India’s new energy minister, Piyush Goyal has pledged that his government will create a “renewables superpower,” and “smash” the previous government’s solar target of 20GW by 2022.
In an interview with The Guardian this week, Goyal said that “for India to add 10GW a year [of solar] and six, or seven or eight of wind every year (was) not very difficult to envisage.”
While also dismissing criticism of the “very rapid” expansion of coal-fired electricity generation that India is also set to undergo, Goyal was keen to expand on – or perhaps clarify – Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent promise that every home in the power-starved nation would be able to run at least one light bulb by 2019, powered by solar.
“Our commitment to the people of India is that we should rapidly expand this [energy] sector, reach out to every home, and make sure we can do a diesel-generator free-India in our five years,” Goyal told The Guardian.
“We will be a renewables superpower – you know Mr Modi’s mantra: ‘speed, skill and scale’,” said Goyal, adding that he expected $US100 billion to be invested in renewable energy in India over the next five years.
As we wrote back in May, when the Bharatiya Janata Party was swept into power in India’s biggest electoral win in 30 years, Modi’s proposed “saffron revolution” carries strong popular appeal, as well as massive economic opportunity.
More than 300 million people in India are estimated to be existing off the electricity grid, with national demand for power anticipated to double to 2020. According to the World Bank, blackouts reduce the country’s GDP by 1.5 per cent annually. In 2012, a blackout plunged 700 million into darkness for two days.
Modi has form on solar, having pioneered India’s first incentives for large-scale PV in 2009, when he was chief minister of Gujarat – a program that fostered the creation of over 900MW of solar capacity – more than a third of the total capacity in the entire country.
And in his government’s first budget, announced in July, the BJP announced funding for a series of “ultra mega” solar PV farms to be located in four Indian deserts, in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
But whether Modi can keep up the solar momentum is as important to the rest of the world as it is to India. As The Guardian‘s Damian Carrington noted yesterday, “bringing power to the world’s poorest people without choking the planet with rising carbon emissions,” is at the heart of tackling climate change.
At the same time that India is talking big on renewables, and tough on coal – Goyal has doubled the tax on coal and introduced incentives to close dirty and inefficient plants older than 25 years – it is clear that coal-fired electricity generation will also need to grow quickly, if power generation is to match the pace of India’s growing economy, let alone deliver power to the powerless.
“Coal also would have to expand in a very rapid way,” Goyal said. “I would wish [the proportion of renewable energy] was better but my fear is that, even if I would want to do more, I may not be able to fund. Coal I would be able to fund unlimited.”
As if on cue, during Modi’s visit to the US on Tuesday, the Obama administration has pledged $1 billion in financing to help India to invest in technology for clean energy projects – albeit, American technology.
But for the task of delivering power to India’s off-grid masses, renewables are a clear winner over coal – both on cost and on a logistical basis. Solar power can reach India’s poor, disconnected and remote populations faster and cheaper than grid-connected power ever could.
“The country needs more decentralised power, like rooftop solar, to reach the large parts of the country that the grid has not reached,” said Pranav Mehta, chair of the National Solar Energy Federation of India.
Goyal agrees, calling offgrid generation “a very viable solution, especially for small, remote villages.” And the government’s enthusiasm for solar, in particular, seems to be infectious.
“We have a government that is even more bullish than the entrepreneurs,” says Rahul Munjal, whose company, Hero Future Energies, will complete 280MW of solar by 2015, three years after it started.
“The Modi factor is very real with solar. He recognises that not only is solar very clean, it is also very fast to build,” says Pashupathy Gopalan, SunEdison’s managing director in south Asia and Africa.
Gopalan says the cost of solar versus coal is near a tipping point. “Grid parity”, ie equal cost, has already been achieved for commercial and industrial customers putting panels on their roofs, Gopalan says, and is coming soon for other users.