As Goes India, So Goes the World
Because of the size of India’s population, it’s said that the energy decisions India makes will determine the fate of the world’s climate. But for nations less wealthy than European countries or the United States, the choice between fossil fuels and renewable energy involves difficult, even painful trade-offs.
The economics of renewable energy in the developing world
Hundreds of millions of people in India live in the most desperate poverty. The country’s leaders are determined to improve living standards, and meeting this goal requires bringing electric power to impoverished regions where the number of people living without electricity is greater than the entire population of the United States. The Indian government’s plan to fix this is to burn more coal.
Unlike in the United States, the threat of climate change is widely accepted in India. Nevertheless, both Indian popular opinion and official policy is that the nation has a right and even a moral obligation to develop its plentiful coal reserves. There is a strong resistance to taking part in international efforts to limit carbon emissions. An American on average produces ten times the amount of CO2 as a citizen of India. The prevailing view is that developed nations caused global warming, and it is their job to fix it. India’s bitter experience as a former colony exerts an understandable but unfortunate influence on its policies.
India is already the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide. The official energy program calls for building over 300 new large coal-fired power plants and opening one new coal mine every month for the next five years. The country’s coal-burning power plants are especially inefficient, and its vast reserves of coal are an exceptionally polluting variety. Many of the untapped coal reserves are in heavily forested areas, so new mining will not only lead to increased carbon emissions but also destroy the forests that could absorb much of the new emissions.
The country’s coal-burning power plants are especially inefficient, and its vast reserves of coal are an exceptionally polluting variety.
The future harm from this policy must be balanced against India’s success in rescuing many of its citizens from starvation, lack of sanitation, and disease. Aided by one of the fastest-growing economies in the world for more than a decade, India’s present and past governments have succeeded in eliminating the famines that were once widespread, cutting poverty levels by more than half, and reducing illiteracy and malnutrition. The World Bank estimates that India has raised more than 140 million people out of poverty in the last ten years. Nevertheless, more than 250 million are still left to survive somehow on the equivalent of about one dollar per day.
But the connection between India’s energy development and its improving living conditions is complicated. The government’s support of coal is motivated in part by the vast sums coal mining and coal power plants contribute to government coffers and political campaigns. Corruption, a stark feature of public life in India, also plays a role in government planning. Although increasing the availability of electricity has helped improve conditions for the poor, coal mining has produced great wealth for a few while lives of people in the mining villages remains grim. All the worst health effects of coal mining are a fact of life for the miners and their families.
Tests of drinking water in mining villages areas show high levels of mercury – one village had 26 times the maximum safe limit. Symptoms of mercury poisoning are commonplace. But environmentally-related illnesses are not confined to the countryside. About half of the world’s 30 most-polluted cities are in India. The levels of carcinogens in city air sometimes exceed the highest values that the monitoring instruments can measure. An article in the British medical journal Lancet reported that air pollution in India is responsible for 1.8 million deaths per year. As was the case for the Industrial Revolution in Europe, the benefits of cheap energy from coal fade away in the smoke of its overuse.
“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, forcibly evicted from her home in Barkuta village, Chattisgarh, Coal Mining and Violations of Adivasi Rights in India, April 2014 © Amnesty International.
A Guardian report on July 13, 2016 revealed that:
“The brunt of the coalmine expansion … is being borne by India’s Adivasi aboriginal communities. Aruna Chandrashekhar, a researcher at Amnesty, said …. ‘Adivasi communities in these areas have been routinely shut out from decision-making processes around their traditional lands, rights and resources. Many have had to wait for decades for the compensation and rehabilitation they were promised when their land was acquired. The violations of their rights to consultation and consent … has led to serious impacts on their lives and livelihoods,’ she said.”
But despite statements of its unwavering support for coal, the Indian government has in fact taken many steps in response to the changing climate, perhaps in recognition that the country and its neighbors are at risk for some of the worst effects of global warming. Weakened monsoon rains, as may already be happening, would bring back the catastrophic crop failures and famine that were frequent and recent enough to still be remembered. The prospect of large populations 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.
The government has plans to increase solar energy by 30 times its present output in the next seven years.
India’s new pollution standards for coal plants are as strict as any in the world. The country’s power plant efficiency must greatly improve to meet these standards, which will result in less coal burned per kilowatt of electricity. A tax on carbon emissions has also been instituted. Apart from coal, the Indian government has mandated that no new diesel or gasoline powered vehicles will be sold in India by 2030. And India has agreed (albeit with some important exemptions) to meet the goals set out in the 2015 Paris climate conference.
In 2017, solar power became the cheapest source of electricity in India.
The government has plans to increase solar energy by 30 times its present output in the next seven years. This increase alone is about five times the projected total solar power in the United States. India has cancelled many of the coal plants it had recently planned. But in view of the threat that coal-fired power plants pose to the world’s climate, this is still not good enough. India’s coal industry is not idle in the face of the threats to its business, and is trying in various ways to make support for solar development more difficult. According to the government’s plans, coal will still be the largest source of its electricity for decades to come.
The economics of solar energy, however, may be relegating government plans to the ash heap. In 2017, solar power became the cheapest source of electricity in India. The cost may now be as low as half that of coal power.
Solar power in India is now among the cheapest in the world, largely because of its tropical location – a solar panel in India will produce about three times as much energy per day as the same panel in northern Europe. From start to finish, it usually takes 10 years for a new coal-fired plant to come online, while solar power projects can typically be completed in no more than a year and a half. India’s Central Electricity Authority now says that the country doesn’t need any new coal-fired plants beyond those already under construction.
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.
As is true around the world, the most suitable locations for renewable power plants are usually in otherwise unproductive and impoverished regions. Much of India is ideally situated for solar power. Even in fertile farming regions such as the Punjab, 15% of the land is unsuitable for agriculture, but it is ideal for solar panels. So it may be possible that renewable power for India will not only improve its living standards by increasing its energy production, but also by creating good jobs in the very areas most desperately in need of them.
Can solar power actually provide enough electricity to meet India’s growing needs? 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. Electricity from solar plants varies with weather, with the seasons, and of course with time of day. It seems that existing coal burning power plants and those already under construction must be kept online in order to provide a constant and reliable source of electricity. This factor alone is sufficient to negate all reductions in carbon emissions for the rest of the world.
But according to The Solutions Project, the multi-disciplinary effort headed by Mark Jacobson of Stanford University, India can do away with coal entirely and supply all of its energy needs from solar and other renewable sources. The project, which began as a detailed examination of the potential for 100% renewable energy in the U.S., now provides a country-by-country analysis for most of the world.
By 2050, India could meet its energy needs with a mix of about 60% solar of various kinds and 35% from wind farms.
The Solutions Project is not intended as a development plan for renewable energy. Rather it is designed to examine whether it is theoretically possible to meet energy needs using only solar, wind, and water power, and the effects such a provision would have on the jobs and the broader economy of a nation. Some of the assumptions are not entirely realistic, but they are not meant to be (critics have misrepresented the purpose of the project, often intentionally). For example, the prescription excludes electricity from nuclear power plants, even where they are already in operation and producing no carbon emissions. Nevertheless the broad conclusions of the study are most revealing.
The Jacobson group says that by 2050, India could meet its energy needs with a mix of about 60% solar of various kinds and 35% from wind farms. The economics of renewable energy promise unexpected benefits beyond combating global warming. By eliminating the use of fossil fuels for power, India would reap significant savings from reduced medical expenses and lost productivity, pollution abatement costs, and crop losses. Constructing and operating these renewable plants would create a net increase of more than 2 million new jobs – 4 million total new jobs in renewables less 2 million lost from the fossil fuel and nuclear industries.
The problems facing India in developing new power sources are shared by most of the developing world — most urgently, the deep 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, bringing prosperity and perhaps some measure of peace to this conflicted region.
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