In this article, Biba Jasmine says India’s commitment to renewable energy reflects its synergistic efforts to accelerate solar growth and provide energy access to all. It is time for the global community to come together, share ideas, and think of environment-friendly solutions to address the challenges in the energy sector, especially to harness the enormous potential of renewable energy on a large scale.
While talking about issues such as climate change mitigation, energy security, and providing clean electricity to hundreds of millions of people who currently do not have access to it, the Indian government and policymakers often think of the tremendous opportunities to develop and successfully meet the aspirations of its citizens without going down the carbon-intensive path. The energy landscape around the world, and in India in particular, has changed dramatically over the last decade, especially in light of efforts to strengthen policies to combat the threat of climate change. The growing number of net-zero emissions pledges by countries and companies reflects the increasing sense of urgency and momentum behind the clean energy transition. Statistics have shown highly impressive growth in India’s renewable energy sector, where India will lead the world in areas such as solar power and batteries in the coming decades. Launched jointly by India and France in 2015 on the sidelines of the 21st Conference of the Parties (CoP21) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), International Solar Alliance is a testament to India’s commitment to providing affordable, clean, and reliable energy to all its citizens, and its work towards building a brighter future for a country facing socioeconomic challenges such as high population density, relatively high water stress and land use constraints, and structural poverty, with energy affordability being a major concern.
India’s Solar Story
Recognizing India’s contribution to a sustainable environment, the country is committed to increasing its contribution to achieving the Paris Agreement’s agreed-upon strengthening of the global response to the threat of climate change. As per the renewable energy targets announced by the Prime Minister in 2015, India has committed to create an installed capacity of 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022, including 100 GW from solar, 60 GW from wind, 10 GW from biomass, and the remaining 5 GW from small hydro. In line with the 2022 target, India reached the 100 GW milestone in 2021. However, the recently updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) approved by the government calls for about 50 per cent of cumulative power generation capacity to come from non-fossil energy resources by 2030, falling short of the absolute target of 500 GW pledged at the 2021 CoP26 in Glasgow.
The goal of significantly increasing the country’s capacity was pursued with a view to greater energy security, better access to energy, and more employment opportunities. If this ambitious goal is achieved, India will become one of the largest producers of green energy in the world, surpassing even some developed nations. As of June 2022, a total of 160.92 GW of renewable energy capacity has been installed in India. Electricity generation from various renewable energy sources (including large hydropower) in the country by January 2022 (in MW), including large hydropower, which has small hydropower (9256.86), wind power (61,525.49), bioelectricity (13,286.66), solar power (57,869.53), large hydropower (133,610.06) with a total capacity of 275,548.60.
Clearly, the world’s seventh largest nation, with a geographic area of 328.7 million hectares, accounting for 2.4 per cent of the world’s land area, and the world’s second largest population of more than 1.2 billion people(2011), is responsible for driving solar energy generation to power its growing population. India, which accounts for about 4.5 per cent of global emissions, has the fastest growth rate in renewable energy capacity additions of any major economy, with renewable energy capacity (including large hydro) growing 1.97 times and solar 18 times.
Looking at energy consumption in India and increasing urbanization, the policies and practices adopted by the government suggest that environmental regulation is one of the most important pillars of the Indian governance system. In line with the announcement of the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) in June 2008, which designated the deployment of solar energy technologies in the country as a national project, the Indian government approved the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Project, which envisions the development and deployment of solar energy technologies across the country to achieve grid parity by 2022.
Under the NAPCC, several ministries and organizations have worked efficiently and effectively to implement and fulfill the established goals. Most states and union territories have established a state climate change action plan to help achieve national strategies and implement national priorities. The NAPCC includes eight national missions, including the National Solar Mission (NSM), the National Mission for Improved Energy Efficiency, and the National Mission for Sustainable Habitat, which aim to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the country.
Under the NSM, the government has taken all appropriate steps to recognize the cost savings from solar development. Recent reports from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) explain the declaration of Renewable Purchase Obligation by 2021–22, tax and financial benefits such as capital subsidies, Viability Gap Funding holes, accelerated depreciation benefits, etc., and allowing 100 per cent Foreign Direct Investment on the automatic route in the renewable energy sector.
Speaking of the rapid progress in the solar energy sector in recent years, it is noteworthy that India’s cumulative installed solar energy capacity has increased from 13,114 MW in June 2017 to 57,705 MW in June 2022. A promising step in this sector is also the budgetary allocation of 33,650 million for the solar power sector, including on-grid and off-grid projects. This is an increase of 29 per cent over the previous year’s budget of 26,060 million as per the Union Budget 2022–23.
As the cost of renewable energy has declined and new solar capacity can be built at a cost that can compete with the fuel costs of existing conventional plants, we are seeing further penetration of solar energy in certain regions and sectors at varying scales and rates. Some energy-intensive sectors are described below.
In February 2019, the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India approved launch of ‘Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan’ with an objective of providing financial and water security to farmers. The proposed system consists of decentralized, ground-mounted, grid-connected renewable power plants, stand-alone solar-powered agricultural pumps, and solarization of grid-connected solar-powered agricultural pumps.
Under the decentralized grid-connected systems, renewable energy systems are set up by individual farmers/cooperatives/panchayats/farmers’ organizations on their barren or cultivable land and the power generated is purchased by the distribution companies. Under the scheme, stand-alone solar-powered agricultural pumps with capacity up to 7.5 HP are allowed. And for the solarization of 1 million grid-connected solar-powered agricultural pumps, farmers will be able to use the energy generated to meet irrigation needs, and the excess available energy will be sold to distribution company (DISCOMs). The programme will have a significant impact on the environment by reducing CO2 emissions. The three aspects of the programme combined are expected to result in an estimated savings of about 27 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. According to the MNRE, the government has approved more than 0.359 million stand-alone solar water pumps for farmers, including small and micro farmers, in various states/UTs across the country by March 2022 under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan Scheme (PM-KUSUM).
Telecom and Communication Sector
Systems such as solar PV-based hybrid systems offer a less polluting alternative to diesel fuel, serve as a hedge against rising diesel fuel prices, and help minimize the logistical challenges of transporting and storing diesel fuel at remote tower sites. In addition, the government plans to make it mandatory for cell towers to be powered by solar energy, in the hope of reducing pollution and curbing one of the main reasons for diesel consumption in the country.
The number of telecom towers is expected to increase by another 0.1 million in the next year, and it is important to note that the newer telecom towers are being installed based on new technology that uses less electricity and also eliminates the need for air conditioning, which is so important to telecom towers. Industry experts believe that for the older 0.3 million towers, grid power will be more economical than a solar-powered tower.
Urbanization and economic development are rapidly increasing energy demand in our nation’s urban areas, which in turn is increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Many cities around the world are setting goals and implementing policies to promote renewable energy and reduce GHG emissions. In this context, several Indian cities and towns are experiencing a rapid increase in peak electricity demand. Local governments and electric utilities are struggling to cope with this rapid increase in demand, leaving most cities with electricity shortages. In this context, the Solar Cities Development programme aims to help local governments create a roadmap to guide their cities towards becoming ‘renewable energy cities’ or ‘solar cities.’
The MNRE has asked each state/union territory to select at least one city to be developed as a solar city. A concept paper for development of solar cities has been sent to the states/unions with a request to prepare an action plan for developing the selected cities as solar cities and implement the plan in a timely manner. Funds available under various programmes can be used for the development of solar cities.
The Prime Minister also inaugurated the National Rooftop Solar Portal, which will allow following online the process of rooftop solar installation, starting from the registration of applications to the release of subsidies to the bank account of private consumers (‘beneficiaries’) after the installation and inspection of the system. The estimated capacity under the national rooftop solar programme is 4000 MW. This is an important step in unlocking the nationwide rooftop solar potential and contributes to India’s goal of generating 450 GW of energy through non-fossil fuels.
In addition to urbanization and urban growth, mobility plays an important role. India has built one of the largest and most complex transportation networks in the world. The transport sector remains a key driver of development and must also grow sustainably for the country to achieve its development goals.
Indian Railways (IR), the second largest rail network in the world and the single largest consumer of electricity in India, consumes 2.6 billion litres of diesel annually, or 3.2 per cent of India’s total transport sector diesel consumption, according to the Climate Policy Initiative’s 2017 report titled ‘Decarbonization of Indian Railways.’ In addition, energy demand from IR is expected to triple to 49 TWh by 2030 due to increasing passenger volumes.
This presents a unique opportunity to embark on a low-carbon pathway for the transport sector that is also consistent with India’s NDC goals. The country has already initiated a process to embark on such a path through a variety of initiatives across different transport modes. India has focused its low-carbon initiatives on the development of railroads, waterways, rapid mass transit systems, and other forms of public transport. Initiatives such as Dedicated Freight Corridors and Sagarmala projects aim to increase the share and volume of freight transported by the more energy-efficient modes of rail and water.
The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) India announced in 2016 its partnership with IR to achieve the target of 5 GW by 2025. It did so by using unused land and rooftops of IR to house and support solar at no cost to the project, increasing private sector involvement, increasing investment, and developing innovative business models for low-risk projects.
In 2017, IR unveiled the first set of train cars with solar panels on the roof that powered the lighting, fans and information display systems inside. The carriages were used for suburban services in New Delhi, and the railroads estimated that each train with six solar-powered carriages could save about 21,000 litres of diesel each year, worth about 1.2 million.
The Guwahati railroad station is a fully solar-powered station that handles about 20,000 passengers a day. The station building has grid-connected rooftop solar panels with a total capacity of 700 kW (0.7 MW), which meet the electricity needs of the station, the bus depot, and the Northeast Frontier Railway colony. The solar installation will allow the rail network to save about INR 6.77 million (about USD 99,900) in electricity costs annually. Several other railroad stations in small towns across the country, such as Mangaluru, Thiruvananthapuram and Jaipur, are also partially powered by solar electricity.
To accelerate the railroad’s mission to achieve the goal of becoming a “net zero carbon emission railroad,” IR has developed a mega plan to install 20 GW of solar capacity by using its vacant land by 2030. IR also has a mega plan to install solar plants with a capacity of 20 GW by utilizing its vacant land by 2030. Some of the solar stations are Varanasi, New Delhi, Old Delhi, Jaipur, Secunderabad, Kolkata, Guwahati, Hyderabad, Howrah, etc.
India’s Changing Solar Landscape
Specifically, under the off-grid and distributed solar PV programme, the MNRE provides centralized financial assistance for the installation of solar streetlights, solar pumps, solar power packs, and other solar applications to meet the country’s electricity and lighting needs.
The promotion of domestic production of solar cells and panels in India is supported by the Government of India through the Modified Special Incentive Package Scheme (M-SIPS) of the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology. The scheme basically provides 20–25 per cent subsidy on capital expenditure for construction of manufacturing plant and reimbursement of counter vailing duty/excise tax on capital goods for plants located outside the Special Economic Zone. There is a need for increased capacity building for professionals involved in demystifying the business, financial, technological, and regulatory landscape of solar energy. MNRE’s Human Resources Development Programme provides funding to various academic and professional organizations for skills development and training at various levels. Training programmes allow for the exchange of information on technological development and implementation of renewable energy projects. Interested parties include policymakers, businesses, government officials, zilla parishad, district, and taluk level officials, and unemployed youth, especially women’s self-help groups. The Ministry also actively supports short-term training programmes for professionals and technologists to improve their skills in product development, system integration, deployment, monitoring, operation, repair, and maintenance of solar power projects. Training programmes such as Suryamitra aim to develop trained personnel for the installation of solar power projects by solar companies, NGOs, etc.
The government is building solar power plants at airports nationwide to meet their electricity needs. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) is setting up solar power plants at various airports to meet its own electricity needs based on the capacity allowed under the net metering policies of the respective states and depending on technical feasibility. The AAI has installed solar power plants on 35 airports/buildings with a cumulative capacity of 30.43 MWp. However, the difficulties in installing solar power plants are primarily due to the multiple reviews by the regulatory authorities for land use in the airport operating area, the delay in the approval of DISCOMs for grid connections, and the non-extension of the net metering system for ground-mounted solar power plants.
But Big and Small Bottlenecks Still Remain
Although India is one of the fastest growing solar energy countries in the world, where access to and use of energy has expanded across the length and breadth, there are still challenges that India must overcome. To achieve consistent development in the solar sector, it is important to ensure that the renewable energy sector infrastructure is strong and modern. Issues related to land acquisition in renewable energy development, integrating a greater share of renewables into the power grid, providing financing for larger solar deployment targets, long-term international financing, developing an appropriate risk mitigation mechanism, fostering entrepreneurial innovation and a manufacturing ecosystem, improving renewable energy penetration in hard to decarbonize sectors are some of the major challenges that need to be urgently addressed if the country’s energy needs and the government’s sustainable growth agenda are to be met.
On the contrary, small and large initiatives such as installation of solar panels on more and more houses, accelerating the production of ‘Made in India’ solar photovoltaic panels and improving production-linked incentives for the manufacture of high-efficiency photovoltaic panels, launching a national rooftop solar portal that allows online tracking of the process of installing rooftop solar panels, mobilizing resources for green infrastructure through sovereign Green Bonds to encouraging the establishment of at least one solar city in each state are just a few examples of India’s dynamic renewable energy plan aimed at achieving energy security, energy access, and low-carbon development.
Solar Energy is Ready to Fill the Energy Gap in India—clearly
India remains a bright spot in the global economy. With a strong domestic economy and a supportive policy environment, the government is committed to achieving holistic, inclusive, and sustainable economic development. As India looks to become USD 5 trillion economy in the near future, it must secure affordable and sustainable energy to sustain high growth and provide energy access to 1.2 billion people. Therefore, it is important that we utilize all sources of energy. To this end, the Indian government is also taking several steps to overhaul the hydrocarbon sector to ensure the country’s energy security while pursuing a green path of progress.
India is the world’s third largest energy consumer and, according to the International Energy Agency, needs to formulate a comprehensive energy policy and launch extensive programmes to balance socioeconomic growth and environmental protection. Developers and manufacturers need to clearly express their needs and clearly respond to the impact of the policy. India also needs a comprehensive strategy on issues such as effective procurement of critical minerals and investment in research and development. Another area to explore is the development of innovative financing measures, such as clean energy funds, incentive-linked loan repayments, and green bonds, which could provide a solution to meeting the financial needs of this sector. India’s commitment to renewable energy reflects its synergistic efforts to accelerate solar growth and provide energy access to all. It is time for the global community to come together, share ideas, and think of environmentally friendly solutions to address the challenges in the energy sector, especially to harness the enormous potential of renewable energy on a large scale. It is time to connect the dots and revisit the articulated long-term visions, existing implementation plans, roadmaps, and institutional framework for the cross-sector deployment of solar energy to be able to witness great leaps in clean energy innovation in response to climate change and sustainable future.
Biba Jasmine is a Nehru-Fulbright scholar with a major in sustainable development and conservation biology at the University of Maryland, College Park, USA. She is also a Policy Leader Fellowship recipient at the School of Transnational Governace, European University Institute, Florence, Italy. The fellowship was co-funded by the European Union’s Erasmus programme. The views expressed are personal.
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