Climate

India Starts Building World’s Largest Solar Plant, Overtaking U.S.

CREDIT: flickr/ammusk

India is about to start construction on what will be the world’s largest solar plant. As part of a redoubled effort to ramp up renewable energy capacity to help meet the developing country’s fast-growing energy needs, the 750-megawatt solar plant in Madhya Pradesh will be inaugurated on August 15, 2016 — India’s Independence Day. The plant will be significantly larger than the world-leading solar farms in California, including the recently-commissioned Desert Sunlight Solar Farm.

India is planning to install at least 100 gigawatts of solar power by 2022 — a goal that solar power giant China only plans on beating by two years. Both countries are confronting energy crises as coal-fired power plants spread debilitating air pollution throughout fast-growing urban centers. The situation is in many ways more acute in India. More than 300 million Indians do not have access to electricity, and by 2017, it is predicted India will outpace China in economic growth.

A recent World Health Organization report found that India has 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world with the capital, Delhi, being the most polluted of all. The WHO report found that Delhi had six times the level of airborne particulate matter considered safe, but a recent on-the-ground investigation found that the levels could be up to eight times higher in heavily trafficked corridors.

Fortunately, solar power is essentially emissions-free, and 750 megawatts is a lot of power. It is close to the total amount of solar power capacity that sun-drenched Australia installed in all of 2014. It is also 200 megawatts more than the recently-commissioned Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in California, one of the world’s largest solar plants and one of several major utility-scale solar farms in inland California. At 550 megawatts it is capable of providing power to more than 160,000 average California homes.

With an average Indian household using only around one-thirteenth of the power required by an average American home, the 750-megawatt project, which will be on 90 percent government-owned land, could bring power to some two million households.

“We have always spoken of energy in terms of megawatt,” said said Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the country’s solar goals at the global RE-Invest conference this weekend in India. “It is the first time we’re talking of gigawatt. We have no option but to make a quantum leap in energy production and connectivity.”

President Obama took his second trip as President to India in January, where the two leaders announced that the countries will work together to fight climate change. While they did not announce a pledge with the same heft as the U.S.-China agreement last October, they did lay out a list of goals they hope “will expand policy dialogues and technical work on clean energy and low greenhouse gas emissions technologies.”

The deal includes focusing on growing clean energy investment in India and finding ways to reduce the heavy air pollution enveloping many urbanized regions. It also emphasizes that the countries will “cooperate closely” for a “successful and ambitious” agreement at the Paris climate talks at the end of the year.

“India’s voice is very important on this issue,” Obama said at a press meeting during his visit. “Perhaps no country could potentially be more affected by the impacts of climate change and no country is going to be more important in moving forward a strong agreement than India.”

Achieving India’s clean energy goals will be on-par with the challenge of crafting a successful climate treaty at this year’s Paris climate summit. Currently India has around 33 gigawatts of clean energy installed, made up mostly of wind power, with the bulk of the country’s overall 250-gigawatt power generation capacity coming from coal-fired power plants.

In one more promising development in India’s quest to increase solar capacity 33-fold in seven years, on Sunday U.S.-based SunEdison and First Solar committed to building more than 20,000 megawatts of clean energy capacity in India by 2022.