The Centre must make richer, more developed States take up the responsibility for switching to renewable energy and reducing the country’s dependence on coal

If there are two words that describe India’s current energy scenario, they will be: inefficient and starving. Power cuts are back with a bang and the country’s apex electricity regulator has confirmed that 21 major coal power plants are running with stockpile that won’t last beyond seven days. Coal, we all know, won’t last forever; yet we insist that we have more of it. We are importing more coal than ever before without worrying that it is pushing the fiscal deficit to dangerous levels. The over-dependence on this fossil fuel, rather than powering India, has instead turned into an Achilles’ heel in India’s growth story.

Fortunately, we know the way out. Renewable energy can help ease this economic and rising energy burden while uplifting the lives of millions who are currently languishing in the dark. But sadly, if the announcements at the recently-held Clean Energy Ministerial meet are considered, we might add that our energy planning is inequitable and hypocritical as well.

New Delhi recently hosted the fourth version of the global meet where delegates from 20 countries came to discuss renewable energy. After the usual grand discussions on clean energy, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh faced the media to tell them what India plans to do ahead on the issue. While he doubled India’s renewable energy target, Dr. Singh reaffirmed India’s stand that “rich nations, who emit the bulk of greenhouse gases, also have high per-capita income, which gave them the highest capacity to bear the burden and provide a workable solution to fight climate change”. Strangely, India follows neither within its own borders.

India currently is the world’s third-largest carbon emitter. To cut down greenhouse gas emissions and spur the growth of renewable energy in the country, the Prime Minister in 2008 released the National Action Plan on Climate Change. But the plan flopped as 22 out of 29 States in the country failed to do their bit, most of them being the rich developed ones.

Set higher targets

Take Delhi, for instance. The national capital sources 73% of its power from the coal fields of Rajasthan, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, indirectly contributing in increasing carbon emissions. And despite holding a huge potential for solar energy, the State didn’t produce even 1% of clean energy in 2012. According to a Greenpeace report, “Powering Ahead with Renewables: Leaders and Laggards”, the State receives 350 days of sunlight every year. Yet, it set a meagre RPO (Renewable Purchase Obligation) target of 2%. RPO targets decide how much electricity produced in a State should come from renewable sources.

Disappointingly, Delhi missed the RPO target by a wide margin. Maharashtra, another rich well-endowed State, performed badly as it achieved only half of its RPO target. As a result of the poor show by States like Delhi, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and others, the country missed out on producing 5,960MW of renewable energy, which is enough to electrify every household in Delhi for an entire year.

Now consider Rajasthan. The State’s per capita GDP in 2012 was half of Maharashtra’s. Yet, the State over-achieved its RPO target of 6%. Or look at India’s star-performer, Bihar, which is revolutionising its power scenario using off-grid generation. The State has, till date, spent Rs.5,748 crore with the aim of generating 1,671MW of green electricity, capable of powering one-third of Bihar. Currently, 70% of the people in the State have no access to electricity.

Going by India’s stand on this issue, the richer States have a responsibility to cut down carbon emissions and drive clean energy investments.

Doing it the Gujarat way

These are the States that got electricity, grew faster and now have high per capita income, making them capable of sharing India’s “go green” burden. Delhi, for example, can help by generating its own green electricity using solar rooftop panels or even help poor States like Bihar finance their clean energy projects. It is no secret that State electricity boards, which control 95% of the distribution network, are neck-deep in losses. These losses further discourage State utilities from adopting renewable energy as it is more expensive than fossil fuels. In such a scenario, rich States must take forward the baton of renewable energy, the way Gujarat has done.

In 2012, the Narendra Modi government inaugurated the world’s first canal-top solar power-plant. The 1MW power plant, built in a remote village of Chandrasan, is estimated to save 90 lakh litres of water from evaporating annually and also reduce India’s carbon emissions by 8 lakh tonnes in the next 25 years. The State now plans to use 10% of the entire 19,000-km-long canal network to generate 2,200 MW of solar energy and thereby reduce billions of tonnes in emissions.

Besides, the State has already built a 500-MW solar park and “identified 30,000 hectares of dry land to set up 15,000 MW of clean energy projects”.

India needs coal to sustain a high rate of GDP growth. But, since the resource is in short supply, it is pumped out to select corners of the country, leading to a highly skewed distribution of electricity. The widening energy gaps between urban and rural areas and between rich and poor can be seen in the cases of Delhi and Goa. These two major regions consume 1,447MW and 2,004MW every year, respectively, twice the national average of 778MW. Bihar, on the other hand, gets only 117MW. According to official estimates, 300 million people in the country have no access to electricity.

Renewable energy has the potential to fix India’s prevailing power crisis, bridge the energy access gap and cut down greenhouse gas emissions. But this abundant source of energy is being thwarted by step-motherly treatment. It is time for a course correction and it must be begun by building an RPO mechanism with equity as the key principle. Each State must develop an ambitious and mandatory renewable energy target that takes into account the power consumption and per-capita income of its people. An effective compliance mechanism needs to be set in place that penalises non-action and encourages commitment.

The Indian government must make sure that rich, developed States make a proactive contribution towards making the country energy-efficient. The onus of lifting the national renewable energy target must not be left to a few States. We must first become the country that practices what it preaches.

Time for a reality check. The present coal-fed centralised energy system will not be useful in the long-run. India needs to pave the way for a renewables-fed decentralised system. The country has enough examples, both within and outside, to draw inspiration from. India’s energy crisis needs a lasting solution, not a fancy make-up.

(Suresh Prabhu, a Lok Sabha MP, has formerly been Union Minister of Power.)

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