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With tides turning in favour of renewables all over the world, where does India stand?

Nikitha Sattiraju
11th Oct 2016
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“The future is not green; the future is transparent!” That is the belief of Rawlemon Ltd., a solar technology company which recently introduced a prototype of its spherical sun power generator. The beta.ray is a fully rotational transparent sphere on an inclined stand which, according to the company, is capable of yielding twice the solar energy as a panel in a smaller surface area. The sphere is designed to capture energy from diffused light and even from the moon at night. Rawlemon isn’t the only company researching and experimenting in better technologies for harnessing renewable energy. Governments and private organisations the world over are investing in renewables, so much so that funding increased from just nine billion dollars in 2004 to 50 billion dollars in 2015. This surge in investments and clean energy companies is a testimony to the rising importance of renewable sources in the world’s energy mix.

Energy outlooks by the International Energy Agency (IEA), and companies like BP and Shell, all point toward a rapid growth in renewable energy in the coming decades notwithstanding the availability of cheap oil. The main reason for this is a conscious effort by countries to deploy solar and wind programmes, with solar being more prominent of the two. The results of such existing long-term undertakings are already evident. To the end of 2015, the cost of solar power in the United States (US) fell by a colossal 70 percent since 2009, and this despite the technological upgradation of panels. Based on the findings of Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), the cost of solar modules reduced by 26 percent every time the scale of the solar industry doubled in the world, over the past four decades.

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The shift toward renewable energy is strengthening, with countries taking definitive steps away from fossil fuels. In 2015, Costa Rica generated 99 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as hydro, solar, wind and biomass. Similarly, wind power supplied 97 percent of household electricity in Scotland in the same year. The US, however, only managed to generate 13.4 percent of its electricity from renewables. But three cities in the country, Burlington, Greensburg and Aspen, run 100 percent on renewable energy. Most notable of all these countries is Chile, which recently set a new record for the cheapest solar power anywhere by awarding a contract to Solarpack Corp. Tecnologica to sell at 29.10 US dollars per megawatt hour (MWh), a price which is half that of coal.

So as the tide turns in favour of renewables all over the world, where does India stand with clean energy initiatives? India presently has a 13 percent renewable energy capacity in total electricity generation and produced close to 7 percent of the country’s electricity from it. As of 2015, wind power has the highest share of 8.6 percent in the total renewable capacity, followed by small hydropower at 1.5 percent and solar at 1.3. Large hydroelectricity projects, which were once considered the “temples of modern India”, are not included under renewable sources in the country and their share in our energy mix has steadily fallen over the years. In fact, renewable capacity overtook that of hydroelectricity in 2016 for the first time in our history.

Investors are more inclined towards solar and wind power these days and our government is determined to push for clean energy. The NDA government has set a bold target of increasing renewable energy capacity to 175 gigawatts (GW), of which 100 GW will be solar power, by 2022. However, to reach the goal of 100 GW, capital investment to the tune of 90 billion dollars is required. And in the Center’s budget for the financial year 2015-16, only 0.5 percent of that amount was allotted. Though the prices of solar modules are falling, large scale generation and storage will require heavy funding, which can only be achieved with the help of greater private investment. Nevertheless, setting out on the path of clean energy is tremendously beneficial, especially for a country that is dependent on coal to generate nearly 65 percent of its electricity.

Towards cleaner air…

India ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change on 2 October this year, thereby making a binding commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackle global warming. The country’s coal based power plants are the most inefficient in the world, according to a study by the Center for Science and Environment (CSE). They generate high amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and poisonous mercury and even use 80 cubic meters of water per MWh as compared to the most efficient plants in the world, which use only 10 cubic meters. Replacing thermal power plants with renewable source technologies as our main energy producer will help to effectively control rising pollution. Wind power is the cleanest of renewable sources, emitting zero pollutants and taking up very little land space.

The Government can simultaneously encourage a shift towards electric vehicles by incentivising private automobile enterprises. Our dependence on fuel, air pollution and traffic congestion will drastically reduce with such transportation which cab use renewably generated electricity to recharge. The world has crossed 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the air in September 2016 permanently, meaning even if we reduced our emissions, its level will not drop. The best we can do now is to not increase the concentration. Hence, the role of clean energy has become more crucial to our future today than ever before.

…And cheaper electricity

As mentioned earlier about Chile, solar power prices are hitting record lows, making it more affordable. Even in India, the price of solar power dropped to 4.34 rupees per unit early this year. Though costs of set up might still be on the expensive side, falling prices will eventually make it accessible to more people. Additionally, the Government can provide subsidies to the poorer sections to invest in solar modules. India has a total potential of 124 GW for rooftop solar photovoltaics. Buildings and houses can generate power for their use as well as provide surplus electricity to the local supplier, further reducing power bills.


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Rural electrification

More than 40 percent of households in India lack electricity, and many of those that do have access in villages only get an erratic supply. A majority of rural households still use fuelwood and biomass for cooking, which generate a high amount of particulate matter and cause respiratory diseases as well as premature deaths. The present government’s plan for 100 percent rural electrification will be difficult to achieve without alternate energy options. India’s energy demand will grow considerably in the coming years and unless there are affordable choices, rural areas will be left behind once again. Setting up solar panels, windmills and solar irrigation pumps will allow residents and farmers to not depend upon traditional electricity, and increase both farm and household efficiency through local production.

However, the problem lies in the fact that Indian power grids are very weak and cannot handle a lot of renewable power at once. The usual solution to this problem in the country is load-shedding (power supply is cut off). So forget rural areas, even if we are to supply renewable energy to cities and towns through national grids, they have to be stabilised and their capacity greatly increased. This again will take a great deal of investment, but without it, setting up renewable technology will prove unprofitable as power will go unsupplied.

Saving on costs of energy imports

India presently spends 150 billion dollars on energy imports, an amount that is likely to double by 2030. Seeing as solar and wind power will soon cost the same as coal based energy production, giving priority to domestic generation of clean energy makes more sense.

There are, however, challenges to renewable energy as well, especially in India. It is not just the weakness of grid, as discussed above, but the peak timing of electricity use, which is in the evening. Solar power cannot be used in the night (unless of course technologies like Rawlemon’s spherical solar power generator revolutionise the sector and go mainstream) and wind power is highly seasonal. Hence, without large storage capacities, renewable energy cannot be used for peak hour demands. Additionally, sufficient lack of funding is a stumbling block as the Government alone cannot bear the massive deployment costs.

But renewable sources remain our best bet for energy security in the future. And if India remains committed to its renewable goals and is able to bring in enough private investment, we can definitely become a clean energy success story.

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