India Struggles with Impossible Task of Switching to Fully Renewable Energy

Last year, plans to create a vast solar park on land cultivated by indigenous farmers for centuries in India’s Himalayan foothills exploded in violent fights with police when their crops were demolished for the project.

On Dec. 29, the majority of the males in the Assam state agricultural community of a few hundred were out seeking for job. Champa Timungpi, one of the few persons who remained, claims she was attacked by police and kicked in the stomach when she attempted to resist.

The 25-year-old, who was pregnant at the time, was brought to the hospital for treatment of her injuries. “I arrived home late at night and miscarried,” Tumungpi claimed, adding that he had filed a police report.

Blue solar panels, barbed wire, and armed guards now surround the beautiful green town in Nagaon district, which is still mostly disconnected to the grid and home to residents earning less than $2 per day.

Azure Power, a New York Stock Exchange-listed solar producer, claimed in an email that it legitimately purchased 91 acres (38 hectares) in the hamlet from “registered landowners” and that it’s “incorrect and erroneous” to imply the property was seized violently.

Timungpi and others in the Mikir Bamuni community disagree with the company’s approach, claiming that their rights as tenants and established farmers were violated. Requests for feedback from local politicians and police were not returned.

The argument, as it plays out in a district court, not only relates to India’s often-confusing property ownership procedures, which date back to the colonial era. It also highlights the enormity and complexity of the obstacles that the country of over 1.4 billion people has in attaining its renewable energy targets for the coming decade.

India’s need for power would expand faster than anyplace else in the globe during the next 20 years. Unlike other countries, India must continue to grow and raise millions of people out of poverty, including Timungpi, and it will need to construct a power grid comparable to that of the European Union.

India’s energy and economic requirements will have a significant influence on global climate targets. The combustion of coal and other fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse emissions in the country.

At last year’s United Nations climate negotiations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that India will raise its non-fossil fuel generating capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030, up from 104 gigawatts at the start of this year.

India must add four times the amount of power produced by the typical nuclear reactor every month until 2030 to reach its targets.

These short-term energy goals won’t do much to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (34.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the threshold beyond which experts warn of catastrophic climatic consequences, as scientists warned at last year’s United Nations climate summit.

However, it will remain a “colossal undertaking” for India, requiring investments of between $20 billion and $26.8 billion, with just $10 billion available, according to a parliamentary committee last month.

Some renewable energy difficulties are global in scope, such as the necessity for electricity storage when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. Others are more India-specific, such as who owns property in underprivileged areas that carry the least responsibility for the climate issue, and the need to realign power networks that have relied on coal for millennia.

While there is no clear strategy for India’s renewable energy drive yet, experts point to a federal assessment released last year that stated that by 2030, an optimum balance would include receiving more than half of the country’s electricity from the sun and wind.

Large solar and wind farms, on the other hand, are causing tensions among local communities. This is largely due to the fact that many project sites have ambiguous land ownership. For example, some communities have utilized land to grow or pasture cattle without having legal rights to it for decades.

Such disputes were “collaterals” that had to be addressed while governments and corporations concentrated on moving away from fossil fuels, according to Kanchi Kohli, an environmental researcher at the Indian think tank Centre for Policy Research.

To make solar and wind projects more economical, mandatory environmental impact evaluations were eliminated. However, environmental concerns have persisted.

For example, in April 2021, India’s Supreme Court ruled that solar energy transmission cables be buried after environmentalists claimed the wires were killing critically endangered great Indian bustards. After nine months, the federal authorities decided that burying the wires to protect the birds would be too expensive and would stymie green energy growth. The case has been reheard by the court.

By installing solar panels on city roofs, India might lessen its reliance on big solar farms.

Although the country’s early rooftop targets were modest, it set a goal of 40 gigawatts of rooftop solar in 2015, enough to power 28 million homes. Customers were given the option of sending power back to the grid, which boosted the sector’s growth.

The federal government altered laws in December 2020, making it illegal for major companies and organizations to transmit power back to the grid. These businesses are among the highest-paying clients for India’s perpetually cash-strapped power distribution corporations, which lost more than $5 billion in 2020.

According to Vibhuti Garg, an energy analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, distribution firms were losing their best clients because factories were sending electricity back to the grid in the evening when demand and power bills were greatest.

Garg explained, “They were losing money.”

Rooftop solar is prohibitively expensive for most houses due to the installation costs. Siddhant Keshav, a 30-year-old New Delhi entrepreneur, was in this situation when he sought to install solar panels on his home. He explained, “It just didn’t make logic.”

According to a research by Bridge to India, a renewable energy consultancy business, homes accounted for less than 17% of India’s rooftop solar in June 2021. In addition, India has only achieved 4% of its 2022 rooftop solar objective.

Wind energy might play a significant role in India’s renewable energy portfolio. Small turbines utilizing obsolete technology are found on the most “attractive, juicy, windy sites,” according to Gagan Sidhu, head of energy financing at research tank Council on Energy, Environment, and Water.

According to a 2017 research by the Indo-Germany Energy Forum, the consultancy firm Idam Infra, and India’s renewable energy ministry, retiring outdated wind turbines constructed before 2002 might unleash 1.5 gigawatts of capacity. However, experts say it’s unclear who will pay for the retrofitting and who will undertake the work.

According to a study done by the Global Wind Energy Council, India could possibly install enough offshore wind farms to produce about a third of the country’s 2021 energy capacity by 2050, with a coastline of around 4,670 miles (roughly 7,500 kilometers).

However, they are extremely costly to construct, and the first such project, a wind farm scheduled for the Arabian Sea in 2018, has yet to begin.

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