India's solar initiative could tip carbon scales favorably

Solar cells in India

This article originally appeared at JustMeans.

Among the challenges faced at the Lima U.N. Convention on Climate Change talks were the fact that certain developing countries were reluctant to make commitments that they felt would adversely affect their economic growth. One of these was India. Indeed, India was heavily pushing for, and successfully achieved, some revisions to the terms of the agreement that included the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities.”

This, said Indian Environmental Minister Prakash Javadekar, "gives enough space for the developing world to grow and take appropriate nationally determined steps.”

This bottoms-up approach is a departure from the original top-down target-setting mechanism. It leaves unanswered the question of the total carbon reduction, in essence trusting that what the developing countries say is the best they can do will be good enough.

There is some reassurance on that note, with rather bullish announcements regarding India’s solar initiative. The program was introduced in 2010 with a target of 20 gigawatts by 2022. The announcement was met with skepticism; indeed, in the first years, performance has lagged expectations with only a little over 3 GW installed as of March, about 85 percent of which is grid-connected.

However, things seem ready to take off after the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister and the decision not to impose tariffs on the import of American and Chinese solar panels.

Mercom Capital is estimating additional installations of 1.8 GW for 2015. Said Mercom CEO Raj Prabhu, “The Indian solar industry is visibly upbeat since the elections and especially after getting past the anti-dumping case.” Also contributing to the optimism are “recent cancellations of coal mining licenses by the Supreme Court amid rising coal imports and increasing costs, and continuing power shortages.”

To date, most progress has been state-driven. Gujarat is in the lead with the highest installed capacity, 916.4MW, followed by Rajasthan at 734.1MW. Those two states with their incentive programs account for roughly half the national total.

Now the central government is stepping in, with the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy announcing its own interim goal of 15 GW by 2019. This will be achieved with a series of huge utility-scale 500 megawatt to 1 GW solar parks. It also announced 12 locations in seven states where additional “ultra-mega solar projects” could be built. These alone could account for 20 GW.

This is all in preparation for a monumental expansion of the target to a whopping 100 GW, five times the original goal. To put that in perspective, the United States has 17.5 GW of capacity installed as of the end of the third quarter 2014. Germany leads the world with 39.7 MW, although installations there are beginning to taper off. To say that this new target would catapult India to the forefront of renewable use would not be an understatement.

 “On the solar front, we believe there is enormous potential to take it to 100,000 MW in the next five to seven years. Renewable energy may seem expensive, but in the long run, it scores over conventional energy. The subsidy regime needs to be more robust, targeted and sustainable," Piyush Goyal, India’s energy minister, told reporters. "The government of India stands committed to lead the revolution in the renewable energy sector. Transparency, honesty, world-class technology will be the key to dealing with key challenges.”

This is certainly welcome news from a country that has been on a trajectory to single-handedly tip the scales on climate change through its massive burning of coal. Indeed, it was not long ago that the same energy minister said, “India’s development imperatives cannot be sacrificed at the altar of potential climate changes many years in the future.”

This prompted one of the world’s top climate scientists, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to say, “If India goes deeper and deeper into coal, we’re all doomed.” He added, “No place will suffer more than India.”

India will continue to develop its coal reserves in its attempt to bring its massive population out of poverty, following an “all of the above approach” as the United States has done. 

Each Indian citizen uses only roughly 7 percent of the energy of a typical American. Yet India has nearly four times the U.S population, with a much higher poverty rate. That’s why Indian officials cheered the outcome from Lima, allowing them to follow differentiated responsibilities.

It seems as if the new prime minister is taking those responsibilities seriously. We all need to hope so. Because when it comes to carbon, the boat is already pretty full and many combinations of large and small players potentially could tip it. But India, with its very large developing population and largest reserves of dirty coal, potentially could tip it all by itself.

What’s a little unusual about India’s massive solar buildup is its heavy reliance on large utility-scale deployments. While that might make sense in service of any of India’s large cities, there is little mention of rooftop solar to serve the vast rural population, many of whom are either off the grid or served by unreliable grids. Given the experience we’ve seen in the United States, it seems clear that utility interests prominently were featured in the development of this plan.