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Can India Convert to 100 Percent Renewable Energy by 2050?

In the coming years, India will face seemingly insurmountable challenges to its economy, environment and energy security. To overcome these challenges India needs to shift to non-polluting sources of energy. As Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and activist, said in New Delhi in January 2012, "India is the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy sources and, if properly utilized, India can realize its place in the world as a great power,” and adding “but political will is required for the eventual shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.” The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also has recommended that the world needs a major shift in investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

India has tremendous energy needs and it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet those needs through traditional means of power generation.  Over 40 percent of rural Indian households do not have electricity.  While India is developing domestic energy sources to satisfy the growing demand, it is also anxious about having to import increasing amounts of fossil fuels that exacerbate the trade deficit and can be harmful to the environment.  Coal imports hit a record high during the last fiscal year and will likely rise further over the next five years since India aims to expand its power-generation capacity by 44 percent.

The country's inability to generate clean, affordable power is also a major constraint to achieving energy security.  The present centralized model of power generation, transmission and distribution is growing more and more costly to maintain and, at the same time, restricts the flexibility required to meet growing energy demands.  India needs to encourage a decentralized business model in order to more readily take advantage of abundantly available renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, biogas, geothermal and hydrogen energy, and fuel cells.  India is blessed with an abundance of these resources, yet it spends millions of rupees to import oil, coal, and natural gas.

To secure its energy future, India urgently needs to design and implement innovative policies and mechanisms that promote increased use of renewable resources.  All of India’s future energy demand could be met by utility-scale and rooftop PV, concentrated solar power, onshore and offshore wind, geothermal, and conventional hydropower. Investment in these technologies would create millions of new jobs and an economic stimulus of at least US $1 trillion, and perhaps much more if all indirect (ripple) effects are included.  Other major changes involve the use of electric vehicles and the development of enhanced smart grids.  Making the transition to 100 percent renewable energy is both possible and affordable, but requires political support.

What Needs to be Done?

Instead of an overarching energy strategy India has a number of disparate policies.  To date, India has developed a cluster of energy business models and policies that have obstructed adoption of renewable energy expansion plans.  This present approach threatens India’s economic competitiveness, national security and the environment.  India must fundamentally transform the manner in which it produces, distributes and consumes energy to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, create jobs, enhance global competitiveness and decrease carbon emissions.

The Government of India has taken several measurable steps toward improving infrastructure and power reliability (such as development of renewable energy from solar and wind), clearly more needs to be done, and fast.  One step in the right direction was the establishment of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) in late 2009.  However, the present JNNSM target of producing 10 percent of the country’s energy from solar — 20 GW by 2022 — is totally inadequate.  JNNSM needs to take bolder steps, with the help of central and state Governments, in order to play a greater role in realizing India's solar energy potential.  One such step would be establishment of a nationwide solar initiative to facilitate deployment of 100 million solar roofs and utility-scale generation installations within the next 20 years.  In achieving such a goal, India could become a major player and international leader in solar energy for years to come.

In addition, developing off-grid powered micro-grids have the potential to change the way communities generate and use energy, and can reduce costs, increase reliability and improve environmental performance.  Micro-grids can be used to take substantial electrical load off the existing power grid and so reduce the need for building new or expanding existing transmission and distribution systems.

Renewable Energy Potential in India

Renewables are the only technologies that offer India the theoretical potential to service all of its long-term power requirements.  The Indian subcontinent is blessed with abundant renewable energy resources. Even if a tenth of its potential was utilized, it could mark the end of India’s power problems.  Using the country’s deserts and farm land, India could easily install around 1,000 GW of solar capacity — equivalent to around four times the current peak power demand (India’s present generation capacity is about 210 GW).

As for wind, according to the environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), while India has no estimates of its offshore wind potential, up to 170 GW could be installed by 2050 along the 7,500 km of coastline.  Hydropower could generate an estimated 148 GW, geothermal around 10.7 GW and tidal power about 15 GW.  

Excess energy could be stored in various forms such as molten or liquid salt (a mixture of sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate); compressed air; pumped hydro; hydrogen, battery storage, etc.  This stored energy could then be used during times of peak demand. 

If these abundantly available resources were properly developed and utilized, all of India’s new energy production could be derived from renewable energy sources by 2030.  In addition, all existing generation could be converted to renewable energy by 2050 while maintaining a reliable power supply in the interim.  Barriers to implementing the renewable energy plan are seen to be primarily social and political, not technological or economic.

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10 Strategies that India Can Implement, Starting Today

To reach the goal of 100 percent of renewable energy by 2050, the following steps are recommended: 

  1. Aggressively expand large-scale deployment of both centralized and distributed renewable energy including solar, wind, hydro, biomass, and geothermal to ease the strain on the present transmission and distribution system — and allow more off-grid populations to be reached.  Facilitate growth in large scale deployment by installing 100 million solar roofs and large utility-scale solar generation, through both centralized and distributed energy within the next 20 years;
  2. Enact a national renewable energy standard of 20 percent by 2020 to create demand, new industries and innovation, and a new wave of green jobs;
  3. Develop favorable government policies to ease the permitting process, and to provide start-up capital to promote the exponential growth of renewable energy.  Create and fund a national smart infrastructure bank for renewable energy;
  4. Accelerate local demand for renewable energy by providing preferential feed-in tariffs (FIT) and other incentives such as accelerated depreciation; tax holidays; renewable energy funds; initiatives for international partnerships/collaboration, incentives for new technologies; human resources development; zero import duty on capital equipment and raw materials; excise duty exemption; and low interest rate loans.
  5. Phase out all conventional energy subsidies.  Force petroleum products to compete with other fuels like biomass and biogas, etc.;
  6. Accelerate the development and implementation of cost-effective energy efficiency standards to reduce the long term demand for energy.  Engage States, industrial companies, utility companies, and other stakeholders to accelerate this investment;
  7. Initiate a move to electrify automotive transportation or develop Electric Vehicles – plug-in hybrids – such as the Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, or Chevy Volt, etc.  Develop and implement time-of-day pricing to encourage charging of cars at night.  Adopt nationwide charging of electric cars from solar panels on roofs, and solar-powered Electric Vehicle charging stations around the country.  Thousands of these solar-powered recharging stations could spread across India just like the present public call office (PCO), giving birth to the “Green Revolution.”  These recharging connections could be deployed at highly-concentrated areas including shopping malls, motels, restaurants, and public places where vehicles are usually parked for extended periods;
  8. Aggressively invest in a smart, two-way grid (and micro-grid).  Invest in smart meters, as well as reliable networks that can accommodate the two-way flow of electricity.  Such networks need to be resilient enough to avoid blackouts and accommodate the advanced power generation technologies of the future;
  9. Develop large-scale solar manufacturing in India (transforming India into a global solar manufacturing hub).  Promote and establish utility scale solar and wind generation parks and farms.  Also, establish R&D facilities within academia, research institutions, industry, government and private entities to guide technology development.
  10. Work towards a Hydrogen Economy development plan.  Hydrogen can be fed into fuel cells for generating heat and electricity — as well as for powering fuel cell vehicles.  Produce hydrogen from renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.  If done successfully, hydrogen and electricity will eventually become society's primary energy carriers for the twenty-first century.

Conclusion

Renewable forms of energy (especially solar and wind) could enhance India’s energy security and represent a bright spot in its economic and environmental future.  If India switched from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants, it is possible that 70 percent of the electricity and 35 percent of its total energy could be derived from renewable resources by 2030.

Before India can achieve this goal, a number of political barriers must be overcome.  As examples of needed reforms, Denmark's Parliament has passed the most ambitious green economy plan to generate 35 percent of its energy from renewable energy by 2020 and 100 percent by 2050.  Iceland, Scotland and the Philippines, have recently announced impressive plans to obtain 100 percent of their power from renewable energy.

A future powered by renewable energy is already here, not decades away.  Cost comparisons per kilowatt-hour show that newly built solar and wind plants are already considerably cheaper than new nuclear plants.  In coming years solar and wind energy will compete more and more favorably with conventional energy generation and, in places such as California and Italy, have already reached so-called “grid parity.”

Renewable energy is a game-changer for India:  It has the potential to re-energize India's economy by creating millions of new jobs, achieve energy independence, reduce the trade deficit and propel India forward as a “Green Nation.”  Generating 100 percent renewable energy is not a fantasy for someday, but a reality today.  India has a golden opportunity to solve three huge problems — reducing poverty, ensuring energy security and combating climate change.  But it must act soon.  India can no longer afford to delay renewable energy deployment to meet its future energy needs. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and are not intended to represent the views or policies of the United States Department of Energy or the United States.  The article was not prepared as part of the writer's official duties at the United States Department of Energy.

Lead image: Taj Mahal via Shutterstock

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