Between Emission Targets and Energy for All, India is Looking For the Right Middle Path

India needs to combine vast improvements in local-level energy initiatives with the effective implementation of clean coal to power the major cities.

About 20% of India's population still lack electricity. Credit: premasagar/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

About 20% of India’s population still don’t have access to electricity. Credit: premasagar/Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

As India assumes the mantle of the world’s fastest-growing large economy, it is being forced to reconcile its need to lift hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty while trying to limit its carbon emissions. The two goals seem diametrically opposed to each other. After all, how can India bring electricity to the 20% of the population who lack it without massively increasing greenhouse gas emissions?

This is a particularly large hurdle because roughly two-thirds of power currently comes from coal plants. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to reduce India’s emissions, but to meet the nation’s power needs, India will still need energy from coal-fired power plants. It is a difficult dilemma, but fortunately, technological breakthroughs could resolve this seemingly intractable problem.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS), one oft-discussed option, involves capturing emissions from coal-fired power plants and storing them rather than releasing them into the atmosphere. CCS technology captures up to 90% of carbon dioxide released from power plants in one of a few ways, including removing CO2 from the exhaust by absorbing it in a liquid or burning fossil fuels in oxygen, producing an exhaust stream of water vapour and CO2 that are then separated.

In the past, the technology has been seen as too expensive for developing countries to afford – but that may now be changing. India has already begun testing affordable clean coal techniques and a prototype facility operating in Chennai promises to capture nearly 100% of the CO2 emitted from the burning of coal in a commercially viable way.

In addition to experimenting with CCS, Modi has been phasing out obsolete power production methods. The government recently announced that all power plants over 25 years old would be decommissioned and replaced with modern, more efficient ones. It aims to complete this process, which involves the replacement of 11,000 MW of energy capacity, within five years.

At the same time, if India cuts emissions, it is those 300 million without power (and the millions more with only a haphazard connection) that will ultimately pass judgement on whether Modi kept his pledges to bring development and connectivity to India’s villages. Even so, India is going beyond cleaner coal facilities to do its part. Modi has announced his plans to raise 45,000 MW of renewable capacity installed to 175,000 MW by 2022, the same year by which the government plans to phase out all inefficient power plants. This would put India firmly on track to meet its commitment to produce 40% of its power from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030.

Some environmental groups have attempted to chastise India for its continued reliance on coal energy in the interim, but India’s sizeable overall emissions mask the fact that per capita emissions are far lower than in the US, Europe or even China. Per person, the average Indian is far less culpable for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than the average German or American. Indian industries cannot be expected to keep up with competitors overseas while relying on an unpredictable solar source. While many major manufacturers (including foreign corporations like BMW in Chennai) are partially solving the shortfalls by building their own solar installations, this is not necessarily a way to build a thriving industrial sector India.

Trying to achieve development without the primary global source for electric power is a needle no other industrial country has thus far been asked to thread. Energy minister Piyush Goyal made this point to the American talk show host David Letterman a few months ago: when empty office towers in New York are lit all night, how can the US blame India for wasting energy? To its credit, Indian officials did agree to undertake expensive renewables projects if the affluent developed countries would assist with the financing. They did not, and private companies had to make up most of the difference.

On top of that, solar implementation has not been as straightforward as advertised. Not even many of the rural villages the prime minister claimed to have electrified with solar micro-grids are as connected as the government claims. The trouble is that thousands of these so-called “solar villages” still lack electrical infrastructure and have falsely been counted among the list of villages that now have power. It is already a low bar not to clear: to count as “electrified,” just 10% of the households in a rural village need have access to energy.

Then again, while these setbacks have been embarrassing for the government, there is not necessarily a more feasible way of connecting far-flung villages to India’s chaotic power grid. To avoid throttling its rapid growth and sacrificing its economic potential, India needs to combine vast improvements in these local-level initiatives together with the effective implementation of clean coal to power the major cities and form the bedrock of the country’s economic development. To succeed, though, these projects will require more diligence and transparency than we have thus far seen from the government’s statistics. After all, the future of India’s development is at stake.