‘Gigantic task’: why India’s renewable push will be difficult

NAGAON, India. Plans to build a sprawling solar park on land farmed for generations by indigenous farmers in India’s Himalayan foothills erupted in violent clashes with police last year after their crops were bulldozed for development.

Most of the men in the farming village of a few hundred in Assam state were looking for work on December 29. One of the few people left was Champa Timungpi, who says police beat her and kicked her in the stomach when she tried to protest.

Pregnant at the time, the 25-year-old was rushed to a hospital for her injuries. “I came home at night and had an abortion,” said Tumungpi, who filed a complaint with the police.

The lush green village in Nagaon district, still largely off the grid and home to families earning less than two dollars a day, is now framed by blue solar panels, barbed wire and armed guards.

New York Stock Exchange-listed solar developer Azure Power said in an email that the company legally purchased 91 acres (38 hectares) in the town from “registered owners” and that it is “incorrect and misleading” to say that the earth was forced. taken.

Timungpi and others in Mikir Bamuni village strongly dispute the company’s position, saying their rights as tenants and established farmers were ignored. Local officials and police did not respond to requests for comment.

Regardless of how it plays out in a district court, the dispute speaks not only to India’s often tangled land ownership rules rooted in its colonial era. It also illustrates the complexity and immensity of the challenges facing the country of almost 1.4 billion people to meet its renewable energy goals for the next decade.

Over the next 20 years, India’s demand for electricity will grow faster than anywhere else in the world. Unlike most countries, India has yet to develop and lift millions like Timungpi out of poverty, and will need to build an energy system the size of the European Union.

How India meets its energy and economic needs will have a huge impact on the world’s climate goals. The country is a major contributor of greenhouse gases from burning coal and other fossil fuels.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi told last year’s United Nations climate talks that India would increase its non-fossil fuel electricity capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030, from 104 gigawatts earlier this year.

To meet its targets, India must add four times the amount of power an average nuclear plant produces, every month until 2030.

These short-term energy targets won’t do much to limit global warming to 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit), the level beyond which scientists warn of catastrophic climate impacts, scientists warned at the U.S. climate conference. United Nations last year.

But for India, it will remain a “mammoth task”, requiring investments of between $20 billion and $26.8 billion, while only $10 billion is available, a parliamentary committee said last month.

Some obstacles to renewable energy, such as the need to build electricity storage for when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow, are global challenges. Others are more specific to India, such as the question of who owns the land in poor communities that bear the least responsibility for the climate crisis and the need to realign energy systems that have relied on coal for centuries.

While there is no clear roadmap yet for India’s renewable energy push, experts cite a federal report from last year that said an optimal mix would be to get more than half of the country’s energy from sun and wind. by 2030.

But large solar and wind installations are causing conflict with local communities. This is in part because land ownership is unclear at many project sites. For example, some communities have used the land for centuries to grow crops or graze livestock without legal rights to it.

As governments and companies focused on the transition away from fossil fuels, such conflicts were “collateral” that had to be managed, Kanchi Kohli, an environmental researcher at the India Center for Policy Research.

Mandatory environmental impact assessments for solar and wind projects were suspended to make them more viable. But environmental problems have still arisen.

For example, India’s Supreme Court ordered in April 2021 that solar power transmission lines be placed underground after environmentalists reported the lines were killing critically endangered great Indian bustards. Nine months later, the federal government said that burying the lines to protect birds would be too costly and would impede green energy development. The court is hearing the matter again.

India could reduce its reliance on large solar parks by building solar panels on city roofs.

The country’s initial goals for rooftops were small, but in 2015 it set a goal of 40 gigawatts of rooftop solar, enough to power 28 million homes. Customers were allowed to return electricity to the grid, and the sector grew.

In December 2020, the federal government changed the rules that restrict large industries and businesses from sending electricity back to the grid. These trading groups are among the highest paying customers for India’s ever-cash-strapped power distribution companies, which lost more than $5 billion in 2020.

Since industries return electricity to the grid at night, when demand and power rates are highest, distribution companies were losing their best customers, said Vibhuti Garg, an energy economist at the Institute of Energy Economics and Financial analysis.

“They were losing money,” Garg said.

The cost of installation makes rooftop solar too expensive for most homeowners. That was the case for Siddhant Keshav, 30, a businessman from New Delhi, who wanted to install solar panels on his house. “It just didn’t make sense,” he said.

Homes comprised less than 17% of India’s rooftop solar power as of June 2021, according to a report by Bridge to India, a renewable energy consulting firm. And India has only managed to hit 4% of its rooftop solar target by 2022.

Wind could become another important element in India’s clean energy portfolio. But the “coolest, juiciest, windiest sites” have small turbines that use old technology, said Gagan Sidhu, director of energy finance at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water think tank.

By retiring old wind turbines built before 2002, India could unlock 1.5 gigawatts of capacity, according to a 2017 study by the Indo-Germany Energy Forum, consultancy Idam Infra and India’s Ministry of Renewable Energy. But experts said it’s unclear who would do the retrofitting and foot the bill.

With a coastline of more than 4,670 miles (about 7,500 kilometers), India could build enough offshore wind farms to provide about a third of the country’s electrical capacity in 2021 by 2050, according to an assessment led by the World Wind Energy Council.

But these are very expensive to build, and the first such project, a wind farm proposed for the Arabian Sea in 2018, has yet to come online.


Ghosal reported from New Delhi. AP journalist Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi contributed to this report.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


This story has been updated to correct for the Fahrenheit conversion of the 1.5 Celsius increase in global warming beyond which scientists warn of catastrophic climate impacts.

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