Obama, Modi and India’s Solar Future

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment)

In his visit to India, Barack Obama pressed unsuccessfully for India to set specific carbon limits. Nevertheless, he did get agreement from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that the USA and India would pursue vigorously non-carbon energy sources, including nuclear and renewables such as solar.

That was a better outcome than would have been anticipated based on Indian cabinet members’ statements just last spring. They blamed most of the increased CO2 in the atmosphere on the wealthy countries and hinted that it would be unfair to impede Indian economic growth now, given that India had put relatively little of the extra carbon into the atmosphere.

This situation is sort of like if a bunch of people with water hoses were filling an inflatable swimming pool but were tied up so that if the water got too high they would drown. Saying that you didn’t help fill it at the beginning and so should be allowed to put extra water in makes no sense if that policy would drown you.

Modi is known as a proponent of solar energy, though like Obama he has an “all of the above” approach to energy, including an insouciant attitude toward deadly coal.

Alan Neuhauser writes: “Obama agreed to help finance Modi’s planned $100 billion expansion of solar power in the next seven years, from 20,000 to 100,000 megawatts.”

Just for comparison, note that the total US solar installed capacity today is also only 20,000 megawatts.

India was originally planning to double its solar energy by 2020, to 40,000 megawatts. But even before the meeting with Obama, India had decided to go for 100,000 megawatts by 2020.

Obama has pledged help in funding this five-fold increase.

One Indian government project backed by the World Bank will create a 750 megawatt solar facility in Madhya Pradesh, which, when finished, will be the largest such solar plant in the world.

But the fact is that government policy and foreign aid will help along a process that will also grow because of market forces.

By the end of this year, 2015, commercial rooftop solar panels in India will be grid parity or less. That is, it will be cheaper to have solar panels on the roof of a business than to use coal or natural gas. Moreover, you don’t know how much natural gas will cost 20 years from now (especially if India starts using a lot of it), but you can lock in cheap solar rates for 25 years.

Since 2010, the cost of solar panels has declined 62 percent, and similar price falls are likely in the next few years. In sunny India, within five years it will be crazy for people not to put up solar panels.

25% of India still lacks electricity (i.e. some 300 mn. people), and if they electrify with coal that will be disastrous for climate change and human welfare. But if they get it from solar and wind, they will save money and the earth all at once.

The world carbon dioxide output rose to 40 billion metric tons last year. India’s output was up 5%.

But the increasingly cheap solar panels will attract Indian businesses and building owners. Things will change quickly once they begin changing.

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CNN: “Obama Guest of Honor at India’s Republic Day Festivities”

7 Responses

  1. The expansion of solar energy in India is great news! India will be fortunate to be able to skip much of the 19th century Industrial Revolution-style carbon pollution by going to solar instead. China has found out how much environmental devastation results from trying to modernize its population the old fashioned coal&oil-powered way.

    Unfortunately, NPR yesterday preferred to concentrate on a new nuclear power agreement whereby US nuke builders would be able to build in India WITHOUT the normally-required indemnity insurance required by the Indian government.

    As too few Americans know, the only thing making nuclear power economically-viable in the US is the Price Anderson Act, which provides effectively unlimited coverage to nuke operators via the federal government – us taxpayers.

    American companies attempting to get any kind of liability insurance that ISN’T Price Anderson will find that it’s basically impossible, at any price. Insurance companies put in explicit exclusions for anything dealing with “radiation” or “nuclear.” If a nuclear power plant had to buy insurance on the free market, they could not remain in business.

    And really – why in the world would one wish to build a multibillion-$ facility, requiring containment, exclusion zones, radiation protection and monitoring, terrorist protection, etc – to simply BOIL WATER – when all you really need to do is concentrate sunlight on said water?

  2. Paul Mueth

    The aid to India’s nuclear program (and punting the liability ) should be emphasized. And someone in the US press should point out that it’s a flagrant violation of the NPT! Some violators are more Orwellian than others.

  3. Looking at the per capita greenhouse gas emissions for the US and India, the difference couldn’t be starker. The US per capita emission is about ten times that of India, If the the 300 million people with no electricity are discounted, and the per capita number is just attributed to 900 million or so with electricity, then the ratio is eight to one.

    It must be hard for Obama to keep a straight face when telling India’s leader that India must become more austere in the use of fossil fuels, when the majority party running the US congress doesn’t believe that global warming is caused by human activity.

    This burn-baby-burn congress is unlikely to support any significant government role in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. More likely the GOP will try to use the cheap oil situation to smother progress on renewables. That’s what they have been paid to do,

    So while we gorge on steak and lobster, we implore the skinny Indians to tighten their belts.

    • the argument that late comers are owed massive carbon emissions is akin to arguing that inmates arriving recently on death row should be allowed to have longer ropes.

      • Is it the nation state that counts or the population of the nation state?

        Hypothetical. Let’s say you took the 900 million residents of India that now have electricity and divided it into three states with a 300 million population each. That makes each comparable to the US in population.

        The US total emissions would be about 24 times as large as each of the other three. So what counsel would a US president give to the leaders of these three other nations that, each on their own, belch only 4% of what the US does.?

        Hypothetical.

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