Solar v coal: Can India shift from fossils to sunbeams fast enough?

Why would you dig fossilised plants out of the bowels of the earth if you could capture rays from the heavens? It’s not that simple

Solar panels power car park lighting at a coal plant (Flickr/Walter)

Solar panels power car park lighting at a coal plant (Flickr/Walter)

By Megan Darby

Narendra Modi is set to call for a global solar power alliance when he takes the podium in Paris next Monday.

India’s prime minister is an enthusiastic advocate for sun-soaked development, aiming for a remarkable 100GW by 2022. It is a positive message to take to the UN climate summit.

He might be less vocal about the growing coal fleet that dominates India’s power supply, now and for the foreseeable future.

For dirtier or cleaner, India’s burgeoning energy demand is overtaking China as the driver of global trends. Where it leads, the likes of Vietnam, Indonesia and Egypt will follow.

Can it shift from fossils to sunbeams fast enough to prevent climate crisis?

Prime minister Narendra Modi opens a 600MW solar farm in Gujurat (Pic: Narendra Modi official website)

Prime minister Narendra Modi opens a 600MW solar farm in Gujurat (Pic: Narendra Modi official website)

To listen to the techno-optimists, you might think so. Stories abound of panels transforming remote communities and renewable energy investment breaking records.

Solar panel costs have tumbled faster than anyone predicted, thanks to Germany’s aggressive rollout and China’s mass production. Analysts at Deutsche Bank forecast another 40% price drop by the end of 2017. Delhi’s bullish targets can only boost investor confidence in the sector.

There are signs global coal use may have peaked. It is on track for a 2-4% decline in 2015, a report this month from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis shows.

As toxic pollution takes its toll, China is entering an era of more restrained growth. Britain, the first country to industrialise on fossil fuel, last week announced a 2025 end date for coal.

It is too early to dance on the reforested remains of coal mines, however. India is bucking the trend with a 3-6% rise in consumption (data to be confirmed). Much hinges on its future direction.

Unregulated coal mining is polluting rivers in Meghalaya, India (Flickr/ECSP)

Unregulated coal mining is polluting rivers in Meghalaya, India (Flickr/ECSP)

The coal industry has taken to marketing its product as a poverty cure. Prices have halved since 2011, making it the bargain fuel to bring electricity – and all its benefits – to more than 300 million Indians without.

Aid agencies and climate-focused think tanks don’t buy it. They point out many of the world’s poorest are off the power grid, arguing solar is a better option. Hidden health, environmental and climate costs make coal more expensive than its market value.

Distributing solar lamps in shanty towns is one thing. Firing up factories is another. Aside from colonising large swathes of the world, industrialisation is the proven route to prosperity.

“Make in India” is a buzzword of Modi’s leadership, with its own website calling for investment in everything from car production to space travel.

Even at its most ambitious, solar doesn’t deliver energy on the scale needed for proposed industrial corridors from Delhi to Mumbai and round to Kolkata.

Foundry, Hyderabad (Flickr/Rajesh Pamnani)

Foundry, Hyderabad (Flickr/Rajesh Pamnani)

Environment minister Prakash Javadekar told national newspaper Business Standard any restriction on developing countries’ growth would be “unacceptable”.

“You [the developed world] have used coal for centuries, you have polluted the world and suddenly you wake up and tell us – you don’t use coal.”

The US burns five times as much coal per head as India, he noted. “I have that right to at least go up to that level.”

Source Watch lists a pipeline of more than 500 plants in India with a capacity of 500GW, not counting cancelled or shelved projects. If all are built, they will emit an estimated 3 billion tonnes of CO2 a year: more than Japan, Germany and Canada combined.

In practice, that is unlikely, as coal shortages, financing difficulties and local opposition will weed out many ventures. All the same, the coal rush puts solar – and a targeted 75GW of wind, hydro and other renewables – into sobering context.

Report: IEA outlines climate challenge in cheap fossil fuel world

Some analysts are confident political momentum and technological progress will see countries overachieve their clean energy targets. Bloomberg New Energy Finance expects 60% of the world’s electricity to come from nuclear and renewables by 2040.

The more conservative International Energy Agency (IEA), which failed to predict solar’s dramatic rise, puts the figure at 46%. Among other assumptions, that is based on India not meeting its 100GW solar goal until 2030, eight years late.

To hold global warming to 2C, the internationally agreed target, the IEA calculates clean energy needs to hit 71% of the mix.

There are two ways to tilt the balance in a low carbon direction: make coal more expensive and make renewables cheaper.

It is why the likes of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a price on carbon. An agreement in Paris to decarbonise the global economy by the end of the century – one potential target under discussion – would underpin that push.

And it is why one of India’s big asks from a UN deal is technology transfer: intellectual property rights for clean kit. It is not straightforward, as companies that research and develop ideas want to reap the benefits of their innovation.

But the easier they can make it for emerging economies to go green, the better chance there is of stabilising the climate.

Read more on: Energy | Fossil Fuels | India | Renewables | UN climate talks