Opinion: Lessons from India’s climate moonshot

A view of the India One solar thermal power plant in Abu Road, Rajasthan. Photo by: Brahma Kumaris / CC BY-NC

To keep global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need nothing less than a moonshot: Unprecedented effort on a scale big enough to disrupt the current trajectory and fire the imagination, innovation, and action of the world — just as the space race did in the 20th century. This is what the Paris Agreement on climate change requires to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change, but where is the inspiration to make this a reality?

One place to look is India.

India’s push for renewable energy

India’s bold targets for climate action focus on specific areas that are essential for long-term, low-carbon growth, especially renewable energy and electric vehicles. Taking a development-first approach, the country’s top priorities — and challenges — are ensuring energy access and wider prosperity. With a per capita gross domestic product of $2,130 — about 1/30th of U.S. per capita GDP — India’s per person emissions remain low, at about 10 percent of those for the biggest emitting countries.

India’s push for renewable energy is particularly inspiring. At the end of 2016, the country stood fourth globally in terms of total installed wind power capacity — 34 GW. Its efforts in the solar sector are even more impressive.

Starting in 2015, when its solar capacity was just 2.9 gigawatts, India boosted its initial target of 20 GW of installed solar capacity to 100 GW by 2022. This spurred unprecedented private investment, which led to a dramatic drop in solar energy tariffs. From December 2010 to May 2017, the minimum bid price for solar power dropped by 80 percent, to below the average price of coal-based power.

This initial solar power success has helped India shift away from habitually approving and establishing new coal-fired power plants and increasing mining and exports. Instead, the government canceled plans for an additional 14 gigawatts of coal power in 2017, and stated in its draft National Electricity Plan in 2017 that it won't build any new coal plants for at least a decade beyond those already under construction.

Rapidly falling solar prices presented an unexpected challenge, however: When early power purchasers wanted to renegotiate agreements signed when tariffs were higher, huge investments were put at risk, casting doubt on whether these contracts could be enforced and making banks cautious.

There still are considerable roadblocks to meeting the 100 GW solar target: Scarce land, challenges in grid integration and balancing, high transmission losses, the need for more low-cost finance and domestic manufacturing capacity, as well as the lack of supporting infrastructure and skilled manpower.

Despite these challenges, India added 5.5 GW of new grid interactive solar capacity in 2016-17, 50 percent more than the amount installed the previous year, but less than half the 12 GW annual target. In fiscal year 2017-18 however, India managed to achieve the target of 9 GW of grid connected solar capacity set for the year. However, added capacity will have to significantly ramp up to reach the 2022 target.

The solar rooftop sector has lagged, with only 1.1 GW of grid interactive rooftop capacity installed so far against the 2022 target of 40 GW. However, the segment saw steady growth in 2017, driven by government incentives and subsidies, although it could not meet the downscaled target of 1 GW for FY 2017-18, with a grid interactive solar rooftop capacity increase of 353 MW in the year.

By the end of 2017, India had established 20 GW of operational solar power capacity – its original target — four years ahead of the original timeline. To meet the 2022 target, India will need storage solutions and enhanced grid management to reliably integrate greater amounts of renewable energy into the grid, with economical, scalable local grid integration solutions.

Moonshot targets

The debate on whether the government’s targets are achievable should not obscure the progress made in the solar sector. And that’s the thing with moonshot targets: Sometimes they are undertaken without a full analysis of potential costs, risks, and benefits just to be able to urgently focus attention and resources on specific objectives. Sometimes, they may be goals that countries know they can’t reach with current technology and resources, but by stretching to meet them, they may get further than they expected.

Let’s take the example of India’s electric vehicle ambition, a pillar of deep decarbonization with the potential to make renewable power the low-cost transportation fuel of the future.

Last year, the former Indian minister for power announced the government’s intention to eliminate the sale of petrol or diesel cars by 2030. This is truly a moonshot target, in line with what climate science demands, as long as it is accompanied by an equally ambitious program on integration of renewable electricity into the grid.

This year, however, possibly due to aggressive lobbying by automakers, a planned national electric vehicle policy discussion was dropped and the goal was revised to electric vehicles making up 30 percent of the total by 2030. The Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers, meanwhile, suggested a target of 40 percent share of electric vehicles by 2030 and 100 percent by 2047. The target could be amended in the future to bring it closer to the original moonshot, with a phased-in transition to build support from a range of stakeholders.

But challenges remain: India’s demand for electric vehicles has been sluggish so far, due to high initial investment, lack of charging and maintenance infrastructure, and perceptions around battery performance. Limited domestic manufacturing capabilities and a nonexistent supply chain are hurdles to building electric vehicles under the government’s “Make in India” framework. The fact that the minerals needed for commercially available battery technologies — lithium, cobalt and nickel — are dominated by a handful of countries is another bump in the road.

Despite these setbacks, the Indian government’s original intention to embrace goals that may exceed its grasp — for now — is still alive and offers a continuing message to the private sector. The government’s vision of transformation is still entirely possible, and the key to finding the right solutions that align with a 1.5-2 degree Celsius future remain moonshot-level innovation and ambition.

At a time when key players such as the United States and Germany have stepped back from climate action, India is stepping up. India’s investments in renewable energy and electric mobility reflect the conviction that, even in a developing country with large pockets of poverty, climate action can contribute to robust economic growth.

This is the kind of radical strategic thinking we need today at the global scale to be able to ward off the most severe impacts of a changing climate. Whether or not India meets its 100 GW solar target in 2022, the drive to achieve this goal has transformed the Indian economy, generated lessons for the rest of the world, and spurred greater international cooperation. That’s what the original moonshot was about, and it’s what India’s climate moonshot can do too.

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About the authors

  • Manish bapna 2012 1

    Manish Bapna

    Manish Bapna is the executive vice president and managing director of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization that works to address six urgent sustainability challenges: food, forests, water, climate, energy, and cities. Manish oversees WRI’s programs, chairs WRI’s management team, and works to strengthen the impact of WRI research.
  • Apurbamitra 6

    Apurba Mitra

    Apurba Mitra is the policy lead for the climate and energy programs at WRI India, managing government engagement on climate and energy policy at the national and sub-national levels in India.