As India plans clean energy transition, questions remain about impact

  • The Prime Minister of India recently announced that India’s target is to have 450 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 and that India’s energy sector will be industry-friendly and environmentally conscious.
  • However, energy experts and those working with communities note that what is missing from all grand energy transition plans of government is discussion around the impact of those plans on communities and environment.
  • The government is also focusing on electric mobility but that has the experts divided with some noting that at least a start is needed while others stating that if fossil fuels continue to power electric vehicles the transition makes no sense.

India is aiming big with a target of about 450 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power by 2030. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi emphasises that the country’s energy sector will be growth-centric, industry-friendly and environment conscious, some analysts say that the continued thrust on coal-based power and ignorance of communities as well as the environment impacted by renewable projects coal raises questions on the clean energy transition goal.

The prime minister while speaking at the inaugural address at the 4th India Energy Forum on October 26 stressed that India is projected to nearly double its energy consumption over the long term. He elaborated that in spite of various challenges like fall in energy demand by almost one third, prevailing price instability, impacted investment decisions, projected contraction in global energy demand over the next few years, India was projected to emerge as a leading energy consumer. Modi highlighted that India’s energy plan aims to ensure energy justice while adhering to global commitments to sustainable growth and noted that India would continue its efforts to fight climate change.

However, experts feel the announcements of the central government often fails to match with measures being taken by the government. 

Sreedhar Ramamurthi, an earth scientist of the Environics Trust, which is involved in research and development on environmental issues, said that even as the central government is pushing for increasing coal production and talking about 450 gigawatts of renewable power within next 10 years, “the reality is that the demand of power is nowhere close to what government says.”

“If we are truly going for 450 GW of renewable power then it doesn’t make any sense to keep auctioning more coal blocks. It is because if we look at the coal sites already licensed it is much more than what the actual demand is,” he told Mongabay-India. 

Ramamurthi was referring to recent coal auctions that the government of India undertook to boost the coal sector and economy in the post-COVID-19 era. The coal auctions were severely criticised by experts and those working on mining and displacement related issues.

The coal auctions were followed by the government announcing plans to reform the mining sector and presenting key amendments to rules governing the mining sector, for boosting the industry. Despite an ambitious clean energy target, coal remains a focus area for energy generation in India. 

Ramamurthi explained that a look at India’s national electricity plan reveals that for the next whole decade the per-megawatt cost of coal-based power will continue to be much more than solar and wind. 

He added that people are never a focus area in the quest for coal or renewable-based power and noted that during the recent auctions for coal his question to the prime minister was “that leave aside consent but has the government even communicated to those people whose land or resources were auctioned?”

Aarti Khosla, who is the director of Climate Trends, told Mongabay-India that there are already reports which note that the dip in demand of power that India has witnessed in the last one year is not going to see a revival in the next four-five years. “This means we are already looking at a lot of idle coal capacity. So, rather than looking at auctioning more coal and ramping up capacity of coal-based power, it would be better to make efforts on renewable power,” said Khosla.

Read more: East and west: The parallel worlds of India’s coal and renewable sectors

Clean energy transition should focus on power generation efficiency, inclusion of communities 

As of September 30, 2020, India’s total installed power capacity is over 373 GW and of that coal accounts for 199.59 GW while renewable is 89.22 GW. India’s target is to have 175 GW of renewable power by 2022.

Sandeep Pai, an energy transition researcher at The University of British Columbia, said: “right now, the demand is low and the finances of the energy sector are relatively poor but the government of India is primarily just focused on increasing generation capacity whether it is renewable or coal.” 

More than half of India’s installed energy is from coal. Photo by Suyash.dwivedi/Wikimedia Commons.
More than half of India’s installed energy is from coal. Photo by Suyash.dwivedi/Wikimedia Commons.

“The government should focus more on bringing efficiency in the whole system and improving finance instead of adding more generation capacity. These ambitious RE targets are wonderful but the question is that do we need that power anytime soon. India is building gigawatts of coal-based power plants but the present ones are already running under capacity,” Pai told Mongabay-India. 

He cautioned that if the government continues to burden the whole system like this a “financial crisis” is not far away as all loans for such projects mostly come from state-run banks. 

Khosla emphasised that renewables is now a proper force and even naysayers agree to it even as there are funding challenges. “However, there are definitely land-based issues as large scale solar projects are impacting fertile and pastoral lands driving conflict with the communities. What is required is to at least have informed consent of communities … an interface to address concerns related to communities and biodiversity.”

Read more: [Video] Is mining in India ‘just’ for the environment and communities?

Electric vehicles in focus at the energy forum

The government is also focusing on electric vehicles, even as it is yet to mandate a national target for the sector.

During his address at the energy forum, Modi listed seven key drivers India’s energy map which included accelerating efforts to move towards a gas-based economy, cleaner use of fossil fuels particularly petroleum and coal, greater reliance on domestic sources to drive biofuels, achieving the renewables target of 450 GW by 2030, increasing the contribution of electricity to decarbonise mobility, moving into the emerging fuels including hydrogen and digital innovation across all the energy systems.

On the issues of electric vehicles being powered by fossil fuels, Khosla said in principle it is valid that emissions should not shift from smokestacks of coal-based power plants to tailpipes of vehicles but even if the entire public transport fleet of the country was to become electric it will have huge co-benefits. “The issue of electric vehicles requires a layered approach,” said Khosla while stating that she agrees that ultimately the EVs need to be powered by clean energy.   

On plans to push for urban electrification of vehicles, electric mobility plans, Ramamurthi said it is again a false solution to reduce pollution in urban areas if we continue using coal, as it does not bring the transition to renewables that is the need of the hour. “It is like people in and around the coal capital, Singrauli, can die for achieving better air in Delhi.”

Singrauli, which has huge coal reserves, is considered a hub for India’s energy industry. But the abundance of ore has not improved the lives of local people for whom the ills and side effects of coal mining and thermal power plants seem to have become a part of life.

Read more: Still charging: India’s electric vehicle plan


Banner image: Wind turbines in Rajasthan. Photo by Kandukuru Nagarjun/Flickr.

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