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Clean energy: Promise & reality

This is not the time to be complacent with green power growth in India because the challenges have grown as well

Clean energy: Promise & reality

Five years ago, when the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) published its first State of Renewable Energy report, the sector was just taking wings. We were among its cheerleaders.

As we publish the 2019 State of Renewable Energy, much has changed and yet, much remains the same. The Government of India has an ambitious target for renewable energy (RE): 175 GW by 2022. There is no question now that RE has arrived. Nobody argues how imperative or feasible it is. The industry has matured. There are RE companies that can bid and outbid each other for the supply of panels, solar power plants or wind turbines. RE is an industry with sparkling offices, new age companies and flamboyant leaders. It is real. It is big. RE plants compete with coal-based energy. Renewables are now under the Ministry of Power—RE is no longer a peripheral scientific sector, struggling to compete with the big boys.

The testimony to this growth is in its numbers. Today, the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) says the country has hit 73,000 MW of installed RE power, which is some 20 per cent of the country's installed capacity for power generation. On good days, when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, RE meets some 12.5 per cent of the country's electricity demand. On other days, it is over 7 per cent. This is not small. But it is not big either. This, therefore, is not the time to be complacent. Even as RE has grown, the challenges have also grown; and in fact, become even more crippling. This is what we must discuss.

First, there is the challenge of access to energy. The fact is that even as the grid reaches everywhere, the light does not. Whatever the reason, millions in the country are still in darkness. Second, there is the challenge of clean cooking energy. This is the world's wicked, wicked problem. Women, across the developing world, continue to be exposed to toxic emissions because of the biomass they burn to fuel their cooking stoves. The Indian government's much-needed push to provide LPG to poor households has made a dent in the cooking energy sector. But it is also a fact that despite this, households are still using dirty biomass fuels; there is a definite correlation between income and cooking fuel. So, households do not get the refill of their cylinder as frequently as they must. The "other" energy crisis still exists, RE or not.

The third challenge is air pollution. The health impact of foul air is now so big that even governments cannot deny it. Clean combustion, in other words RE, has a big role to play in clearing the air of toxins. But it is just not there.

Fourth, without any doubt, is the climate conundrum—the world and India remain addicted to fossil fuels. The developing world needs to provide affordable energy to a large number of its people. How can it replace coal and yet provide this energy security? How? This is the question. This is where RE must matter.

So, I would argue, given these challenges, it is time that we began an altogether different discourse about RE. We need to redefine its objective (and certainly its language) so that it can meet societal needs. It must meet the poor's energy, clean air and climate change needs. This RE market needs to be embedded in societal principles. It needs it to be emboldened and driven so that it is the change.

So, how will it happen? The fact is that energy security for vast numbers of the poor requires an energy delivery system that is different. It will require reaching energy, which costs less but is advanced and cleaner, into households that cannot even afford to buy basic fuel or light. As yet, our track record (as 2019 State of Renewable Energy report shows) on these fronts is not commendable. RE is like all energy sources—it could be coal or gas—it is produced and pushed into the grid. It is supplied through the conventional (and broken) distribution network. It is limited by its environment and its imagination.

This is the course correction we must seek in 2019 and beyond. RE has to be the moral and economic imperative for a cleaner and more inclusive world. Anything less is selling us short. Anything else must be unacceptable.

(The author is Director General, Centre for Science and Environment and the Editor of Down To Earth magazine. Views expressed are strictly personal)

Sunita Narain

Sunita Narain

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