- According to analyses based on energy systems models, India can confidently consider a higher share of renewables in power generation in moving towards a net zero emissions future.
- Energy systems modellers say a zero-carbon electricity system needs to economically viable and be backed by robust storage technologies.
- Efforts are on to make energy system models more open, and reflective of local priorities and realities and integrate equity.
A clutch of recent modeling efforts suggests pathways that India could take to move to a fully renewable energy-driven electricity system by 2050, but concerns about cost and storage remain.
Energy systems modellers say a zero-carbon electricity system needs to be cheaper than the current coal-based system to be economically viable and would need to be backed by robust storage technologies. India, in its updated climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts (Nationally Determined Contributions) in line with the Paris Agreement, announced that it would achieve 50% of its total installed energy capacity through non-fossil fuels and reduce emission intensity of its GDP by 45% by 2030 and becoming net zero by 2070.
Energy models are mathematical tools that represent, as reliably as possible, various energy-related problems; they are important for putting energy transitions into practice. According to a recent trend analysis of energy system models, globally, there is an enhanced focus on open access, modeling cross-sectoral synergies, and improved temporal detail to deal with planning future scenarios with high levels of variable renewable energy (RE) sources. But “key challenges remain in terms of representing high-resolution energy demand in all sectors, understanding how tools are coupled together, openness and accessibility, and the level of engagement between tool developers and policy/decision-makers.”
Analysis based on the modeling tool IDEEA (also called Indian Zero Carbon Energy Pathways), an indigenous open-source energy model, for example, shows that a 100% renewable-energy-based electricity system is technically possible by 2050, based on solar and wind-energy-based systems. Additional energy sources, including hydro energy and biomass, can further complement and reduce the required balancing infrastructure.
“We are not looking at 100% renewable for each state but how states can position themselves in the pan-India 100% RE scenario. Whenever there is peak of solar, wind energy is low; when wind energy is high at night, solar is low. This natural complementarity is a huge advantage for India and the long-distance grid becomes a storage medium,” environmental economist and IPCC author Joyashree Roy told Mongabay-India, referring to the IDEEA model. Roy is among a consortium of researchers working on the IDEEA model; they are based at Jadavpur University, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and a number of Indian institutions.
Applying the model to 32 regions and 114 locations of potential installation of wind energy and 60 locations of solar energy, the scientists looked at how states can contribute to a 100% renewable power system in India. The model uses 41 years of weather data; India’s installed capacity and technology-based generation profile for FY 2019–2020 were used to validate the model. The findings reinforce that India can “confidently consider a higher share of renewables” in power generation in moving towards a net zero emissions future.
According to the latest analysis from the Global Carbon Project science team, carbon emissions in 2022 remain at record levels – with no sign of the decrease that is urgently needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. If current emissions levels persist, there is now a 50% chance that global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius will be exceeded in nine years. The team’s projection for India is a six percent increase in emissions in 2022 driven mostly by a five percent increase in coal emissions. Steep and urgent emissions reductions are needed, experts emphasise.
Environmental Defense Fund’s Hisham Mundol, associated with the IDEEA model, says, while a model on its own isn’t going to deliver transition, it will help decision-makers to help look at different pathways to RE and lock-in moves that are achievable. “The model allows you to go really deep – pixel-level view of the world. If I want to have a solar farm in a certain district and in that district where do I place the farm – the model can address that kind of decision-making,” Mundol told Mongabay-India.
Mundol observes that if there are enough advances in battery technology, the country can move to 100% RE by mid-century. But until India gets there in advancing battery technologies, it needs a share of renewables and non-RE. “The question is how do you maximise the amount of RE share. And the second part, RE, is not equally distributed in the country. Can West Bengal buy solar from Karnataka and wind from Tamil Nadu? That would be an important aspect of RE growth and reducing emissions,” he said.
The IDEEA model can help gauge different levels of RE transitions. “We have assessed RE transitions ranging from 20% to 100%,” energy scientist Balachandra Patil at IISC, Bengaluru, told Mongabay-India.
For example, the model shows technically, it is easy for Karnataka, a renewable energy-dominant state, to achieve a 100% renewable energy transition within three decades. “However, it will involve significant capital investment. The model results show that with solar and wind as major RE sources, large hydropower as the flexible source, demand-side management for supply-demand balancing, and some batter storage capacity, Karnataka can have a 100% RE system by 2050,” explained Patil.
Another study based on the LUT Energy System Transition Model, developed by Finland’s Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology (LUT) scientists, too shows the possibility of a 100% renewables-based power sector structure by 2050 but the new system projected will be a mix of solar, wind and hydro that can also reduce the per unit cost of electricity by almost 40%. The projected system has zero greenhouse gas emissions and provides reliable electricity to around 1.7 billion people.
“That decrease in cost is possible due to the cost competitiveness of solar PV and batteries as they replace coal-based electricity during the transition. Based on the current cost decrease trend, solar PV-based electricity will be cheaper and this will reduce the cost of electricity because that will form the major share of generation technology in the Indian power system,” LUT scientist Ashish Gulagi associated with the LUT Energy System Transition Model told Mongabay-India.
A minor share of non-RE-based electricity generation will be needed for a few years until the cost of battery storage technologies decreases and becomes cost competitive. However, with the fast decline observed in lithium-ion battery prices, this is achieved in the near future, he adds.
“Historically, the power sector in India has been the largest contributor to energy-related GHG emissions. The dependence on low-quality coal used in highly inefficient power plants has resulted in air pollution, predominant in cities and aggravating other environmental issues,” the study says.
“Energy/power system modelling shows various pathways under certain financial and technical assumptions. These pathways show a long-term vision of integrating large shares of renewables for the decision and policy makers,” said Gulagi, adding that electricity generation will be based on solar PV (73%), wind energy (19%), hydropower (3%), and nuclear power (0.4%) while batteries and peaking power plants based on synthetic fuels provide the required flexibility to the power system to support the system for some hours of the year.
“Increase in state-wise interconnection of transmission lines will be required. However, the study shows that locally available renewable resources to a large extent ensure a robust power system even a state level” Gulagi adds. The LUT scientists have plans to make the model open-access.
Gulagi underscores that it is important for India to set long-term goals. “Most of the government studies are short term and incorporate some share of non-RE based electricity generation. So, if they can come up with this long-term ambitious pathway with a fully renewable-based power system, it will give a clear and strong message to the investors and stakeholders of the government’s long-term ambitions. This is a great opportunity for India to be a trendsetter in particular for emerging and developing countries in the sunbelt.”
In India, the government think-tank Niti Aayog has set up an energy modeling unit to look at a roster of activities, including unpacking the impact of NDCs on the energy, transport, and industry sectors and India’s growth. India’s updated NDCs are also based on modeling analysis. “People are getting a little more critical of black box models (without any knowledge of its internal workings). They want models to be more open so they know what the model is doing; why it is giving them a particular result.”
“So there is an emphasis on engaging with the model and the community that models to get results that everyone (policymakers and non-technical audiences) can then make sense of to understand the system and all the linkages,” Ramya Natarajan, a research scientist at the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), a Bengaluru-based sustainability think-tank, told Mongabay-India.
Natarajan is part of the all-women team that developed the Sustainable Alternative Futures for India (SAFARI) model and is a member of Niti Aayog’s India Climate and Energy Modelling Forum. SAFARI is open access, but the platform on which it is built is paid. In the just-launched, No Silver Bullet report, Natarajan and co-authors share that in a business-as-usual scenario, while India will achieve its 2030 targets (NDCs), fossil fuel electricity will continue to play a role until the end of the century.
While the costs of RE have been falling, there are many issues yet to be resolved. These include intermittency and cheap storage options, grid stability, import dependence on technology and critical minerals, land acquisition, and availability – some of which, in fact, may increase the costs of RE in later years. “Our analysis shows that nuclear power is a crucial piece to this puzzle,” write Natarajan and co-authors in the report.
According to Natarajan, the goals and assumptions of models must consider local priorities and realities. “There is a lot of discussion about integrating equity into modeling,” Natarajan told Mongabay-India.
Balachandra Patil also adds that the energy transition pathways must be just for coal-bearing states like West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. “The socio-economic impact of RE transitions on the coal-value chain needs to be estimated/assessed and taken into account while planning for or implementing RE integration. Our model can help estimate all these impacts. The results and findings will show which segment of the coal value chain will be impacted the most. It will also help quantify some major impacts (economic losses, employment losses, installed capacity stranding, etc.). All these can help decision-makers to devise better strategies,” explained Patil.
Banner Image: Farm worker cleans the solar panels of a solar water pump at the farm. Photo by Prashanth Vishwanathan (IWMI)/Flickr