Green Energy

The gleam of solar power is blinding India to the challenges of switching to renewable energy

In a country where power-for-all is still a distant dream, a rapid transformation to green energy is unfeasible.

The narrative of our rapid transformation to a renewable energy-powered planet is suddenly dominating headlines.

In India too, news of a shift away from coal power and towards clean energy has been doing the rounds. The Bloomberg New Energy Finance New Energy Outlook 2017 report released last week estimates that renewables will comprise 49% of India’s power generation by 2040. Solar and wind energy prices are also plummeting in India after a series of record low bids in auctions across the country and are seemingly competing with coal-fired power plants.
The government is planning India’s energy future based on the goal of 175 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity by 2022 and according to the draft National Electricity Plan released late last year, we will have a capacity of 275 GW of renewable energy by 2027.

However, this optimism of a swift transition to green energy is premature and doesn’t take into account the hidden costs and difficulties of transitioning from fossil fuels.

Is it the right goal?

While there has been a plethora of analysis on whether India will meet the 175 GW goal by 2022 – the overwhelming consensus is that it will not, as the current capacity stands under 60 GW and the country is adding less than 15 GW per annum – few have stopped to ask if such a goal is even desirable.

The record low renewable energy prices also masks the facts. First, renewable energy continues to be generously subsidised in India, so there is no fair basis for arguing that it is cheaper than coal or other fossil fuel. Second, particularly in the case of solar power, the prices are so low that they are unsustainable.

The low bids pose significant risks over the lifetime of the project, which are being ignored in the race to gain a foothold in a booming solar industry – in short, this is a bubble. The falling prices are mostly a result of the significant drop in manufacturing cost of Chinese-made solar panels, meaning the Indian solar energy industry relies heavily on cheap Chinese imports.

This poses many problems. The financial basis of these projects will be threatened if the Chinese government alters its policy of offering generous subsidies to its domestic manufacturers. The reliance on imports is also hurting Indian solar panel manufactures, who are now aggressively lobbying for government support from foreign competition, which, if realised, will drive up prices.

Thirdly and most importantly, the metric of Rupees/KWh or Levelised Cost of Electricity, which reflects the full life-cycle costs of a power-generating technology and is used to compare electricity prices, is a flawed measure for evaluating intermittent electricity sources such as solar and wind energy, which add significant integration costs to the grid.

Grid troubles

The basic problem of wind and solar generation is that it cannot run all the time as it is dependent on the availability of the energy sources. For instance, in India, the peak power demand is at 6 pm, when solar energy is not available.

As the share of intermittent renewable generation increases in the grid, managing variable renewable energy will become increasingly complicated. The draft electricity plan estimates that renewable energy generation will contribute about 20.3% of the total energy requirement in 2021-’22 and and 24.2% by 2026-’27 respectively, if targets are met.

However, in countries like Germany, where renewable energy penetration is relatively high, operators find it difficult to maintain grid reliability despite significant grid interconnectivity within Europe and infrastructure systems that are far ahead of India, where the primary grid-balancing mechanism is load-shedding.

Germany also has one of the highest prices for electricity in the world, with the renewables revolution paid for by consumers.

To manage the rising share of renewable energy in the grid, thermal power plants will have to be ramped down, so that the grid can take in power from renewable sources whenever available. However, thermal plants cannot be shut down completely, because when solar and wind energy are not available, alternatives will be needed to provide more power to the grid. Lowering the output of thermal power stations affects their profitability, as they lose out on revenue. This unavoidable presence of financially struggling thermal power plants will therefore become inevitable in a high renewable energy system, as seen in the case of Germany.

The other way to manage the intermittent nature of renewable energy is greater connectivity between regions, so that excess power from one region can be transferred to another. However, increasing inter-regional connectivity and strengthening transmission lines is expensive. Lastly, if the share of renewables in the grid increases beyond a certain level, the grid will reject it and it will be wasted. This is already happening in Tamil Nadu, for instance, which has a high renewable energy share.

Meanwhile, even as the government is pursuing an ambitious renewable energy goal, progress on electrification continues to be dismal. India now has a power surplus, which may sound like good a thing but it isn’t. Vast areas of the country continue to lack access to the grid, which artificially lowers the power demand. Pushing for intermittent and expensive renewable energy sources at all costs is a perverse bet on the future of the faceless many who lack basic and cheap power.

Renewable energy should not become a goal in itself. The advantages offered by wind and solar power need to be weighed against a host of other considerations such as cost, grid dynamics, the social contract of electricity provision and other related challenges, such as land acquisition. This is not an argument in favour of coal power – far from it. India needs to take ambitious action on climate change and phase out coal power plants. This will also boost its leadership credentials in the international arena at a time when the US is ceding ground – having exited the Paris Agreement in May – and help tackle other critical issues, such as air pollution.

Much of India lives in darkness. Photo: Shammi Mehra/AFP
Much of India lives in darkness. Photo: Shammi Mehra/AFP

Way ahead

Phasing out coal while sustainably increasing the share of renewable energy in the grid requires a three-point plan.

First, India needs to increase nuclear power share in electricity generation as it is economical and also supports our climate action goals. The Union Cabinet’s decision to build 10 new indigenous nuclear reactors is welcome, but this is just a start.

Alongside nuclear plants, investing in natural gas infrastructure such as pipelines, regasification terminals (to turn liquified natural gas back to vapour) and Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plants (in which a gas as well as a steam turbine is used and which is said to be more efficient) is critical. Diplomatic efforts to secure gas imports must run in parallel. Replacing coal power plants with Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plants, that perform well with respect to helping integrate renewables and have half the emissions of coal is an important step to a future low carbon grid.

Lastly, the government needs to stop importing cheap and low-quality Chinese solar panels. While that may drive up costs in the short term, it is likely to help develop a healthy domestic solar panel industry and invite sustainable bids from project developers in the long run. Additionally, dynamic auctions for renewable energy with transparency in bids and market information is important and will ensure rigour in project bids, restoring confidence in India’s green energy future.

Switching from coal to gas, scaling up nuclear power and building a sustainable domestic renewable energy industry are sensible goals for an ambitious climate and energy policy. Transforming the mammoth electricity grid, when faced with significant infrastructure and economic challenges, is unfeasible. Changes in our energy system will be complicated and slow, given that we are yet to even fulfill the basic requirements of round-the-clock-energy access for all.

For a high share of renewable energy in India’s future power grid, investments into improving grid reliability and ancillary services, scaling up flexible baseload sources (that can provided the minimum amount of electricity needed at all times), and fixing the electricity market to introduce spot pricing and other mechanisms are urgently required. A dose of realism need not dampen ambition but can instead help ground it in more informed policy-making.

Aniruddh Mohan is a Humboldt Foundation International Climate Protection Fellow for 2017-18 and research fellow at Tandem Research.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.