Renewables to transform India's energy landscape in seven years

Solar power reaches into the places other electricity will never make it to. Solar panels in Tinginaput, Orissa, a region traversed by power lines where local people have no access to power. Photo: UK Department for International Development via Flickr (C
Solar power reaches into the places other electricity will never make it to. Solar panels in Tinginaput, Orissa, a region traversed by power lines where local people have no access to power. Photo: UK Department for International Development via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
India's renewable power capacity is set to reach 170GW by 2022, write Areeba Hamid & Oliver Tickell - reducing power shortages and bringing electricity to off-grid of rural communities for the first time. But it may also have an unintended consequence - cutting off investment in India's troubled coal sector as prospects for future profitability evaporate..
As wind and solar power increase, coal-fired power stations will be working for fewer hours, and receiving lower prices for their electricity. That's a prospect to seriously spook fossil fuel investors.

Launching the first 'REInvest' Renewable Energy investor meeting in New Delhi this week, India's Prime Minister Nerandra Modi unveiled plans for renewables to account for 15% of his nation's power within a decade.

Describing the fall in the cost of power from solar as a "game changer" he told 2,000 delegates from 40 countries of the government's wish to develop 170 gigawatts (GW) of clean energy by 2022 by tapping into international "cheap credit" available for the sector.

In his opening speech to the conference, reports the India Times, Modi "described the thrust on renewable energy production as an effort to ensure universal energy access for India's poor. He said the price of solar energy has tumbled from Rs 20 a unit to Rs 7, bringing it close to conventional power. [Note: Rs 1 = $0.016]

"He recalled that as Gujarat Chief Minister he persisted with the solar power programme even as people found it scandalous that it was generated at Rs 20 a unit, but added that prices started falling as the industry scaled up. 'Now prices are in the direction of conventional electricity. This is a game changer', he said."

India's current power generation capacity is more than 250GW, most of from coal-fired power plants, while it has 22GW of wind, and just 3GW of solar energy.

The massive increase in renewable capacity to 170GW will therefore revolutionise India's energy landscape. In particular a large fraction of solar PV - and 100GW are planned - will undermine the profitability of coal fired and nuclear generation, by flooding the now lucrative daytime market with zero marginal cost power.

The REInvest conference aims to "attract large scale investments for the renewable energy sector in India" and "signals India's commitment to the development and scaling up of renewable energy to meet its energy requirement in a sustainable manner."

Solar's multiple benefits for India

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi became one of the first Indian ministers to invest in clean energy, he had a solar energy plan back in 2009. Little surprise then, that after getting elected as India's prime minister in May last year, he announced the ambitious 100GW solar target for India.

As wind and solar power increase, coal-fired power stations will be working for fewer hours, and receiving lower prices for their electricity. That's a prospect to seriously spook fossil fuel investors.

Having financially backed his Gujarat solar project, investors like Shashi Kant Ruia of Essar and SunEdison Inc renewed their investments in Modi's national solar plans at the REInvest conference.

For Modi, the solar mission is more about "bringing 300 million Indians out of darkness" than it is about reducing India's carbon emissions as the world's third largest polluter. His government has promised to deliver electricity to every house by 2019.

This also reflects the line taken in his talks last month with US President Obama: prior to the talks he made it clear that "Instead of focusing on emissions and cuts alone, the focus should shift to what we have done for clean energy generation, energy conservation and energy efficiency, and what more can be done in these areas."

But another factor driving the solar push, outlined at REInvest by Modi's energy minister Piyush Goyal, was that distributed solar power could help solve the country's endemic transmission problems.

In addition, a new analysis claimed the target could create 1 million new jobs. As for financing, Goyal confirmed Modi's view that India could benefit from increased overseas investment on competitive terms.

The China dimension

There's also the prospect of increasing solar collaboration between China and India, with an important meeting taking place the day before REInvest. Indian delegates representing India's major solar companies met with a Chinese mission led by the China Photovoltaic Industry Association (CPIA).

Rakesh Bakshi, Chairman and Managing Director of India's RRB Energy said: "through this meet, two ancient civilizations have come together and could ensure a strong partnership in the Renewable Energy Sector ...

"The high level of interest that we see globally will lead to tangible deliberations in the Renewable Energy sector in India. I am personally confident that in the public-private sector, we will be able to achieve the targets as envisaged."

The key to progressing the partnership will lie in setting up large scale solar technology production in India, taking advantage of Chinese technology, finance and expertise, providing jobs in India and also giving India's established solar companies a stake in the sector's expansion.

And provided terms can be agreed, China has a lot to offer. It has the world's largest solar PV manufacturing sector, and its own solar capacity rose by 60% in 2014 to over 28GW - though grid connections were unable to keep up with the massive pace of installation.

Coal - in industry in trouble

Even as China and US agreed to put a cap on their emissions last November, India has consistently emphasised the need for its economy to grow and lift people out of poverty - ruling out the possibility of a similar emissions target. "Coal will continue to remain a major part of India's energy mix", Goyal insists.

Indeed the government intends to reduce its dependence on coal imports because of steep costs, and focus on doubling domestic production targets instead.

But the coal sector in India is riddled with difficulties. In 2014, the Supreme Court cancelled all but four licenses granted for coal mining since 1993 on the basis of the non-transparent and corrupt processes through which allocations were made.

The Modi government, determined to set the record straight, welcomed the court's decision and started a process of re-allocation swiftly: it recently received 130 technical bids in it's re-run coal auctions.

Coal India Limited (CIL), the state-owned production company with a monopoly over the national market, also has missed annual production targets year after year. Increased costs as CIL digs deeper for coal and rising labour costs have added to its woes.

Under the government's plans to disinvest from the company, a further 5% of shares were offered to international investors via a public offer in early 2015 - but not before brokering peace with strong trade unions that threatened to strike for five days and have repeatedly protested at the privatisation of their employer.

Companies like the Adani Group, one if India's major power generators and bulk commodity importers, will surely try to take the opportunity to import coal from its proposed coal mine in Carmichael, Australia and sell it to thermal power plants stranded for fuel in India.

However the government's policy to reduce coal imports could just frighten off investors in the project, along with fears of damage to the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area.

Coal's longer term issues - from pollution to profitablity (lack of)

Burning more coal also means more emissions - and not just CO2 but sulphates, soot, ash and other particulates, mercury amd other toxins. Industrial pollution, most of from coal burning, is already having serious impacts on Indians' health. Greenpeace India estimated between 85,000 to 115,000 deaths in 2011-12 due to coal-fired power plants.

Millions of cases of asthma and heart disease are also attributable to coal power emissions. Delhi is predictably, one of the worst affected cities with air quality often worse than Beijing's with pollution 10 times higher than WHO limits.

Most of India's coal lies under its forests, and many of them the traditional territories of India's Indigenous Peoples. This gives rise to environmental conflicts over forest clearance, and violations of the rights of local people including indigenous forest-dwelling tribes.

These problems will continue to raise fundamental questions about Indian government coal ambitions. Most recently, Mahan in Madhya Pradesh and Hasdeo Arand in Chattisgarh have seen communities and villages unite to challenge proposed coal blocks and their clearance under the Forest Rights Act in the courts.

But perhaps the greatest problem facing India's coal generators is that as the proportion of wind and solar power in India's energy supply rises to the level where it can supply most of the country's daytime power, coal-fired power stations will be working for fewer hours, and receiving lower prices for their electricity.

Indeed as the cost of renewable power continues to fall, as it will with large scale deployment, solar power could grow even faster than announced by President Modi. And once 2022 has been reached, cheaper-than-ever solar power is just going to keep on growing.

Now that's a prospect to seriously spook investors in the coal sector. It may well be that coal's profitability is badly damaged within as little as five years, and wiped out within a decade, as renewable energy prices continues to drop.

And that's not something that investors in long-lived coal infrastructure with a projected lifetime of many decades will want any part of. Why invest your cash in an industry on the way out, when you can invest it in the future?

So what will it take to finance India's plans for a fivefold increase in its renewable generation capacity? Some $200 billion at current prices - but bear in mind that these costs are only going to fall. Unlike coal, that's a sum that global investors should be more willing to bet on India's clean energy future.  



Areeba Hamid writes for Greenpeace EnergyDesk.

Oliver Tickell edits The Ecologist.

This article is an expanded and re-worked version of an article originally published by Greenpeace EnergyDesk.


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