At the UN Climate Change Conference (COP23) in Bonn last year, a coalition led by Canada and Britain jointly launched the Powering Past Coal Alliance with more than 20 partners, including India, to move away from coal, as a fuel, since it is a major source of air pollution. It was also announced at the conference that India is on track to catalyze USD 200-300 billion of new investment in its renewable energy infrastructure in the next decade with global capital inflows playing an increasingly crucial role.
By 2030, India’s dependence on energy imports is expected to exceed 53% of the country’s total energy consumption. Greater import dependence is a threat to India’s energy security as it introduces global market volatility into the mix. Nothing warrants the nation’s focus to shift towards the renewable energy sources more than the huge import bill that fossil fuel threatens our economy with. Energy from renewable sources like solar and wind is also the best option to augment India’s power supply requirements.
The reality, however, poses huge challenges. Only a true understanding of the challenges and impediments can pave the way for the much-hyped 275 GW renewable power generation that the government of India has targeted by 2027, 175 GW of which is to be achieved by 2022.
India’s dependence on fossil fuel will continue for a long while as it takes decades for an energy source to provide a significant share of energy supply. Globally, it took almost 60 years for coal to become 40% of the energy supply. Renewables supplies only ~5% of global power generated today and ~7% of electricity generated in India.
The biggest impediment for making renewable energy a viable alternative to fossil fuel-based power is storage. Research on storing power to be distributed at will is going on at a frenetic pace all over the world. Development of storage technology will significantly help in reducing dependence on fossil fuel-based power. If renewable energy has to become the primary source of energy, then storage technology has to be beefed up.
Meanwhile, renewable energy industry’s focus will have to stay on increasing its scale and on being economically competitive to ride out competition from other sources of power. And indeed, there are several notable developments on this front which point towards the future. Gujarat has commissioned a 1,100 MW solar park at Charanka village. Madhya Pradesh has set up the 750 MW ultra-mega solar power project in Rewa. World’s largest single rooftop solar power plant of 11.5 MW capacity was inaugurated in Beas near Amritsar in Punjab. Bhadla Solar Park, spread over a total area of 10,000 acres (40 square kilometers) in Rajasthan is one of the largest solar parks in India with a capacity of 2,255 MW. From a high estimate (by the Planning Commission in 2012) of Rs 10.40 – Rs 12.50 per unit, the cost of solar per kilowatt hour has now dropped to less than Rs 2.50 per unit. Wind power tariffs too have witnessed a significant drop to Rs. 2.43/kWh in the latest round of non-state auctions. Contrary to what other commentators have got to say on the sustainability of the renewable energy tariff in India, the IEEFA report sees price stabilising at Rs 2.44-3 per unit of electricity in the near term.
But these developments alone would not make the industry sustainable. The most crucial problem the renewable power industry is facing, not just in India, but all over the world is storage, as mentioned earlier, and related to that, of course, the distribution of power. Lithium-ion batteries, today’s storage workhorses in both stationary and mobile applications, are quite inadequate to meet those needs. The world is experimenting with various alternatives, but commercial efficiency for storage technology to make renewable energy as a primary source of power still seems to be a few years away.
Other logistical and technical issues plague the industry as well. Transmission infrastructure needs a significant addition and upgrade to support the dispersed installation of renewable energy projects. The long-term impact of dust, high temperatures and dearth of water on solar power generation is yet to be ascertained as the industry is still nascent. Thankfully, the financing system for renewable projects is quite well established in India. Financing measures such as clean energy fund and green bonds are becoming increasingly in vogue.
Over the next few years, the struggle to improve renewable power generation, storage and distribution will continue. What is abundantly clear is that renewable energy sector is poised for epochal changes, both in policy and implementation in the years to come.