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Green energy can change India’s development trajectory. Climate change also an opportunity

The renewable sector holds immense potential for job creation since clean energy technologies such as solar are far more labour intensive.

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For the past decade at least, climate change scientists have been warning the global community of the long-term consequences of continuing carbon emissions in the business-as-usual scenario. In August 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalised the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report, focusing on The Physical Science, which concluded that hot extremes have become more frequent and intense across most land regions since the 1950s as a result of human-induced climate change. This has become painfully evident in India during the ongoing summer, with Northwest India recording the hottest March in 122 years. National capital Delhi and its adjoining areas were also impacted, experiencing higher than normal temperatures in April and currently in the middle of a heatwave with temperatures expected to touch 460 C.

As expected, the high temperatures across the country have resulted in a peaking of power demand, which has once again exposed the vulnerabilities in India’s power grid. Many states across the country are facing severe coal shortages, with some plants reportedly having less than two days’ worth of stock remaining, which has led to fears of power cuts in many cities. India faced a similar coal crisis just last year in October, making this a recurring and critical subject matter. Authorities have suggested that the power crisis is a complex issue, influenced by a number of factors such as a natural power demand increase as the country recovers from Covid-19 pandemic, and the rise in prices for imported natural gas and coal. Coastal thermal power plants, which are dependent on imported coal, have seen a fall in their electricity generation due to increased import costs.

Also read: India’s heat risk interventions still new. Heatwave in 2022 shows it needs to learn fast

Move away from coal…towards green

While the reasons for the current power crisis may be multifold, it is past time to reconsider India’s heavy dependence on coal. The events of last year have exposed the volatility of the global market for coal and natural gas. India is often forced to depend on imported coal and natural gas in the event of a power crisis like the one we are facing right now. While the government has attempted to boost local manufacturing of coal by liberalising coal mining regulation, this provides a temporary solution at best because it does not address the underlying challenge of continued carbon emissions further exacerbating climate change concerns. India cannot hope to achieve true energy independence unless it radically changes its approach. Experts generally agree that renewable energy offers a comprehensive solution, however, such a massive change in the power ecosystem of the country requires massive commitment starting right now.

India’s decision to achieve ‘net zero’ by 2070 has been hailed globally as a game changer. The country has made reasonable progress by reaching nearly 110 GW of RE by the end of March 2022. Further, it committed $35 billion of the $122 billion in energy-related funding to renewables, almost twice the amount allotted to fossil fuels. The government has also supported green hydrogen, with the recent release of Green Hydrogen Policy, which provides the initial support for production of green hydrogen and ammonia in the country. Green hydrogen will be a crucial piece in the puzzle not just for ‘net zero’, but beyond that as well, allowing India to emerge as the global manufacturing hub for green hydrogen.

The Union Budget 2021 also focused on green recovery as a central aspect of its policy framework, investing not only in renewable energy but also air pollution, providing potable water and biodiversity conservation. Even this year’s Budget (2022) emphasises energy transition and RE, allocating significant funds towards local manufacturing of solar modules and also introduces new areas like battery swapping, decentralised RE and deployment of biomass pellets in thermal plants. Despite this, it seems likely that the full potential for green recovery has not been achieved, as analysis of energy-related policies from the Energy Policy Tracker (EPT) was considered a “mixed bag”. India’s continued dependence on coal is evident as the coal industry was supported to the tune of $14 billion in the middle of the economic downturn.

Renewables form a vital component of green recovery, especially in a fast-developing country like India. The renewable sector is not just competitive economically, but also holds immense potential for job creation since clean energy technologies such as solar are far more labour intensive than conventional energy sources. For instance, it has been estimated that in reaching its goal of 500 GW of non-fossil fuel energy sources by 2030, India could create as many as 3.4 million new clean energy jobs providing employment to over a million people. This is expected to come largely from Distributed RE, which will create opportunities for local employment. Such efforts might also encourage the start of new ventures, and help scale up domestic businesses. India also has the potential to become a manufacturing hub for upcoming technologies like green hydrogen and energy storage.

Capacity building within India through skill development is of utmost priority. India’s power sector has always faced shortage of skilled personnel, not only in the private sector but also within DISCOMs, grid management companies, regulators and policymakers and this problem is being compounded further in the current scenario. Well-developed training programmes are the need of the hour in India.

There is a need to develop a robust strategic framework to boost the renewable power sector by learning from other countries who have successfully devised green recovery packages. As part of the green recovery package, the priorities should be fourfold – focusing on job creation, injecting liquidity for financial relief, enhancing economic competence for improved trade prospects and ensuring a green energy transition. A holistic view which examines a range of solutions that complement each other and identifies key elements, including technology development, manufacturing, storage, power generation and distribution will be very effective. The above-mentioned points are highlighted in WWF’s report on Green Recovery Through Renewables.

The Covid-19 crisis has been devastating in many aspects, and even as we start to recover from it, more challenges are emerging around the potential impact of climate change on the country. India’s power sector needs a major overhaul to be able to effectively address the gap between the ever-growing demand and limited supply. Developing countries like India unfortunately face a disproportionate impact, socially and environmentally, both from the pandemic and climate change. However, it also provides a fresh opportunity for India to learn from other countries and decouple its economic growth from C02 emissions. By leaving behind coal, and investing in Renewable Energy, India can fully utilise its vast human capital and change the entire trajectory of its development.

Apoorva Santhosh is Senior Expert–Climate and Renewables Policy, and Varun Aggarwal is Associate Director-Sustainable Business, WWF-India. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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