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As Goes India, So Goes the World

Because of the size of its population, the decisions India makes about energy may determine the fate of the world’s climate. But for India and other developing nations, the choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy involves difficult, even life-and-death trade-offs.

The economics of renewable energy in the developing world

Picture a two car garage, perhaps one attached to your home. Pack it full of coal, floor to ceiling. Now burn all that coal in just one day. That much is burned, 75 tons of coal, every day for every person on Earth. But about 70% of this is burned in just three countries – China, the US, and India. Starting in 2013, China and the US stopped using more coal and vowed to use less. By contrast India, prior to the pandemic, set a record for coal consumption and made no secret of its plans to burn as much as it could. But economics and the coronavirus have combined to put a welcomed halt to those plans.

While the threat of climate change is widely accepted in India, a common view is that developed nations caused global warming and it is their job to fix it. An American on average produces ten times more CO2 than a citizen of India. India is home to the largest population of the world’s most impoverished people, and the government is intent on bettering their lives. Almost as many people live without reliable electricity in India as live in the entire United States. Providing its citizens with electricity is key for India to reduce poverty, and burning cheap coal has been India’s way to do this.

So popular opinion and official policy have been that the nation has a right and even a moral obligation to develop its plentiful coal reserves. Aided by one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India’s government has succeeded in eliminating the famines that were once widespread, cutting poverty levels, reducing illiteracy and malnutrition, and rescuing many of its citizens from starvation, filth and disease. The World Bank estimates that India has raised more than 140 million people out of poverty in recent years.

However the connection between India’s energy development and its improving living conditions is complicated and troubled. The government’s support of coal is motivated in part by the vast sums that mining and coal power plants contribute to its tax base and to its political campaigns. Corruption, a stark feature of public life in India, also plays a role. Coal mining has produced great wealth for a few while the worst health effects of coal mining are a fact of life for the miners and their families.

women in india

Women in a tribal (Gond adivasi) village, Umaria district, India. Picture taken during a meeting organised by Ekta Parishad about land rights, the main grievance of the Adivasi people.

Coal mines are mostly located in areas occupied by the poor and indigenous, referred to collectively as Adivasi. These are the very people the government has sworn to help, but Adivasi communities are excluded from decision-making affecting their homes and health. To mention just one of many problems related to the mines, the drinking water in these villages has high levels of mercury – one village had 26 times the maximum safe limit. Symptoms of mercury poisoning are commonplace.

“The bulldozer entered our village at 10 AM. At the time, many of us had left for our fields and our daily work. Hearing that demolitions had begun, we ran home … my house had been broken down … everything was destroyed … I understand that some people must make sacrifices for the nation, but why must it always be us?” —Nirupabai, Nirupabai, forcibly evicted from her home in Barkuta village, Chattisgarh, Coal Mining and Violations of Adivasi Rights in India, April 2014 © Amnesty International

Coal-related illnesses are not confined to the countryside. It’s reported that 14 of the world’s 20 cities with the most polluted air are in India. According to a study by the British medical journal Lancet, more than one million deaths in 2017 were due to the fine-particulate air pollution that causes cancer and respiratory and heart disease. All together these deaths make up an astonishing 12.5% of India’s total yearly mortality. And of course air pollution does not respect national boundaries. Four of the remaining six most polluted cities are in neighboring Pakistan.

A recent and deepening problem arises from the need of most coal-fired plants to be cooled by fresh water. Water shortages occurring world-wide have become endemic in India. Virtually every major city is facing the imminent depletion of its fresh water supplies. Chennai, a city of 9 million once known as Madras, ran out of water in 2019. The pipes to homes and businesses were dry, and water had to trucked in for a year. There are more than a dozen coal-fired power plants in the Chennai region that all need freshwater to operate.

map of India's freshwater-cooled power plants

India’s freshwater-cooled power plants, mapped in water-stressed areas (the figure includes a small number of nuclear power plants as well as coal plants). From World Resource Institute.

The country’s coal-fired power plants divert half of India’s domestic water use. They not only take water from agriculture, sanitation and consumption, the recurring water shortages cause power losses when plants must be shut down to prevent overheating. Water shortages in 2016 negated more than 20% of the new electrical capacity added the previous year. But there is hope for a new path that leads to a better future for all, including India’s most impoverished, because coal is no longer the cheapest source of electricity.

In March of 2020 the Indian government ordered one of the most stringent pandemic lockdowns in the world. Economic activity plunged and new solar installations dropped more than two-thirds. New wind installations also fell dramatically. But to its credit the government mandated that existing wind and solar projects had “must-run” status, meaning that their output was not cut even though overall electricity demand plummeted. Renewables were saved while coal plants took a major hit. In April 2020, the average coal power plant operated at just 40% capacity.

solar panels over a carpark

A 2.7 Megawatt solar installation covers the car park at Cochin International Airport. From Tata Solar Power.

The pandemic accelerated what had already been taking place – the economics of renewable power are improving and the coal industry is deteriorating as its true costs are revealed. Electricity from new solar plants costs about 2.5 rupees per unit, compared with around 4.5 rupees from new coal. It usually takes 10 years for a new coal-fired plant to come online while solar plants can typically be completed in no more than a year and a half. Now solar power is the first choice for providing power to impoverished residents – it produces about 60% of the power for those who have only recently gained access to it.

Much of India is ideally situated for solar power. A solar panel there will average more than twice the output of one in Northern Europe. The most desirable locations for renewable power are where it is least desirable to live – that is, where poor people live. Even in fertile farming regions such as the Punjab, 15% of the land is unsuitable for agriculture but is ideal for solar panels. So renewable power for India will not only improve living standards but also create new, high-paying jobs in the very areas most desperately in need of them. One estimate is that 2 million new jobs will be created in India by renewable energy, even after subtracting job losses related to coal.

man standing next to solar panels

A 1.5 Kilowatt solar-powered irrigation pump in Assam. From Tata Solar Power.

While India’s environment is ideal for solar energy, the country’s infrastructure does not lend itself to large nationwide engineering projects. Various forms of local mini-grids are being installed to fill the void, especially in impoverished zones. The government provides subsidies of up to 90% to install solar-powered water pumps to irrigate fields and deliver drinking water. Farmers abandon the highly polluting diesel-powered pumps and gain income by selling surplus power to the grid. The solar panels are often built over irrigation canals to preserve water from evaporation in drought-prone sunny areas. Other government programs provide solar lighting, solar cookers, and similar devices.

The urgency of these programs stems from knowing that India and its neighbors are at risk for one of the worst effects of global warming: the changing climate is weakening the annual monsoon rains. If this is the new normal, it threatens a return of the catastrophic crop failures and famine that were frequent and severe enough to leave a scar on the nation’s consciousness. The prospect of competing for dwindling resources in this region of Asia where hostile nations possess nuclear weapons and display naked animosity toward each other can give even the most hard-headed officials reason to reconsider.

A related concern of the government is achieving energy independence. Although it has vast reserves, India’s coal has low carbon content that requires more to be burned per unit of energy. In addition it is largely unsuited for use in making steel (“coking”). Consequently India, despite its vast reserves, is the world’s second largest importer of coal and competes with China, its political and sometime military adversary, over pricing and delivery. The clear path to freedom for India from foreign reliance on energy is to develop its potential for renewable power, and solar power in particular.

By 2040, India will be the most populous nation on Earth, and the International Energy Agency estimates that India will consume more energy than all of industrialized Europe combined. With power demand expected to triple, coal may resume its growth in use even as the clean energy market expands. Electricity from solar and wind varies with weather, with the seasons, and of course with time of day. It seems that coal power plants must be kept online to fill in the shortfall. India still uses coal for about two-thirds of its electricity. Since coal plants are now under-utilized, coal burning can increase even as old generators are shut down.

India’s coal-burning power plants are especially inefficient. The economic downturn from the pandemic led the government to delay implementing new pollution controls for coal plants, keeping the dirtiest plants in business. Costs and water shortages also led the government to suspend the requirement to wash coal to remove the high ash content that makes India’s coal exceptionally polluting. Much of the coal used in India’s power plants is lignite, the lowest grade. India is already the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide so its plans to increase coal use and defer pollution controls could be devastating.

But there is reason for optimism. It’s not a question of whether the transition to renewable energy will happen, it’s a question of how fast it will take place. By next year, India will have 167 GW of renewable energy either online or contracted. The US by comparison now has 157 GW online. The government’s goal is to produce half of the nation’s energy ten years from now by renewables. It took some diplomatic arm-twisting and major concessions to get India to join the 2015 Paris climate agreement, but now the government boasts of its progress.

In 2009, solar power provided 3 Megawatts in India. In 2021, it’s reached 36,000 Megawatts, 12,000 times greater in twelve years. Prime Minister Modi announced that, including hydroelectricity, he expects the country’s clean energy capacity to reach 220 gigawatts by 2022. India has an even more ambitious target of 450 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2030. By that year, the government wants to meet half of the country’s power demand with renewable energy resources. Solar power alone is on track to match coal’s contribution to the nation’s energy by 2040.

Chart of India's power generation

Changes in share of power generation in India in the Stated Policies Scenario, 2010-2040, IEA, Paris. Chart from IEA.

The problems facing India in developing new power sources are shared by most of the developing world – most urgently, alleviating the abysmal poverty that underlies the hostility and hopelessness in many resource-poor regions. And the promise and opportunities presented by renewable power are shared as well. North Africa, for example, could meet the energy needs of the entire European continent with solar power. Western nations have spent trillions of dollars fighting and mitigating conflicts in oil-producing areas. Spending a fraction of this total could bring prosperity and perhaps some measure of peace to these regions.

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