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India caught between coal and solar

Karthikeyan Hemalatha
August 25, 2020

India has among the lowest solar power prices in the world and its Paris commitments to cut emissions have been lauded. But with no plans to give up coal, the huge economy's emissions are only set to rise.

An excavator loads soil onto a truck at a open coal mine near Mahagama in the Indian state of Jharkhand
Image: Getty Images/AFP/X. Galiana

In recent years, India has been praised for its commitment to renewables. Since signing the Paris Agreement in 2015, the world's fifth largest economy has increased solar capacity nearly ninefold and pledged to radically cut emissions.

Yet at the same time, the country is still heavily reliant on the most polluting of fossil fuels

"Despite making strides in increasing the capacity of renewable energy, India still hasn't developed a policy to phase out coal," said Tarun Gopalakrishnan of New Dehli-based research and advocacy group, Centre for Science and Environment.

In fact, the government expects to add another 64 gigawatts (GW) of coal plant capacity to its system within the next decade.

Coal for a self-reliant India 

In June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government announced India would open 41 (now reduced to 40) state coal pits to commercial mining by private companies for the first time since the 1970s. 

A lone figure walk through the smog
The country's reliance on coal contributes to its smog problemsImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/I. Aditya
 Coal mine, Jharkhand, India
Image: Getty Images/AFP/X. Galiana

The decision is part of the government's drive for "Atmanirbhar Bharat," or "self-reliant India". Modi stressed that despite being the world's second-largest coal producer, India is also the second-largest importer of coal. 

"For a young, aspiring country that sees itself as having arrived at the global stage, depending on imports for something as basic as energy does not sit well," Bharath Jairaj, director for the Energy Program for World Resources Institute, told DW.

Climate experts are worried: Not only does incentivising coal extraction undermine pledges to cut emissions, but some of the reserves lie under ancient — and previously protected — forest. 

"Opening up coal mines to private players is not in the direction towards India's commitment to increase forest cover," Gopalakrishnan told DW.

India's growing energy demand

India has among the world's lowest in per capita emissions, and hundreds of millions of Indians still lack reliable access to electricity. According to the Global Carbon Project, the average US American uses 10 times as much energy as the average Indian. 

Yet with a population of 1.4 billion, India is the world's third largest overall emitter, behind China and the United States. 

Men with kerosene lamp on the outskirts of Mumbai
Many millions of Indians do not have reliable access to electricity. Getting them all on to the grid will cause the country’s energy demand to soar Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Pillai

With the country's population and economy set to continue growing, and with ever more citizens becoming connected to the grid, power demand is expected to triple by 2040, and power-sector emissions to increase by almost 80%over the same period, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). 

Proponents of coal argue that as a developing country with rapidly rising energy demands, India isn't ready for intermittent renewable energy to replace coal. 

"With India's energy demand only going up, coal will continue to be an integral part of the country's energy mix," a spokesperson for Coal India Limited, the country's state-owned mining corporation, told DW. 

"Coal is cheap and well established and is the reason why India is looking to expand its mining," he added. 

Solar power: A ray of light?

Yet the government has been boosting its renewable power sector, too. 

According to the IEA, Indian solar power is now nearly 75% cheaper than power from coal. The sector attracted $3 billion (2.5 billion euros) in investments in 2019, with India securing four of the five largest renewable energy deals in the world, according to a report by Frankfurt School-UNEP Centre, a think tank focused on climate solutions involving the private financial sector.

Training for a solar future

Signing up the Paris Agreement in 2015, India was congratulated for its ambitious renewable energy targets, which Climate Action Tracker has rated as the only pledges from a major economy in line with the agreement's commitment to keeping global warming within 2 degrees Celsius. 

But Bill Hare of Climate Analytics, one of the organizations behind the Climate Tracker says its assessment of these targets does not take into account domestic policy, and they are "bearing less and less relationship with reality over time.” 

"The continued expansion of coal generation is not consistent with the Paris Agreement, and coal must be phased out relatively quickly — by 2040 — in India," Hare told DW. 

More investment needed in renewable infrastructure 

Among India's Paris commitments, was a 40% share of renewables of its electricity generating capacity by 2030, and with a decade to go, it has already got that share up to 36%.

sprawling solar park
India has solar capacity and plenty of sun but experts say there is not enough storage capacityImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Kiran
A man uses a small solar panel to charge his phone
Image: Getty Images/AFP/X. Galiana

Yet only a fraction of that capacity is being utilized because India doesn't have the grid and storage infrastructure to cope with fluctuating power from solar and wind. 

Karthik Ganesan, a research fellow at the New Dehli-based Council on Energy, Environment, and Water, says in fact, solar prices are not as low as they seem.

"If the storage costs of solar are included, the per unit will be closer to, or even higher, than the cost of energy from coal," he said, adding that solar power would only start to replace it when there's a cost-effective battery storage option.

"Solar and coal are not on a collision course right now," he told DW.  


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