Is India caught between a coal and a solar future?

by Pari Trivedi
Wednesday, 9 December 2015 12:02 GMT

Workers clean photovoltaic panels inside a solar power plant in Gujarat, India, July 2, 2015. REUTERS/Amit Dave

Image Caption and Rights Information

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As India makes big solar plans, it's also in line to become the world's biggest coal user

Is India caught between a coal and a solar future?

At the U.N. climate talks, to get acclaim, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched an International Solar Alliance with France’s President Francois Holland and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The alliance aims to boost solar energy in developing countries by creating a common platform for sharing technology and building the capacity of people working on solar energy issues.

That’s important not just for the climate but because experts at the International Energy Agency (IEA) predict that India will have to provide for nearly 600 million new electricity consumers by 2040.

India aims to do that in part by becoming the world’s second-largest market for solar electricity panels by 2040 and by installing and 100 gigawatts of solar power capacity by 2022.

But the country is also likely to become the largest source of worldwide demand for coal, even as it forges ahead in solar as well.

India’s 100 GW solar target may be overambitious, according to Shreya Jai and Nitin Sethi from India’s Business Standard newspaper.  They report that, “on average, the country is adding 1,000 megawatts of solar power annually. At this rate, 100,000 megawatts in six years looks farfetched even if one was to assume that India can match China, which has added solar capacity at an ever increasing rate.’

And India’s progress toward its national climate plan might be overshadowed if it goes ahead with opening planned coal power plants. India is planning 455 new coal-fired power, or more than 35 percent of the 1,199 new coal-fired plants planned worldwide, according to the World Resources Institute.

On several occasions, India has pointed out that expensive storage for renewable energy is a hurdle in embracing it. Adnan Z. Amin, director general of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), points out that the “infrastructural backbone in India is poor. It is possible to solve the storage problem if the country is willing to invest in the advancement of infrastructure.”

Already, India’s Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar has had to answer a barrage of questions at the Paris negotiations on India’s coal consumption. India has been seen by many as a roadblock to negotiations moving forward and its positive role of demanding fairness and financial support for developing countries is getting lost in the process.

More than 120 countries at the talks now want global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a more ambitious goal than the 2 degrees Celsius earlier being sought. But “even electricity production from existing coal plants far exceeds the range of such scenarios,” according to Bill Hare, the CEO of Climate Analytics.

By moving toward more coal, not only will India contribute to the air pollution problem in its cities but will also impact the global goal on limit climate change. A new Indian study suggests that the country would require over $1 trillion in the next 15 years to adapt to the adverse impacts of the climate change, including droughts, floods, extreme heat and sea level rise.

India has signalled at the negotiations that it might cut coal consumption if it is provided with sufficient finance to move instead to more expensive “green technology”.  But that would depend on sufficient finance to the Green Climate Fund, something that still remains unclear in the closing days of the negotiations in Paris.

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.