New Dawn for India’s Solar Dreams

solar panels

India isn’t a country you would associate with environmental stewardship. The Ganges River, an object of veneration for Hindus, is famously polluted; the country hosts 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organisation; last year you could even see the smog hanging over New Delhi from outer space.

Indeed, air pollution in India is thought to contribute to the early deaths of more people every year – around 1.1 million – than it does in China, another notorious polluter. One study reckons nearly half the children in the nation’s capital have suffered irreversible lung damage because of poor air quality.

Like China, India has come to realise that ‘pollute now, pay later’ is a bad idea. The country recently reaffirmed its commitment, along with nearly 200 other nations, to achieving global warming targets set out in the Paris climate accord. This is the same agreement that US president Donald Trump saw fit to withdraw from.

The task ahead is daunting. Like many emerging markets, India is heavily reliant on dirty fuels such as coal, and industrial emissions are only selectively policed. Meanwhile, it would require changes to a rural way of life that has been around for thousands of years: cooking with solid fuels – wood, coal, cow dung; slash-and-burn farming. In the cities, vehicle emissions are a big problem as car ownership expands amid rising affluence.

Luckily, reformers won’t be starting from scratch. In some respects, India is a pioneer of sorts. Last year, the country unveiled the world’s largest solar farm comprising some 2,500 acres in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. India installed the fourth most photovoltaic, or solar energy, capacity behind China, the US and Japan in 2016.

India now ranks seventh in the world for solar energy capacity, from not even featuring in the league table just a few years ago, and there are big plans this year and next to bring more mega projects online that will help push the nation higher up the rankings.

Even with this concerted effort, India’s total capacity is only around 11 per cent of China’s.

Even with this concerted effort, India’s total capacity is only around 11 per cent of China’s. However, it is benefiting from China’s rush into renewable energy because an oversupply of solar panels – two of the three biggest manufacturers are Chinese – has brought prices crashing down.

A recent tender for a 500 megawatt solar farm in Rajasthan was won with a bid that translated into a generation cost of 2.44 rupees per kilowatt-hour, some 44 per cent cheaper than the Rs4.34/kWh that helped win a tender for a similar project in the same state in January last year.

Solar power is now cheaper than coal.

Solar power is now cheaper than coal. That’s why the state of Uttar Pradesh cancelled the tender process for a 3.8 gigawatt coal-fired power station that would have generated electricity at a cost of some Rs4.16/kWh. This was just one of the 13.7 gigawatts of coal- fired energy projects cancelled in May alone, because they are no longer viable. India has traditionally relied on abundant reserves of low quality coal for the bulk of its power needs.

It’s still early days. The push towards greener energy is unevenly distributed throughout the country – six states account for some 80 per cent of solar energy production, but less than 40 per cent of demand. Clearly, where it’s generated and where it’s needed are two separate things.

In some parts of the country renewable energy is being wasted. However, there are projects designed to help alleviate this problem. For example, as part of the Green Energy Corridor programme, a series of so-called Renewable Energy Management Centres will monitor and anticipate electricity needs, while re-routing supply more efficiently. The solution to wasted energy must also include better storage, whether in the form of batteries or pumped hydro systems.

The goals are certainly ambitious. India hopes to achieve around 160 gigawatts of energy capacity from renewable sources within the next five years. To put this number in context, the country’s total grid capacity today is just over 180 gigawatts. The target is also more than double China’s present-day renewable energy capacity.

There is a plan for all 12 of the country’s domestic ports to be completely powered by solar and wind energy within the next few years which, if successful, would make India the first country in the world where all government-owned ports are run off renewable energy.

A nationwide scheme, dubbed Ujala, to replace traditional light bulbs with a more energy-efficient alternative has distributed more than 243 million light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs since 2015, for an estimated energy bill saving of just under US$2 billion a year.

To help finance some of this activity, India is developing a ‘green’ bond market in which money raised will fund projects or businesses with environmental benefits. In January last year, the Securities and Exchange Board of India published a list of requirements for prospective Indian borrowers in this market, making India only the second country (after China) to issue national level regulations.

India may suffer from grinding poverty, excessive bureaucracy, poor infrastructure, social immobility and other deep-rooted issues that won’t go away anytime soon. However, it is also a country that is embracing wide-ranging economic reform, using new technology to overcome decades of under-investment and facing up to the environmental costs of rapid growth.

In ancient Hindu mythology Surya, the sun god, was thought to possess the power to heal the sick. A 21st century India is hoping that another form of solar power will have equally transformational benefits.

The article above was previously published on Aberdeen Asset Management’s ‘Thinking Aloud’ blog on 18th July 2017