India: From Dirty Fuels to Clean and Green in 60 Seconds?

By Suzanne York

As a nation of 1.1 billion people and growing, with a robust economy, India is a crucial player on the global climate stage.  Will it move from its current reliance on fossil fuels, especially coal, or will it take steps to a clean energy future, and balance an expanding economy and populace with a sustainable environment?  Most of its population is rural and lacks reliable electricity.  The path that India takes will affect not only the lives of Indians, but the rest of the world as well.  It faces a daunting challenge, but there are encouraging signs.

Investing in the Future

On paper at least, India is making strides toward a clean energy future, with a focus on solar.  In 2008 the government launched the National Solar Mission, which calls for an increase in solar energy capacity from around 2 megawatts today to 1,000 MW by 2013 and 20,000 MW by 2022.  It is, without a doubt, an ambitious plan, facing hurdles from the electric grid to financial cost.  But it does show that India is serious, and despite its reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas, leaders and decision-makers seem to know that the future lies in renewable energy.

Local companies promoting solar are coming to the forefront.  Selco Solar, founded by social entrepreneur Harish Hande, has been getting much attention for a reason.  It wants to dispel the myth that poor people cannot afford sustainable technologies. The company is focused on bringing affordable electricity from renewable energy to the rural poor and at the same time raise income levels.  The Selco website states to have installed over 100,000 solar systems to their customers.  Selco’s commitment to impoverished people and environmental sustainability has led to the creation of the Innovation Center for the Poor, a partnership program aiming to provide financial and technological solutions to improve poor communities.

International companies wanting India to be a solar energy leader include Orb Energy, which has placed its bets on India’s commitment to solar by launched its business there.  Orb’s mission is “to make solar energy accessible, affordable, and hassle-free to the millions of people in India and other emerging markets, looking for a better alternative.”  Having electricity in rural villages, even intermittently, is obviously a huge improvement, and given the amount of sunshine in India it makes a lot of sense. Then there is Astonfield Renewable, the India subsidiary of U.S. Astonfield Management, which is investing $2 billion in India’s renewable energy sector, with much of that investment tagged for building solar-powered projects with a 500 MW capacity.

Without business and government investment in solar energy, the rural communities of India could not afford the move to solar.  The Indian government has committed $20 billion to its solar mission, and companies like Selco have overcome resistance from some banks to extend financing to the poor.  There is also support from the Asian Development Bank, which has a goal of investing $2 billion a year in clean energy projects across all of Asia. Hopefully it will be economically beneficial for companies and multilateral organizations to continue bringing solar to rural villages, for India’s sake and the world’s.

Suzanne York is a writer and researcher on international environmental and human rights issues.  She chairs the Sierra Club’s Trade & Worker’s Rights Team and is on the board of the Women’s Environmental Network, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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