India - the next big excuse for climate inaction or a renewables superpower?

Those opposed to renewables and addressing climate change are looking at India as their next excuse for Australia to do nothing. However India's energy minister says they'll be a "renewables superpower" and solar's off-grid advantage is lighting the way.

I’m sure you remember the excuse for why Australia should do little to reduce its emissions:

‘China installs a coal-fired power station every five days. Australia could close down all our power stations tomorrow and China will have filled the gap within nine months.’  

With China beginning to rein in its coal consumption, the focus is now shifting to India. India is the next growth market for thermal coal and, it seems, the next big excuse for Australian inaction on global warming.

In a recent interview, the energy minister under Narendra Modi’s new government, Piyush Goyal, has said that India will be significantly expanding its consumption of coal. But he also said that India would become a “renewables superpower”.  

Goyal told the Guardian newspaper that the prior government’s solar target of 20GW by 2020 will be easily surpassed, saying: “It will be much, much larger. I think for India to add 10GW a year [of solar] and six, or seven or eight of wind every year is not very difficult to envisage.”

This is a major development if his government follows through. Ten gigawatts of solar per annum would place India as the second largest market for solar PV behind China. It would equate to somewhere between a quarter to a fifth of the global market, based on this year’s shipments. Six to eight gigawatts of wind would also place India as the second largest market for wind power.

What some may not recognise is that India faces different circumstances to those that China faced when it went on its energy binge back around the turn of millennium, even though both share the common need to massively expand the availability and use of electricity.

Renewable energy technology has progressed an incredible amount since 2000, while coal and associated power distribution networks have been relatively stagnant. Indeed the cost of power from coal has increased substantially.

In addition, India is not ruled in the same way as the all-dominant Chinese communist government.

If the Chinese Government decides it wants to get something done, it happens, irrespective of the people that might be put out.

India is very, very different – chaotic you might say. Democratic for a start but, in addition, it has a range of contesting power bases, as well as corruption and stifling bureaucracy which make it much harder for government to rollout large-scale infrastructure.

When you put all these things together, renewable energy with its smaller, modular size has some definite advantages for an Indian Government keen to get electricity to the many millions of its population who lack access to things as simple as a few lights and a fridge.

Energy Minister Goyal observed to the Guardian, “We will be a renewables superpower – you know Mr Modi’s mantra: ‘speed, skill and scale’ ”.

On speed and scale it’s hard to match consumer products amenable to global mass production like solar panels. Electronic goods can go from a zero share of the market to close to saturation within the space of five to 10 years. You just can’t manage that with conventional centralised power infrastructure. Also, at least with solar, you can bypass the bureaucracy and allow communities themselves – and smaller, more nimble private-sector organisations – to deliver power supply.

The East Timor solar lighting program being led by the ATA (vote for it to receive Google grant funding here) as well as the Australian-led Pollinate Energy initiative in India, are showing how solar-plus-energy-efficient appliances – such as LED lighting – can be deployed quickly and without extensive government involvement, to get some of the vital energy basics to the poor.

Pollinate Energy: India from Chris McMorrow on Vimeo.

One of the clever elements of these initiatives is to create the potential for exponential scaling effects, and this is where the “skill” component comes in. Australians train up locals in the installation and maintenance of the equipment. Then these locals train a few others who then train a few others and, hopefully, you have something that can spread in a manner akin to infectious disease (that helps people).

‘Business in a bag’ is the business model that Pollinate Energy are striving towards. This enables a single man or woman without a lot of capital, and in a highly mobile manner to roll-out small-scale clean energy products.

Figure 1: Components of Pollinate Energy’s 'Business in a Bag' solar electrification concept

Graph for India - the next big excuse for climate inaction or a renewables superpower?

Now of course, as Minister Goyal has stated, India will also be expanding the use of coal. Large-scale electricity systems to service India’s huge cities as well as heavy industry still make sense.

But one thing Australians don’t realise – because it is hidden from them via extensive cross-subsidies costing hundreds of millions of dollars every year – is that the servicing Australian rural areas with electricity networks is incredibly expensive. If we were to start with a blank sheet of paper, rural areas would not be connected to the power network and would instead rely on a combination of solar and batteries with maybe a small role for diesel gensets as back-up. Something another entrepreneurial social group, Energy for the People, in conjunction with the ATA, revealed in their research (see When will people unplug?).

Indians are dirt poor and their per capita emissions are about a tenth of Australia’s. It is completely unreasonable to expect that their emissions would not grow and grow significantly given their low use of energy. But they don’t need to follow the same path as China.

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