Modi changes India’s national conversation with Renewable Energy

by John Brian Shannon.

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi of India. Image courtesy of: www.narendramodi.in
Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi of India. Image courtesy: www.narendramodi.in

India’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi says 400 million Indian citizens presently living without electrical service in rural areas of the country will have electricity within five years via upcoming, massive investments in solar power.

Not only that, but the country’s various electrical grids (which are not necessarily connected to each other, nor to the main national grid) will benefit significantly from thousands of distributed solar installations by adding to overall capacity and helping to stabilize weaker parts of the infrastructure.

PM-elect Modi sees no reason why each rooftop in the country cannot install a number of solar panels. Indeed, when millions of rooftops are involved with an average of 10 panels per rooftop (for example), and plenty of land that is unsuitable for growing crops and entire canal systems are already covered with solar panels, you know big numbers are coming.

So, what could India do with 1 billion solar panels?

For starters, every home and business in the country could have reliable (daytime) electricity. Many towns and villages in remote areas would have electrical power for the first time in their history, thereby allowing them entry into the world’s knowledge-based economy. With the advent of electricity, education and commerce should flourish and easy access to online government services will offer significant benefit to many millions of India’s citizens.

And for locations with home-battery backup or diesel-backup power, 24-hour-per-day electricity will become the norm. Employment and productivity in these regions could be expected to rise dramatically and online medical advice could be a lifesaver for those who live in remote areas. All of these are good things to have in a rapidly developing nation.

Then there is the possibility of electrical power sales between electrical power producers and energy consumers of all sizes, whether neighbour-to-neighbour or direct-to-utility, along the projected pathways of the constantly evolving grid system. Finally, (daytime) surplus electricity sales to neighbouring countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan might become commonplace and profitable.

Mr. Modi is taking on an unparalleled task, fraught with challenges. Here is a comment on the present state of affairs in India as it relates to the proposed rural electrification of the country.

Four hundred million Indians, more than the population of the United States and Canada combined, lack electricity. An official of India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, recently said that his government wants every home to be able to run at least one light bulb by 2019. Administrations have made similar claims numerous times since India gained independence in 1947, but this time renewable power sources could bring the longstanding promise closer to a realistic vision.

In a sprawling, diverse country of more than 1.2 billion residents this task is tantamount to a second green revolution, the first being agricultural advances that relieved famine across the subcontinent in the middle of the 20th century. — ThinkProgress

India’s utility industry is at a ‘tipping point’

The Indian utility industry is comprised of a mishmash of coal-fired generation, less than reliable nuclear power plants noted for their high maintenance costs, oil-fired power generation, along with some hydro-electric dams and biomass power generation. The ‘pylons and powerlines’ component of the national grid in India is in need of a complete overhaul. On top of all that, the fossil and nuclear power producers have been heavily subsidized for decades and theft of electricity continues to be a multi-billion dollar problem.

Prior to the Indian election, the country’s utility industry was summed up by industry expert, S.L. Rao;

Power retailers were behind on 155 billion rupees ($2.5 billion) of payments to their suppliers as of Jan. 31, reducing their ability to provide electricity to customers. Blackouts may spread as state utilities in Delhi, Haryana and Maharashtra slash consumer bills in a populist wave before elections. That’s jeopardizing a $31 billion government bailout of the industry, which requires companies to boost rates.

“The power sector needs tough politics, and the only person in politics today who might be capable of that kind of toughness is Modi,” said S.L. Rao, the head of India’s central electricity regulator from 1998 to 2001, according to his website.

The Indian utility industry “has reached a stage where either we change the whole system quickly or it will collapse.” Rao, who was appointed to the regulatory body by an independent committee, said he maintains no political affiliation. — Bloomberg

On the bright side however, India’s outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had begun a process to inform citizens of the benefits of renewable energy and was instrumental in promoting a 4 GigaWatt(GW) solar park being built in four stages. At present it is only partially operational, with 1GW of power flowing now and construction of the three remaining stages continues at a brisk pace. When completed, it will easily be the largest solar park in the world.

Dr. Singh also directed policy towards massive wind power capacity additions, with major offshore wind installations due to come online in 2015. However, even with the efforts of PM Singh, only 4% of total electrical generation came from renewable energy in 2013. Prime Minister Singh’s policy goal of 20GW of solar by 2022 looks likely to be superceded by PM-elect Modi. Perhaps in dramatic fashion.

Tulsi Tanti, Chairman of the Pune India based wind power company The Suzlon Group, told the newswire today that, “the BJP-led government will provide an environment conducive for growth and investments, with major reforms in the infrastructure and renewable energy sector. This is important as India’s economic environment will act as a catalyst in reviving the global economy.” — Forbes

It is time to roll up our sleeves and get to work

Hundreds of thousands of direct and related jobs are expected during the 2014-2024 Indian renewable energy boom. And, bonus for consumers, the falling cost of solar and wind power electricity rates will have an overall deflationary effect on the national economy.

Later, as solar and wind power begin to displace fossil and nuclear power, declining healthcare costs, improved crop yields, cleaner air in cities resulting in a better quality of life for citizens — the new and stable energy paradigm will remove many of the historic constraints on the country and its people, allowing India to become all that it can and should be.

At this point, it looks like India’s transition to renewable energy may happen quickly and turn out to be the good-news story of the decade with massive economic, environmental, and human health ramifications — not just for India but for the region and the world. Hats off to India!

Follow John Brian Shannon on Twitter: @JBSsaid