By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 19, 2009
NEW DELHI, July 18 -- In the new India, villagers in far-flung areas might have cellphones but live in darkness because they have no access to electricity. The cellphone network towers in the villages run on diesel-powered, smoke-spewing, portable generators.
Indians say this is a clear example of how the country's woefully inadequate power supply lags behind an expanding consumer market.
About 56 percent of India's 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity. And as coal deposits dip and climate change concerns rise, it is becoming increasingly untenable for India to continue relying on coal-produced power, which accounts for 40 percent of its total greenhouse gas emissions.
The themes of climate change and green technology are expected to come up during U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's discussions with officials and business leaders during her three-day visit to India.
"We believe India is innovative and entrepreneurial enough to figure out how to deal with climate change while continuing to lift people out of poverty and develop at a rapid rate," she said Saturday in Mumbai.
"We need to get our act together," said Gauri Singh, joint secretary in India's Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, which was set up 26 years ago, "because India is growing faster than anyone can imagine. Renewable energy will have to supplement conventional power supply.
"Our priority is to achieve energy security and self-reliance. Climate change is not the main driver for renewable energy in India, it is a co-benefit," she added, echoing a debate in the United States, where renewable energy is being sold less as a way to save the planet than as a way to create new "green collar" jobs.
Despite the deepening energy crisis, renewable energy, predominantly wind and biomass, make up 3 percent of India's total electricity production. Solar energy is not even a fraction of that, though India receives abundant sunshine throughout the year.
But India hopes to move from near-zero to 20,000 megawatts of solar electricity by 2020, as part of the National Action Plan on Climate Change. Announced in June 2008, the plan is a structured response to combat global warming and part of a proposal India intends to pitch at a climate change summit in Copenhagen this December.
The centerpiece of the plan is the National Solar Mission, which is aimed at harnessing India's neglected energy source. Today, India's solar companies say they generate so little electricity because of inadequate state support.
"Unless the government guarantees that it will purchase solar power at a lucrative cost with feed-in tariffs, the industry will not take off. We end up exporting three-fourths of solar cells and photovoltaic modules to Europe," said an executive of a solar power company, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "The government has to cough up money and go beyond making the right noises about renewable energy."
The government traditionally has given incentives for setting up green energy plants, but not for producing power. "Entrepreneurs made quick money by setting up plants, availing of tax benefits and then disappearing. Nobody was interested in ensuring that they actually produced electricity," said Vinuta Gopal, a climate change campaigner for Greenpeace India.
Officials say they are determined to fix that in the coming months.
India has developed rules mandating that commercial buildings use solar energy to source 25 percent of their hot water supplies, but municipal bodies have been slow to comply. State power distribution companies are now required to buy a portion from renewable sources, and the government has announced plans to create a system of "renewable energy certificates" that states can trade.
But until policies enable them to contribute to the national power grid, solar companies are lighting up Indian homes directly.
"In the last two years, we have developed a good off-grid rural market. We are selling solar home lighting systems that come with rooftop panels directly to villagers who have no access to electricity," said Anil Patni of Tata BP Solar, an Indian joint venture with the U.S.-based BP Solar. The company works with rural banks to offer small loans of about $300 to villagers to set up solar lighting systems. "But though the arrival of a solar lighting system transforms the life of the rural family, true economies of scale in solar power will come only with grid connectivity."
The biggest challenge, officials say, is finding the money to nurture green energy industry until it becomes viable.
Meanwhile, some Indians are showing signs of going green.
Sanjay Tanwar said he has been deluged with calls since his construction company sent out text messages advertising an upcoming residential condominium. The complex will have sensor lighting, solar panels, heat-resistant insulated bricks and water harvesting systems.
"People ask if the building will help reduce global warming," said Tanwar, a manager at the Lotus Boulevard apartments in Noida, a suburb of New Delhi. "The 'green' word is proving to be a big magnet."