The plan is to generate 20 gigawatts by 2020 Shift in government policy boosted wind energy production

India has decided to push ahead with an ambitious plan to generate clean electricity through the power of the sun - and, after a meeting chaired by the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, it wants rich nations to pay the bill.

Although the country has virtually no solar power today, the plan is to generate 20 gigawatts (GW) from sunlight by 2020. According to the International Energy Agency, global solar capacity is predicted to be 27GW by then — meaning that India expects to be producing 75 per cent of this within 10 years.

Ending power cuts

About 400 million Indians have no electricity at all, and harnessing the country’s abundant solar power could help spark growth and end the power cuts that plague the nation.

It would also, say some analysts, assuage international criticism that India is not doing enough to control its carbon emissions. It is heavily reliant on coal for power.

The idea provoked intense and prolonged discussions at a meeting of the national climate change council in New Delhi on Monday. Initial plans had anticipated that a government subsidy of about $20bn, and falling production costs, would enable a long-term 2040 target of 200GW of solar power.

However, experts pointed out that a large government subsidy would contradict the Indian government’s stated position in the global warming treaty negotiations.

India, along with China and others, has demanded that the costs of clean technologies should be borne by developed nations, who have grown rich through their heavy use of fossil fuels.

Under the revised plan, India’s solar mission will seek to achieve its targets by demanding technological and financial support from the developed nations.

“In order to achieve its renewable energy targets, the Indian government expects international financing as well as technology at an affordable cost,” said Leena Srivastava of the TERI energy research institute.

The move suggests that New Delhi could use its solar energy plan as a bargaining chip at the forthcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen.

If rich nations do fund the solar plan, the aim of both sides — economic growth for developing countries but with low-carbon emissions — will have been met.

Nonetheless, the plan’s optimistic cost projections were debunked at Monday’s meeting, leaving it unclear how much money the 2020 target would need.

Another policy shift

In another significant policy shift, solar thermal (water-heating) technology will be given as much importance as photovoltaic (electricity-generating) technology, now the mainstay of the country’s solar sector.

The Tamil Nadu government has already asked for New Delhi’s assistance in setting up a 100MW solar thermal plant. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009