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Can India Go 100 Percent Renewable by 2050?


Editor's note: This is the first post in a two-part series. You can read the second post here.

By Darshan Goswami, M.S., P.E.

In the coming years, India will face seemingly insurmountable challenges to its economy, environment and energy security. To overcome these challenges, India needs to shift to non-polluting sources of energy.

As Jeremy Rifkin, an economist and activist, said in New Delhi in January 2012: "India is the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy sources and, if properly utilized, India can realize its place in the world as a great power,” and adding “but political will is required for the eventual shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy.” The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has also recommended that the world needs a major shift in investments from fossil fuels to renewable energy in order to curb greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

India has tremendous energy needs, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to meet those needs through traditional means of power generation. More than 40 percent of rural Indian households don’t have electricity. While India is developing domestic energy sources to satisfy the growing demand, it is also anxious about having to import increasing amounts of fossil fuels that exacerbate the trade deficit and can be harmful to the environment. Coal imports hit a record high during the last fiscal year and will likely rise further over the next five years since India aims to expand its power-generation capacity by 44 percent.

The country's inability to generate clean, affordable power is also a major constraint to achieving energy security. The present centralized model of power generation, transmission and distribution is growing more and more costly to maintain and, at the same time, restricts the flexibility required to meet growing energy demands. India needs to encourage a decentralized business model in order to more readily take advantage of abundantly available renewable energy sources like solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, biogas, geothermal and hydrogen energy, and fuel cells. India is blessed with an abundance of these resources, yet it spends millions of rupees to import oil, coal and natural gas -- resulting in enormous amounts of renewable energy being unused/wasted. To that end, renewable resources are the most attractive investment, because they will also provide long-term economic growth for India.

To secure its energy future, India urgently needs to design/implement innovative policies and mechanisms that promote increased use of abundant, sustainable, renewable resources. All of India’s future energy demand could be met by utility-scale and rooftop photovoltaics (PV), concentrating solar power (CSP), onshore and offshore wind, geothermal, and conventional hydropower. This would require building many more solar power systems and wind farms, hybrid solar-natural gas plants, solar thermal storage and advanced battery-based grid energy storage systems. Investment in these technologies would create millions of new jobs and an economic stimulus of at least US$1 trillion, and perhaps much more if all indirect (ripple) effects are included. Other major changes involve use of electric vehicles and the development of enhanced smart grids. Making the transition to 100 percent renewable energy is both possible and affordable, but requires political support.

What needs to be done?

Instead of an overarching energy strategy, India has a number of disparate policies. To date, India has developed a cluster of energy business models and policies that have obstructed adoption of renewable energy expansion plans. This present approach threatens India’s economic competitiveness, national security and the environment. India must fundamentally transform the manner in which it produces, distributes and consumes energy to reduce its dependence on foreign oil, create jobs, enhance global competitiveness and decrease carbon emissions.

The government of India has taken several measurable steps toward improving infrastructure and power reliability (such as development of renewable energy from solar and wind), but clearly more needs to be done -- and fast. One step in the right direction was the establishment of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission (JNNSM) in late 2009. However, the present JNNSM target of producing 10 percent of the country’s energy from solar − 20 gigawatts by 2022 − is totally inadequate. JNNSM needs to take bolder steps, with the help of central and state governments, in order to play a greater role in realizing India's solar energy potential. One such step would be establishment of a nationwide solar initiative to facilitate deployment of 100 million solar roofs and utility-scale generation installations within the next 20 years. In achieving such a goal, India could become a major player and international leader in solar energy for years to come.

In addition, developing off-grid powered micro-grids have the potential to change the way communities generate and use energy, and can reduce costs, increase reliability and improve environmental performance. Micro-grids can be used to take substantial electrical load off the existing power grid and so reduce the need for building new or expanding existing transmission and distribution systems.

Renewable energy potential in India

Renewable energy is the only technology that offers India the theoretical potential to service all its long term power requirements. The Indian subcontinent is blessed with abundant renewable energy resources. For instance, taking advantage of 300 to 330 sunny days a year, India could easily generate 5000 trillion kWh of solar energy, which is higher than India’s total yearly energy consumption. Even if a tenth of this potential was utilized, it could mark the end of India’s power problems. Using the country’s deserts and farm land, India could easily install around 1,000 GW of solar generation – equivalent to around four times the current peak power demand (India’s present generation capacity is about 210 GW).

Wind energy can also help India convert to 100 percent renewable energy. According to the environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), while India has no estimates of its offshore wind potential, up to 170 GW could be installed by 2050 along the of coastline. Hydropower could generate an estimated 148 GW, Geothermal around 10.7 GW and Tidal power about 15 GW. If these abundantly available resources were properly developed and utilized, all of India’s new energy production could be derived from renewable energy sources by 2030. In addition, all existing generation could be converted to renewable energy by 2050 while maintaining a reliable power supply in the interim. Barriers to implementing the renewable energy plan are seen to be primarily social and political, not technological or economic.

In the next post in this series, Goswami will explore 10 strategies India can enact to go 100 percent renewable by 2050. Click here to read the post in full.  

Image courtesy of Solar Energy Bay

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the writer and are not intended to represent the views or policies of the United States Department of Energy or the United States. The article was not prepared as part of the writer's official duties at the United States Department of Energy.

Darshan Goswami has over 40 years of experience in the energy field. He is currently working as a Project Manager for Renewable Energy and Smart Grid projects at the United States Department of Energy (DOE) in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. Previously, he was a Chief of Energy Forecasting and Renewable Energy at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington, DC and spent three decades at Duquesne Light Company, an electric utility company in Pittsburgh, PA, USA. Darshan is a registered Professional Electrical Engineer with a passion and commitment to promote, develop and deploy Renewable Energy Resources and the Hydrogen Economy.

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