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Rapid change

by Madhuchandrika Chattopadhyay

In depth

Pioneers: building a wind park in Tamil Nadu in 2002.

Pioneers: building a wind park in Tamil Nadu in 2002.

The narrative of a rapid transformation to a renewable-energy powered economy has been gaining traction in India. The transformation is driven by market forces and reflects changing policy priorities.

The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was elected in 2014, endorses the transformation to innovative and eco-friendly energy supply in prin­ciple. Its New Energy Outlook 2017 report estimates that renewables will account for 49 % of India’s power generation by 2040. Ecological concerns and energy security are relevant considerations, especially as India is an oil importing country.

Indeed, the prices for solar and wind power are plummeting. These technologies are becoming similarly affordable as coal-fired power plants. According to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), India’s national grid had an installed capacity of more than 330 gigawatt on 31 October 2017. However, total electricity consumption was only about one third of the installed capacity in 2016/17.

The Indian electricity sector is thus being transformed. Potential electricity supply is becoming greater than the actual demand. One must bear in mind that people who are yet to be connected and those with poor supply quality have not been taken into account. Nonetheless, the situation is unprecedented. In the past, the power sector was always unable to fully satisfy existing demand. Moreover, the energy mix and demand patterns are changing. In view of climate change and concerns about energy security, the attractiveness of wind and solar power is being fully acknowledged.

Fossil fuels account for about 95 % of India’s primary energy supply. The lion’s share is coal with 55 %. India still has considerable domestic coal deposits to exploit, whereas oil and gas must be imported. In the power sector, coal accounts for 59 % of installed capacity and renewables (not counting hydropower) account for 18 %, of which more than half is wind-based. A comparative advantage of solar and wind power is that these renewable sources are essentially infinite.

Rural deficit

India has a huge power deficit in rural areas. More than half of the nation has only little or no access to electricity. The grid is fractured and unreliable. In remote villages, power supply via the grid remains farfetched dream. However, small-scale supply systems that are based on renewables are viable.

India’s geography is relevant. It is one of the world’s sunniest countries. India has more than 300 days of bright sunlight per year. It could generate close to 5,000 trillion kWh of solar power every year, which is more than the total energy produced by conventional means currently. If the abundant sunshine is captured and used efficiently, it can meet the nation’s power demand as early as 2030.

India’s private sector is aware of the great potential. The solar energy market is witnessing a boom – both online and on brick and mortar markets. Some online platforms are dedicated exclusively to solar-power devices. They make these products easily accessible to masses of people. Major corporations have entered the market. Banks have announced massive funding for solar investments. Recent reports are very promising, forecasting a 250 % growth of the solar sector in 12 months.

India is a rapidly progressing nation. As industries grow and infrastructure improves, the demand for power will increase. Experts reckon that demand will double within a decade. As conventional energy sources are being depleted fast, their costs rise. Innovative and cheap energy is needed. Solar and wind infrastructure is thus likely to dot India’s landscape in the future.

The price of solar panels has come down significantly in recent years. Special batteries that can hold the charge longer are being brought to the markets. It is estimated that the costs of solar installations will fast be reduced even more.

India’s wind-power sector has advanced significantly in the past decade. However, only about 22 % of the potential has been tapped so far. Several factors make wind most suitable for power generation. The technology is mature and cost-effective. Moreover, it is a non-polluting source of energy. Wind farms only use a small percentage of the land over which they are spread. The rest can be used for other purposes, in particular agriculture.

Wind farms, moreover, require very little water compared with thermal, nuclear and solar-power generation. Small wind-power plants can be installed in areas without grid access, improving livelihoods in remote areas. Wind power thus has the potential to become a major contributor to low-carbon and inclusive growth.

In the fiscal year 2016/17, India added 5,400 megawatts (MW) of wind-power capacity. The target was a mere 4,000 MW. The southern state of Tamil Nadu has the largest installed wind-power capacity in India. A wind farm in its Muppandal District is the largest in India with a capacity of 1,500 MW. It accounts for almost 20 % of Tamil Nadu’s wind capacity. Other leading states are Andhra Pradesh with almost 2,200 MW and Gujarat with almost 1,300 MW.

Biomass is another important renewable source of energy. Currently the potentional for biomass power-generation is 17,500 MW, of which India has installed more than 5,900 MW. Some 1,000 MW are off-grid. The national government is drafting a new biomass policy that should boost this specific technology.

Environmental concerns

Environmental concerns are driving change as well. Smog is a great problem with serious impacts on public health (see Roli Mahajan in D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/04, p. 12). It is closely linked to coal-based power generation, though other factors – such as transport emissions – are relevant too.

Greenhouse gases are a matter of growing concern moreover. For many years, Indian governments insisted that global warming is primarily caused by rich nations and that developing countries have a right to catch up. The stance has changed, and the main reasons include:

  • India’s exposure to climate risks such as flooding, draughts and storms,
  • the increased competitiveness of renewable-energy technologies and
  • the insight that per-capita consumption is set to rise.

India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change assessed the country’s emission profile in 2010. According to its report, India emitted greenhouse gases equivalent to 2.1 billion tonnes of CO2. The figure means that India is number three among the world’s polluting nations. However, per capita, the nation emitted only about 1.7 tonnes (excluding emissions from land use, change of land use and forestry). The per-capita figure is actually quite moderate. As a rule of thumb, climate change would be contained if all human beings limited their emissions to two tonnes. India is within that range. It is clear, however, that emissions are set to increase as more people escape poverty. Accordingly, the transformation to renewables makes sense.

International experts agree that India should rely on renewable-energy sources in the long run. In their eyes, the government could do more to make that happen. They warn that disputes over land rights can slow down investments in wind farms and suggest that utilities should establish transparent tenders procedures for purchasing energy. Some demand that the national Ministry for New and Renewable Energy draft a hybrid policy to promote wind and solar power.

Madhuchandrika Chattopadhyay is in charge of training and projects at the Chandradeep Solar Research Institute, a private-sector enterprise, in Kolkata.

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