Will India’s renewable energy dreams come true?

India aims to generate more than half of its electricity through renewable and nuclear energy by 2027. Ahead of the Renewable Energy World India Conference and Exhibition, Eco-Business looks at the challenges ahead.

solar plant jaipur raj
A 5 MW grid-connected solar power plant at Khimsar village, Jodhpur, Rajasthan. Image: Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India

By 2027, well over a half of India’s electricity could be produced through non-fossil fuel sources such as solar panels and wind turbines, a significant increase from the current 32 per cent.

In a draft 10-year national electricity plan published in December 2016, the country’s government said that India aims to generate 275 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy, and about 85 GW of other non-fossil fuel power such as nuclear energy, by the next decade.

This would make up 57 per cent of the country’s total electricity capacity in 2027, far exceeding its commitment to the Paris Agreement of generating 40 per cent of its power through non-fossil fuel means by 2030.

The latest, ambitious targets reflect international companies’ recent substantial investments in India’s renewable energy sector.

Japan’s SoftBank technology conglomerate, for instance, has formed a joint venture called SoftBank Energy with Taiwanese manufacturing firm Foxconn and Indian business group Bharti Enterprises to invest in India’s solar power sector, committing US$20 billion.

The French energy giant EDF Group has also pledged to spend US$2 billion on Indian renewable energy projects. Its chairman and chief executive Jean-Bernard Levy told Indian newspaper The Economic Times in January 2017: “We have already set foot in India, both in solar and wind-based energy, and (we also plan) to bring nuclear energy.”

India’s own companies have been setting the pace: in 2016, the multinational conglomerate Adani Group opened the world’s largest solar power plant in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was built in eight months and can generate 648 megawatts, enough to power 150,000 homes.

Tim Buckley, a director at the United States-based non-profit Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, told British newspaper The Guardian after the publication of the draft electricity plan: “India is moving beyond fossil fuels at a pace scarcely imagined only two years ago.”

“(India’s Minister of State for Power, Coal, New and Renewable Energy Piyush) Goyal has put forward an energy plan that is commercially viable and commercially justified without subsidies, so you have big global corporations and utilities committing to it,” he continued.

A tale of two challenges

Despite the sunny projections, analysts have flagged several challenges that India must overcome, including the need to extend and modernise its power grid, and invest in energy storage devices, to handle the influx of renewable energy.

“It’s really important that the government and industry make the transition from a coal-based energy sector to an increasingly low-carbon one as smooth as possible,” said Dr Heather Johnstone, conference director of the upcoming, inaugural Renewable Energy World India Conference and Exhibition.

The draft electricity plan’s authors noted, for example, that “India’s potential for solar and wind power is concentrated mostly in a few solar and wind-rich states”. In fact, 80 per cent of India’s solar power capacity now is installed in just six states, even though these account for only 38 per cent of the country’s power demand. 

“The first priority for India is to complete the transmission infrastructure through its US$3.5 billion green energy corridor programme so that renewable power can be transmitted to where it is needed,” SoftBank Energy executive chairman Manoj Kohli wrote in a commentary published in Indian newspaper Mint in February 2017.

Investments in energy storage devices are another priority, according to Atul Arya, head of electronics firm Panasonic India’s energy system division.

In an interview with Indian newspaper The Hindu in September 2016, he said that the lack of such devices is a key reason that India now wastes up to a fifth of the renewable energy it generates.

“On average, if 24 hours is the potential of electricity generation, then you can easily say that 15 to 20 per cent is wasted because the grid can’t manage the kind of variation in the electricity sourced from wind and solar,” he said.

Kohli noted in his commentary that while the cost of electricity storage devices is still a major barrier to mass adoption, it is dropping rapidly, and India could lead the world in the field.

He wrote: “The government should encourage battery manufacturing under the ‘Make in India’ programme, as the import of grid-scale batteries due to their extreme weight not only leads to high transportation costs but also creates other logistical challenges.”

Putting the best heads together

These and other opportunities and challenges facing India’s renewable energy sector were the impetus for the Renewable Energy World India Conference and Exhibition, which will be held in the Pragati Maidan venue in New Delhi from May 17 to 19. 

The event will bring together high-level dignitaries, officials and executives from governments, utilities and companies across the world, including Germany’s Smart Hydro Power company and Norwegian consultancy firm DNV-GL.

It will also be co-located with the POWER-GEN India & Central Asia Conference and Exhibition, a returning, annual event that covers all aspects of electricity generation. 

“By having the two events under one roof, delegates can discuss and debate what needs to be done, going forward, to ensure that power is affordable and accessible to the citizens of India,” said Dr Johnstone, the Renewable Energy World India conference director.

She added: “There will be a joint session, for example, on how India’s power system needs to evolve to accommodate a changing generation mix. The essential areas explored in that session will include many things that people are interested in, such as how to make the grid more intelligent.”

Other key topics at the Renewable Energy World India Conference and Exhibition will include the use of micro-grids and energy storage devices.

Dr Johnstone added: “I think the Paris Agreement was a clear signal that there is strong political will globally to move forward to decarbonise how we produce our electricity. That is why we think it is now a very good time to bring in this new event with a focus on renewable energy.”

The Renewable Energy World India Conference and Exhibition will bring together industry experts to share knowledge and showcase new renewable energy technology developments that will help India transition to low-carbon power generation.

It will take place on May 17 to 19 at the Pragati Maidan venue in New Delhi, India, and is co-located with the POWER-GEN India & Central Asia Conference and Exhibition. Sign up here to register for Renewable Energy World India 2017.

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