Can India’s solar revolution help meet its Paris Agreement emission goals?

  • India recorded among the highest greenhouse gas emissions by major economies between 2005 and 2013, with the biggest source of the GHGs coming from the energy sector.
  • With frenzied expansion of solar parks and a hold on new coal-fired power plants, there is hope that India may be able to fulfill its commitment to reduce emissions as per the 2015 Paris Agreement.
  • However, while India is progressing well on solar expansion, the efforts to cut down coal emissions are not sufficient. Resistance to norms and state-level decisions favouring thermal power plants are denting the overall efforts to curtail emissions.

Being a coal-obsessed nation with tremendous aspirations for cars and fast bikes, India’s greenhouse gas emissions recorded an annual growth of 5.6 percent between 2005 and 2013 – among the highest in major economies, according to a report by GHG Platform India, a civil society initiative with institutions such as the World Resources Insitute – India, Vasudha Foundation and the Council On Energy, Environment and Water on board. In absolute numbers, emissions had increased from ~1.54 billion tonnes CO2e in 2005 to ~2.41 billion tonnes CO2e in 2013.

These emission numbers are a combination of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. These greenhouse gases are primarily responsible for trapping heat from the sun and heat radiated by the planet’s landmasses to escape the atmosphere, thereby increasing temperatures which leads to global warming and other disruptions in climate.

A farm in Tamil Nadu which uses solar power to run its water pumps and lights. Photo by PWRDF/Wikimedia Commons.

The biggest sources of these greenhouse gases come from the energy sector, contributing to more than two-thirds of all emissions in the country. This sector includes power plants, transport (road, railways, aviation etc), commercial oil and gas extraction. Within the sector, electricity production has been the single largest emitting category in India’s emissions portfolio, accounting for 42 percent and 44 percent emissions in 2007 and 2010. “Significantly, though the population grew at compound annual rate of 1.64 percent, per capita emissions grew at a rate of 4.07 percent compounded annually. This, however, is only to be expected as the economy grows and the population becomes more prosperous,” read the report.

Can this seemingly growth of emissions be arrested? Experts are split. With the Central Electricity Authority (CEA) pledging that no new coal-fired power plants will be proposed and frenzied expansion of solar parks, experts and activists are hopeful that India may be able to fulfill the commitment it made at the Paris Agreement in 2015 – to reduce emmissions by 33 percent to 35 percent of the 2005 levels, by 2030.

India well on its way to meet solar energy targets

The CEA not only cancelled plans for 14 gigawatts of coal power but also stated that it will not build any new ones, except complete the construction of those which have already begun. “The study result for the period 2017-22 indicated that no coal-based capacity addition is required. …As coal-based capacity of 50,025 MW is already under construction which is likely to yield benefits during 2017-22, this coal-based capacity would fulfil the capacity requirement for the years 2022-27,” read the CEA’s draft plan published in 2016. The authority also stated that renewables will contribute to about 20.3 percent and 24.2 percent of the total energy requirement in 2021-22 and 2026-27.

“The year 2014 was a turning point in the country’s energy growth,” according to the CEO of Vasudha Foundation Srinivas Krishnaswamy. The foundation is an independent advocacy group working on sustainable development. India’s solar installed capacity as of May 2014 was 2.65 giga watt (GW). The current installed capacity as on July 31 2018, is approximately 23 GW, he said quoting the data from the union ministry of renewable energy, adding that 8 GW was added in 2017, and about 4.6GW in 2016. “Given that trend in growth, we can assume that India can add anywhere between 10-15 GW of solar every year from 2018 to 2022. This makes the target of 100 GW of solar energy likely to be achieved. If India can achieve 175 GW of renewable energy by 2022 as is the current target, and given that there has been a slow down in the growth of fossil fuels for electricity generation, it seems highly likely that India can meet its commitments to the Paris agreement,” said Krishnaswamy. “Even if we assume that India’s demand for electricity in 2030 would be in the region of 600 GW, a 40 percent share of non-fossil fuel will work to 240 GW,” he added.

Efforts to clamp down coal expansion not sufficient

The transition to solar, however, may not be easy. Other activists and experts say that for India to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement, it not only has to ramp up energy production through renewables but also clamp down on existing sources of greenhouse gases. “We are doing good in installing new sources of solar energy, but there seems to be no cut down on coal expansions in the country. Even after the CEA saying that India does not need new coal-based TPPs, at least eight coal-based thermal power plants, with a combined capacity of approximately 14 GW were granted clearance in 2017 alone. This definitely points in the wrong direction,” said Sunil Dahiya, energy campaigner from Greenpeace India. He also petitioned the National Green Tribunal for faster implementation of the emission norms that were set by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in 2015 to cut down air pollution from electricity generation sector. The initial deadline for implementation of the norms was 2017 but it was faced with a lot of resistance from the industry and the matter is still pending for final decision.

The current deadline to retrofit older power plants to reduce their emission of particulate matter, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrous oxides, is 2022. Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas, contributing to climate change. “While the new norms set the standards for NOx at 100 mg/nm3 for power plants built after January 2017, 300 mg/nm3 for those built before December 2016 till January 2003, and 600 for TPPs installed before 2003, the ministry of power has submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court asking to relax the norms to 450 mg/nm3,” said Dahiya. “There is a lot of resistance” he added.

A thermal power plant in Haryana. Photo by Vikramdeep Sidhu/Wikimedia Commons.

Electricity is on the concurrent list in the Constitution of India, which means both the state and the centre have equal say in development. “While it is good that the government of India has taken progressive policies towards solar, there is nothing to stop individual states to build their own coal-fired thermal power plants (TPPs) based on their industrial, commercial and residential consumption patterns and relative investment policies to promote the state,” said energy specialist and a senior researcher at the Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group (CAG), Vishnu Mohan Rao. “Applications before the Ministry of Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) indicate that there is no let up in the coal-fired thermal power plant option. These range from coal-rich states like Chhattisgarh to industrial states like Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, to newly created states like Telangana that are investing in coal-fired thermal power plants. These could be due to a variety of reasons such as exporting power to other states (facilitated by inter-state transmission lines) or for self-consumption. To understand this approach, there has to be a micro and state-level analysis of demand and supply of power. The national perspective to coal and climate change is mostly put down by local development,” he said.

Of the target of 100 GW of power that is to be generated from solar by 2022, 60 GW is from large solar parks and 40 GW from solar rooftops. “While the installation of large-scale solar seems to be on schedule, we are way behind on solar rooftops,” said Pujarini Sen, Climate and Energy Campaigner at Greenpeace India. “We have just reached around 2.4 GW on solar rooftops and the target is 40 by 2022. There has to be a massive push from the government towards solar rooftop and also other decentralised renewable (DRE) solutions like solar pumps. They should consider including all DRE in the 40 GW target. Sen also said that there is a need for a nation-wide campaign for greater awareness – along with smoother process and financing. “Other DRE solutions like solar pumps, for example, could add as much as 15 GW and more. Centre needs to ensure smooth and robust implementation of the upcoming KUSUM (Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan) scheme on solar pumps, ensuring benefit for farmers” she added.


Banner image: Low-cost solar lamps. Photo by Sachinshigwan1983/Wikimedia Commons.

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