India's Blackout: A Wake-Up Call to Energize Clean Energy Solutions

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On Tuesday, about 10% of the world’s population woke up sweltering without fans or air conditioning in temperatures above 90°F (32°C), without water to take showers and then ended up being caught in horrendous traffic jams as the traffic signals failed as a result of one of the world's worst power blackouts.  Over 680 million people across India were without electricity – that’s more than all the people in the United States, Canada and Mexico. The blackout, which came only a day after another major power failure, raised serious questions about India’s capability to meet the energy demands of its burgeoning population and keep pace with accelerating economic growth.


Tangled web of electricity wires, Delhi – March 2012 (Photo: Meredith Connolly)

The government's top economic planning adviser, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, blamed it on “coal shortages”, whereas the power minister said that the culprit may be northern Indian states drawing more power from the country's grid than they were allotted.  At the heart of the problem is the growing gap between energy supply and demand.  And, India’s dependence on dirty coal, and often imported coal, isn’t helping.  India urgently needs alternatives.

With the population pacing to overtake China in 2025 and an economic growth rate of 8% to 9%, the electricity demand in India is projected to be between 3800 and 4800 billion KWH – about 4 to 5 times the existing demand by 2032. With urbanization and growing incomes, use of energy-intensive appliances, such as air conditioners, is rapidly increasing. Air conditioners account for a staggering 40% to 60% share of peak electricity demand during the summer months in many Indian cities.

Roughly 70 percent of India's electricity comes from coal, which is low in quality and has high ash content, forcing Indian power companies to look overseas for supplies. Nuclear power, which is touted as a prominent future source of energy is stifled with poor and extremely low grade uranium resource base which makes Indian nuclear fuel 2-3 times costlier than international supplies.  Nuclear energy is expensive for all nations, not just India.  Lessons from Fukushima also emphasized the dangers of nuclear energy.

Clean energy is a clear alternative. Here are three key home-grown solutions that India can act on:

Recently, India has taken steps to create clean energy markets.  Total grid interactive renewable energy installations reached 25,000 MW in the first quarter of 2012.  The Indian government also announced plans to double the amount of clean power generated by 2017 under the next Five Year Plan.  On the energy efficiency front, India’s Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) launched the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) in 2007 as a voluntary code for commercial and high-rise residential building. BEE has been promoting ECBC implementation through various education and capacity-building programs. It is also making notable efforts  to enhance appliance and industrial energy efficiency.

Yet, the power outages show that much more needs to be done.  Government and business leaders could take clear action to scale clean energy markets in India.  For example, MNRE with stakeholders must enhance project financing for solar projects under the NSM. Similarly, barriers to efficiency improvement can be removed through a combination of standards, incentives, labeling, information, financing, metering and leasing reforms. In addition to expanding its energy generation capacity and efficiency improvements, India must invest in improving the capacity of its national power grid. Off-grid renewable energy solutions are also essential to providing electricity in rural villages.

While the turmoil from the world’s largest power outage is tremendous, it also is a wake-up call for action.  Today more than ever, it’s clear that clean energy solutions are critical to solving India’s energy crisis.

(Co-Authored by Ankur Garg, NRDC Speth Fellow)