After the Blackout: Rethinking Cleantech in India
As the events over this past week demonstrate, India is clearly facing an inflection point in terms of its future role in the cleantech revolution: either it can continue to function with a business as usual attitude, which relies on coal-run power plants as the primary source of energy supply, or it can step up and embrace the use and development of clean energy. The scale of the energy challenges it faces is huge: earlier this week an estimated 620 million people were left without electricity after India’s northern, eastern and northeastern grids cascaded into failure. It was the second massive outage, as on Monday the failure of the northern grid left 370 million people powerless. In addition to the disruption of the lives of over 50% of the country’s population (or 10% of the world’s population) the events also presented an unflattering picture of an aspiring superpower still struggling to provide basic amenities to its citizens.
Headlines around the globe were pointed: ‘World’s biggest blackout’ and ‘India’s superpower dreams over’. Many newspapers in India saw this event as an opportunity as a ‘carpe diem’ moment to push urgent reforms in the country’s power sector. Referring to the governing UPA, the Times of India ran with the headline “Powerless and Clueless” while the Economic Times ran with “Superpower India, RIP”. A wikipedia page titled July 2012 India Blackout has already been created outlining a sequence of the events. Remarkably many of those affected took it in stride – rolling blackouts are common given peak energy demand shortfalls of 12-15% and transmission and distribution losses in the range of 25%. This lack of confidence in the state powered grid has lead to a parallel infrastructure in India, where many sectors such as outsourcing, finance and healthcare are insulated from power outages due to availability of diesel generators. However inspite of this resilience, over 400 million Indians remain without access to electricity, as was pointed out by many publications.
While the ‘blame game’ will continue to be played out between the central and state government authorities over the next few weeks, with each side claiming that it was not responsible for the massive power outage (lack of adequate rain during the monsoon is the other scapegoat), one thing is clear – the time for an energy strategy based on renewables is now. An economy based on principles of sustainable growth will enable India to achieve energy security for its population. To continue a 8% GDP growth trajectory, energy demand in India also needs to grow at 6.5% per year.
Despite being the first country in the world to set up a ministry of non-convention energy resources (now named Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. MNRE), India has lagged behind other countries in the use of renewable energy. As of 2011, India has an installed capacity of 170 GW of which 10% is renewable energy. Of this 17 GW of RE capacity, wind represents 11.8 GW, small hydro 2.8 GW and the majority of the remainder is from biomass installation. PV installations have reached 15 MW of cumulative capacity installation for both on- and off-grid application. The overall potential of clean energy in India is massive and represents over 88 GW. In the current Five Year Plan, (2012-17) the Government of India is targeting capacity additions of renewable energy to bring the renewable contribution to 15% of the energy mix. Policy drivers such as generation based incentives, tax exemptions, and feed in tariffs all contribute to stimulating adoption of clean energy. Of course, the challenge for India is one of implementation and execution, not pronouncements.
There is no quick fix to the power crisis, no magic switch that can feed India’s demand for energy (which is still one of the lowest per capita in the world at 734 units compared with Canada’s at 18,347 units). However, hopefully this crisis will be seen by India as an opportunity – forcing the issue of renewable energy options and bring the conversation of distributed energy and energy efficiency to the forefront.