brookings Institution. “They need desperately to be streamlined and coordinated. But that means fighting corporate and vested interests invested in each organization, and the more vested lack of interest among the bureaucracy. As prime minister, he would personally have to convince bureaucrats to get to Yes, as opposed to holding back reform.”
Getting things done in the largest democracy in the world is a messy affair, and part of Modi’s appeal is his ability to put words into actions and create a pro-business environment with economic opportunity, which he did in Gujarat.
“The power sector needs tough politics, and the only person in politics today who might be capable of that kind of toughness is Modi,” S.L. Rao, the head of India’s central electricity regulator from 1998 to 2001, told Bloomberg. “The utility industry has reached a stage where either we change the whole system quickly or it will collapse.”
Whether or not the new BJP-led government succeeds in bringing power — or even clean power — to the hundreds of millions of Indians without it, Modi can at the very least capture their attention with rhetoric in an effort to support personal investment.
“God has showered our country with an abundance of renewable energy,” Modi told a crowd of farmers gathered near a solar plant during his election campaign. “If these renewable resources were exploited properly, we wouldn’t have required mining coal or spending so much on importing crude and petroleum products.”
Jagadish Thaker, a doctoral candidate at George Washington University and coauthor of the paper “Shifting discourses of climate change in India” is wary that the abundance of solar will be evenly distributed.
“On the issue of domestic equity — who losses and who gains — I think we have to pay close attention,” he told ThinkProgress. “Who will benefit from more investments in clean energy? Will the rich continue to get undue benefits, or will the rural areas be able to access uninterrupted electric supply? If solar power primarily reaches urban consumers, it thereby increases the ‘power’ gap between urban and rural populations.”