Is India's transition to clean energy achievable or an empty promise?

The 1 MW India One Solar Thermal Power Plant in Abu Road, Rajasthan generate heat and power for 25,000 people. Image via Flickr by Brahma Kumaris. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The 1 MW India – One Solar Thermal Power Plant in Abu Road, Rajasthan, generates power for 25,000 people. Image via Flickr by Brahma Kumaris. CC BY-NC 2.0.

The interviews in this story were conducted over the phone, by e-mail and in person during research work in February 2023.

The common thread among COVID-19, the Russo-Ukrainian war, the fluctuating fossil fuel market, India's declaration of achieving net zero emissions by 2070, and its presidency in the G20 is the country's commitment to combat climate change by accelerating its transition to clean energy.

Ambitious commitments?

Achieving carbon neutrality involves stopping greenhouse gases from emitting into the atmosphere. This necessitates a fair and equitable shift from a fossil fuel-dependent economy to one powered by clean energy. A report titled “Getting India to Net Zero” estimates that India will require approximately USD 10.1 trillion to meet its 2070 target.

“It is certainly a challenge for the country to meet its economic goals, expand reliable and affordable energy access to its citizens while staying on course in achieving ambitious climate targets,” said Harjeet Singh, Head of Global Political Strategy at Climate Action Network International.

Singh cautions that, during the transition process, it is crucial to ensure that the poor must not be left out and are instead incorporated as an essential component of the country’s green future and sustainable development.

India has pledged to generate 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, reducing cumulative emissions by one billion tons, and decreasing the emissions intensity of its GDP by 45 percent.

Despite identifying renewable energy as one of its seven primary priorities, the annual budget for the 2023–2024 calendar year has allocated only INR 102.2 million (USD 124 million) to the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE), which amounts to just 2.2 percent of the total budget of INR 45 trillion (USD 545 billion), although it is 48 percent higher than the 2022 budget.

Nevertheless, it introduced a range of remarkable initiatives in green development, concentrating on energy storage, green hydrogen, waiving import duties on capital goods and machinery essential for the production of lithium battery cells for electric vehicles, viability gap funding (VGF) for battery energy storage projects with a capacity of 4-gigawatt hours (GWh), and the construction of an inter-state transmission system to transport and integrate 13-GW of renewable energy from the Himalayan region of Ladakh into the grid, among other initiatives.

Balancing energy security with green growth

India's installed capacity of green energy has reached 174.53 GW as of February 2023, accounting for 42.5 percent of its total power generation capacity of 410 MW. The country's portfolio of renewable energy currently includes 63.30 GW of solar power, 46.85 GW of large hydro, 41.93 GW of wind power, 10.73 GW of biopower, 4.94 GW of small hydropower, and 6.78 GW of nuclear power. These numbers place India fourth in the world in terms of installed renewable energy capacity.

At the same time, India ranked as the third-largest emitter worldwide a decade ago, following the United States and China. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the nation's energy demand will be the highest globally during the 2020 decade, rising by over 3 percent per year. The report forecasts that India will have the world's largest population by 2025, driving the enormous energy demand, along with increasing urbanization and industrialization.

To achieve this, India is expected to have 275 GW of coal-based power capacity by 2030, a 35 GW increase from 2021. According to the report, India's primary challenge is to satisfy the increasing demand for electricity with renewables and reduce the usage of coal, which now accounts for over half of the country's power supply.

This challenge of balancing energy security with green growth was a key topic at the recent Energy Transitions Working Group (ETWG) Meeting under G20 in Bengaluru. During the meeting, the Union Minister for Power and New and Renewable Energy, R.K. Singh, mentioned that energy security takes precedence over the transition to clean energy.

Singh stated that those who lack access to energy cannot be expected to prioritize the environment over their immediate needs, such as using forest wood for cooking fuel. As a result, there was a consensus at the meeting that fossil fuels would continue to be used in most countries for the next 15 to 20 years, alongside efforts to increase the use of renewable energy.

The promises and challenges of solar technology

Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is playing a crucial role in expanding renewable energy in India while also reducing the country's reliance on coal. With around 300 clear and sunny days annually, India receives approximately 5 quadrillion kilowatt-hours (kWh) of solar energy per year, which exceeds the country's total fossil fuel energy reserves if harnessed for a year, according to experts.

Solar energy can be converted into electricity directly using photovoltaic (PV) cells. This electricity can be connected to the conventional grid to offset the use of coal-fired power, or it can be used off-grid by storing it in a battery and running an inverter to power various appliances such as street lights, water pumps, solar lamps, cold storage units, and other domestic and industrial appliances.

In India, there are large on-grid solar projects called solar parks, with the biggest ones located in Bhadla, Pavagada, Kurnool and Rewa, congressman Gaurav Pandhi highlighted in a tweet:

The MNRE has approved 61 parks with a proposed capacity of 40 GW, and most of them are currently under development. Of these, 10 GW have already been commissioned. The ministry has said that one of the major challenges in developing solar parks is acquiring the necessary land.

The National Solar Mission has set a target of 40 GW for the installation of rooftop solar, but as of September 2022, only 10.4 GW have been installed in India.

“[The] country must give more attention to rooftop solar, which is popular worldwide today,” said Santipada Gon Choudhury, academic and Chairman of the Energy Expert Committee (Government of India). However, he notes that the net metering system, essential for solar rooftop viability, is only allowed in a few states, such as Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Karnataka. He suggests that a national policy is necessary to endorse rooftop solar, and the distribution companies should charge a uniform rate. Choudhury added that financing is another obstacle, with no easy bank loan options available for rooftop solar.

Additionally, floating solar plants are emerging with the deployment of photovoltaic panels on water bodies, such as the world's largest floating solar plant of 600 MW underway in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh. “Apart from finding an appropriate water body for installation, the high cost of anchoring systems to support the floating panels in the water body is a challenge,” said Chowdhury.

India's first floating solar plant of 10 KW capacity in Kolkata. Image by NBIRT. Used with permission.

India's first floating solar plant of 10 KW capacity in Kolkata. Image by N.B. Institute For Rural Technology (NBIRT). Used with permission.

Solar power storage systems need to evolve to enhance energy security and sustainability. Although the lead-acid battery has traditionally been used as a reliable means of power storage, it poses health risks due to lead contamination. The other commonly used Lithium-ion battery is more expensive as the cost of the essential component, Lithium, has increased significantly.

Alternative news site The Better India tweeted about low-cost sodium-ion batteries and discussed this increasing controversy around Lithium mining:

This YouTube video by technology and sustainability channel EyeTech explains the features of the sodium-ion batteries:

Although India currently relies on imports from Argentina and Australia for the required alloys, the discovery of Lithium reserves in the Jammu and Kashmir Valley brings hope for the future.

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