India’s Renewable Energy Potential Remains Untapped

India has tremendous energy needs and an increasing difficulty in meeting those needs through traditional means of power generation. On July 30th and 31st, 2012 the world’s largest blackout, The Great Indian Outage, stretching from New Delhi to Kolkata occurred. This blackout, due to failure of the northern power grid, caused nearly 700 million people — twice the population of the United States — to be without electricity.

A grid failure of such magnitude has thrown light onto India’s massive demand for electricity, together with its struggle to generate as much power as it needs.  India is aiming to expand its power-generation capacity by 44 percent over the next five years but recent problems indicate the scale of the challenge.  Even before the blackout, in June of 2012, the country’s power generation fell short by 5.8 percent when confronted with a peak-hour demand of 128 GW, according to Government data.

Electricity consumption in India has been increasing at one of the fastest rates in the world due to population growth and economic development.  India’s economy faces increasing challenges because energy supply is struggling to keep pace with demand, and there are energy shortages (as much as 15 percent daily) almost everywhere in the country.  Such chronic lack of energy and unreliable supplies threaten India’s economic growth.

So, what can India do to meet the future energy demands and help eliminate wide-ranging power outages in the future?  The Government needs to make an assessment of how best to address the power needs to meet the future growth and prevent such massive power failures.  India’s power blackout is an opportunity for developing sustainable energy solutions.

For economic as well as environmental reasons India needs to shift to non-polluting renewable sources of energy to meet future demand for electricity.  Renewable energy is the most attractive investment because it will provide long-term economic growth for India.  A favorable renewable energy policy could create millions of new jobs and an economic stimulus of at least US$1 trillion, and perhaps much more if all indirect economic (ripple) effects are included.  “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,” Rifkin says.

Renewable energy also has the advantage of allowing decentralized distribution of energy — particularly for meeting rural energy needs, and thereby empowering people at the grass roots level.  Solar electricity could also shift about 90 percent of daily trip mileage from petroleum to electricity by encouraging increased use of plug-in hybrid cars.  For drivers in India this means that the cost per mile could be reduced by a quarter in today’s prices.

India does not have an overarching energy strategy — instead it has a number of disparate policies.  Rather than promoting an overarching energy strategy, to date India has developed a cluster of energy business models and policies that have not been productive.  These policies are definitely affecting renewable energy expansion plans.  The present business model needs to be changed from a centralized to a decentralized structure that allows all stakeholders including capital investment coming from state-owned investors, pension funds, and foreign countries. 

This new business model should include the development of all forms of “distributed” (i.e. non-grid) energy such as solar, wind, hydro, biomass, biogas, and geothermal.  Distributed energy not only reduces the huge amount of energy lost in grid distribution, it also helps lighten the load on the grid.  Distributed energy is a critical part of the real energy revolution in achieving a cost effective smart grid solution.  All forms of distributed power, micro-generation and micro-grids should be incorporated into the electrical supply system to make the system more reliable.  India is in a unique position to introduce clean energy solutions on an enormous scale to provide affordable energy for everyone — especially the poor. 

Can Renewable Energy Work for India?

Solar is the prime free source of inexhaustible energy available to all.  And, India is one of the sun’s most favored nations, blessed with about 5,000 TWh of solar insolation every year.  Even if a tenth of this potential was utilized, it could mark the end of India’s power problems — by using the country’s deserts and farm land to construct solar plants.  Renewable energy has the potential to re-energize India’s economy by creating millions of new jobs, allowing the country to achieve energy independence, reduce its trade deficits and propel it forward as a “Green Nation.”  In short, renewable energy offers too many benefits for India to ignore, or delay its development.

India should take full advantage of this golden opportunity because renewable energy has particular relevance in remote and rural areas, where there are around 289 million people who don’t have access to reliable sources of energy.  Solar energy is the most cost-effective option for India to reduce energy poverty without having to extend national grid services to provide power for individual homes and buildings.

India’s present generation capacity is about 200,000 MW.  The country could potentially increase grid-connected solar power generation capacity to over 200,000 MW and wind energy to over 100,000 MW by 2030 if the right resources (and more importantly, energy policies) were developed.  India can develop massive commercial wind farms to harness the strong onshore costal area and offshore wind to boost the country’s supply of clean renewable energy.  But, to tap this vast resource, India must develop and implement smart business models and favorable policies as quickly as possible.

Another opportunity for sparking investment in solar, is the US-India Energy partnership Program called SERIIUS (the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States).  This collaboration could lay the foundation for an energy independent future — one in which the Government of India takes advantage of the vast amounts of energy available from the Rajasthan Desert sun (instead of oil from the Arab nations) to power its future energy needs.  In addition, renewable energy would not only create millions of jobs, but also sustain India’s positive economic growth, help lift its massive population out of poverty, and combat climate change.


What Needs To Be Done?

The Government of India is taking many measurable steps toward improving infrastructure and power reliability, including the development of renewable energy from solar and wind.  But 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 its energy from solar (20 GW) by 2022 is totally inadequate.  JNNSM needs to take bold steps, with the help of central and state Governments, in order to play a greater role in realizing India’s solar energy potential. 

India needs a plan with the same spirit, boldness and the imagination of the Apollo program that put astronauts on the moon.  Just like personal computers, which were very expensive to begin with but became much more affordable through mass production — solar technology is well established and available today.

One step toward achieving this goal would be to start a nationwide solar initiative to facilitate large scale deployment of 100 million solar roofs and large utility-scale generation installations within the next 20 years.  India could become a major player and international leader in the solar energy for years to come.

Ten Steps to Harness Renewable Energy Now

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.

Enact a National Renewable Energy Standard/Policy of 20 percent by 2020 — to create demand, new industries and innovation, and a new wave of green jobs.

Develop favorable Government policies to ease the project 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.

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.

Establish R&D facilities within academia, research institutions, industry, Government and civil society to guide technology development.

Accelerate the development and implementation of Solar and Wind farms; utility-scale solar and wind generation nationwide.

Initiate a move to electrify automotive transportation or develop electric vehicles and/or plug-in hybrids — such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, etc.  Develop and implement time-of-day pricing to encourage charging of electric vehicles 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 cars are typically parked for long periods.

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 electrons.  Such networks need to be resilient enough to avoid blackouts and accommodate the advanced power generation technologies of the future.

Develop large scale solar manufacturing in India (transforming India into a global solar manufacturing hub).

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 using renewable energy with solar and wind power.  If done successfully, hydrogen and electricity will eventually become society’s primary energy carriers of the twenty-first century.


Solar and wind energy especially represent a bright spot for India’s economic future.  If India made the massive switch from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power plants to renewable energy, it is possible that 70 percent of India’s electricity and 35 percent of its total energy could be powered by renewable resources by 2030.  I personally think there are no technological or economic barriers to supplying almost 100 percent of India’s energy demand through the use of clean renewable energy from solar, wind, hydro and biogas by 2050.

A renewable, energy-powered future is already here, not decades away.  India should embrace the renewable energy future now to meet all its energy needs and make nuclear and fossil power a thing of the past.  Newly built solar plants are already considerably cheaper than new nuclear plants per kilowatt hour of electricity produced, and solar energy will compete head on with conventional energy generation.  In places such as California and Italy it has already reached so-called grid parity. 

India can ramp up its efforts to develop and implement large utility-scale solar and wind energy farms to meet the country’s economic development goals, while creating energy independence and realizing potentially enormous environmental benefits.  Both issues have a direct influence on national security and the health of the Indian economy.

India needs a radical transformation of its energy system to the use of renewable energy, especially solar and wind, to end the “India’s addiction to oil,” lift its massive population out of poverty and combat climate change.  India can’t 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. The article was not prepared as part of the writer’s official duties at the United States Department of Energy. 

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